BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Up until Thursday, the most embarrassing scene to be aired this month on cable TV featured sit-com actor Ricky Gervais rambling on to a nonplussed priest.
RICKY GERVAIS: Ah, that makes me sick as well, people saying priests are pedophiles and kiddy-fiddlers. It's probably - I mean, there probably are. I mean, you probably know some, but - but let's not exaggerate the issue is what I'm saying. I've never been touched by a priest. I've been touched by God - not in that way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was Gervais in his HBO series "Extras" about an inept bit player who keeps getting caught in lies as he feebly attempts to be taken seriously. It's the latest example of "cringe TV" in which the comedy is almost too painful to watch.
BOB GARFIELD: It was the latest anyway, until Thursday and a televised chat between President Bush and soldiers in Tikrit who were trying to maintain security in advance of this weekend's referendum on an Iraqi constitution. Yeah, there's nothing quite like a bull session, just a little informal jaw-boning, spontaneous and relaxed.
PRESIDENT BUSH: And so - like as - I mean, so the vote's in less than 48 hours, or about 48 hours, I guess. And so how do you - how - how - how would - are you confident? I mean, how do - how do you feel like the operations are going?
SOLDIER: Sir, our Iraqi partners have been conducting battalion- and brigade-size operations since April. And they have been planning and coordinating with other Iraqi security forces, such as the Iraqi police and local government agencies, preparing for this referendum.
BOB GARFIELD: Later, the President addressed Captain David Williams about the morale of the Iraqi population in its struggle against insurgency.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Can you give us a sense for the reception of the people there in Tikrit toward the coalition forces, as well as the Iraqi units that they - that they encounter?
BOB GARFIELD: Gee, Mr. President, good question. Hadn't really thought about it 'til now, but, uh, just off the top of my head -
CAPTAIN DAVID WILLIAMS: Sir, in North Central Iraq, voter registration is up 17 percent. That's 400,000 new voters in North Central Iraq and 100,000 new voters in the Salahuddin province.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The questioning was so stilted, so stiff and so obviously staged that the press immediately suspended its suspension of disbelief and hounded Presidential Press Secretary Scott McClellan about using soldiers in a war zone as stooges for a political photo op. McClellan was predictably shocked - shocked at the implication that there was politics going on in the White House.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: I'm sorry sir, are you suggesting that our - what our troops were saying was not sincere or that what they said was not their own thoughts?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, Scott, that's pretty much what they were suggesting. In fact, that's exactly what the media were saying in one of the great backfires in the history of staged presidential events. NBC, for instance, led its Nightly News with an Andrea Mitchell piece, juxtaposing the event with tape of the dress rehearsal that the Pentagon inadvertently transmitted by satellite for all the media world to witness.
ANDREA MITCHELL: The White House had said the exchange would be spontaneous, but there was something they did not expect you to see. The troops were coached on how to answer the Commander-in-Chief.
ALLISON BARBER: Oh, no. It's - [FADE-OUT]
ANDREA MITHELL: This is Allison Barber. She works for the Pentagon.
ALLISON BARBER: Master Sergeant Lombardo, when you're talking about the President coming to see you in New York, take a little breath before that so you can actually be talking directly to him. [PAUSE] You've got a real message there, okay?
BOB GARFIELD: Mitchell called the episode a "rare look behind the curtain of the White House trying to sell an increasingly unpopular war." It was also a rare exercise of the mainstream press calling a thing by its name. They nailed the White House on fakery. What they didn't quite communicate was the sheer pathos of the attempt. It was simply excruciating to watch the President, his feet shifting nervously, trying to simulate conversation. The cringe-worthy piece de resistance was the exchange with an Iraqi army sergeant on hand to represent how homegrown forces have stepped in to lead the war against terror.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, Sergeant Akheel, thanks for joining us. I appreciate - appreciate your service. You've got something to say, Akeel? (ECHO)
SERGEANT AKEEL Good morning, Mr. President. Thank you for everything, sir. Thank you very much for everything.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, you're welcome. [BOTH AT ONCE]
SERGEANT AKEEL I like you.
PRESIDENT BUSH: [LAUGHS] Well, I appreciate that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We are pleased to report that there was one spontaneous, unscripted, absolutely genuine moment. It occurred as President Bush was addressing Captain Williams and he knocked something off of his lectern.
PRESIDENT BUSH: That's good. It's pretty interesting. Uh, oops!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oops! Yeah, you can say that again. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]