BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. An hour before President Bush strode into the White House East Room for last week's prime time news conference, the press corps was gathered outside the press room annex of the West Wing waiting for the high sign to head across the lawn. Then, says Bob Deans, Cox Newspapers correspondent and president of the White House Correspondents Association:
BOB DEANS: We were told, "you may as well come back in because we're going to call you out two by two to take you over to the East Room."
BOB GARFIELD: The reporters complied. And not a whole lot changed when the conference actually began. President Bush used the occasion of only second prime time Q&A in the two years of his presidency to state and restate his determination to disarm Iraq. He called on 18 reporters in a sequence predetermined by the White House and was often so evasive in his answers that when he offhandedly observed that the order of questioning was scripted, it seemed he was referring to the entire event. Bob Deans.
BOB DEANS: Unfortunately, I think that a lot of the audience--and the reason I know this is because I've probably gotten about two dozen emails from people all around the country, you know, chastising me and saying, you know, "you guys are a bunch of lap dogs, you sat there and let him go through with a scripted news conference." That's not what happened, but it's certain--I can understand why people would have thought that.
BOB GARFIELD: Viewers heard a series of perfectly good, if perfunctory questions, on the cost of an Iraq war, the Korean nuclear crisis, on why many NATO allies have a less alarmist interpretation of U.S. intelligence than we have, and on the future of Saddam Hussein. In one of the evening's rare follow-ups, a reporter dissatisfied with President Bush's evasive answer to that question, gamely tried again.
PRESIDENT BUSH: I--
REPORTER: Is success contingent upon capturing or killing Saddam Hussein, in your mind?
PRESIDENT BUSH: We will be--changing the regime of Iraq for the good of the Iraqi people. Bill Plante.
BOB GARFIELD:For the most part, however, the assembled journalists listened to the President's non responses and quietly sat down. Enraged over such docility, the New York press called the news conference "an historic political catastrophe" and "a mini-Alamo for American journalism." It's a point worth arguing. What's inarguable about last week's 45-minute episode of East Wing, says CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante is that the President was on message.
BILL PLANTE: He gave pretty much the same answer to all questions.
PRESIDENT BUSH: My job is to protect the American people.
PRESIDENT BUSH: My job is to protect America.
PRESIDENT BUSH: My most important job is to protect the security of the American people. That's precisely what we will do.
BILL PLANTE: It gave people the impression that the whole thing was a charade. I don't think it was quite that bad. [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: Plante, the 22-year veteran, laughs not out of delight but more like resignation.
BILL PLANTE: It's frustrating. We're props. But, you know, you deal with the situation as you find it, and you try to best it when you can, and live with it when you can't.
DANA MILLBANK: It's difficult to be appalled because it's just sort of--it's very much the routine for us. So we're sort of perhaps not accepting of the fact, but very much used to the fact that it's just not possible to procure information from this Administration.
BOB GARFIELD: Dana Millbank covers the White House for the Washington Post and has long chafed at the Administration's obsessive control over information and has been known to confront the White House in print over the question of access. But like many reporters on the beat, he says that the format of the nationally televised news conference does not lend itself to confrontation.
DANA MILLBANK: You can imagine that if somebody said, "look, Mr. President, this is a charade, you haven't answered the question," that would produce an incredible public backlash.
BOB GARFIELD: The Cox Newspaper's,
BOB DEANS: There were probably 60 reporters in the room. No one did it. But what I would say is that this is a President who has put a premium on a certain amount of protocol and respect. This is a guy who if you holler out a question to him during a pool setting, you will get a glare and you--you can be sure he will not call on you, he will not recognize the question, he won't answer it. And so, our behavior to a certain extent reflects those realities.
BOB GARFIELD: If that sounds like a reporter who has been intimidated or beaten down or simply tamed by the presidency, media critic Jack Shafer is one who just shrugs because to Shafer, a columnist for Slate it was ever thus.
JACK SHAFER: I say from the get-go the televised news conference has been the President's chosen method to go over the heads of the press and get whatever message he had to the public. John Kennedy may have been more suave and might have had a more comedic flair, but there's nothing new; you can't force somebody to answer a question who's not going to answer it. Do you remember that press conference when Richard Nixon said to
PRESIDENT NIXON: Are you running for something? [LAUGHTER]
DAN RATHER: No sir, Mr. President, are you? [LAUGHTER]
JACK SHAFER: The blow-back was on Rather, not on the President.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, that really stunted Rather's career! In the relationship between an elected politician and the proxies for the electorate, the only one who's supposed to be worrying about blow-back or popularity is the politician. Yet, in speaking to me, several reporters made reference to the negative impression such aggressive questioning leaves the viewers, recalling that in Operation Desert Storm, for instance, live news briefings made reporters look rude, stupid and disrespectful. Well, so what. Sausage making is not meant as appetizing as sausage. The real issue is: is war or the brink of war a time for bashfulness or deference? One reporter used her precious presidential question to lob a 73-mile-an-hour fastball right down the middle of the plate.
FEMALE JOURNALIST: Mr. President, as the nation is at odds over war, with many organizations, like the Congressional Black Caucus, pushing for continued diplomacy through the U.N., how is your faith guiding you?
BOB GARFIELD: The President smiled. "I appreciate the question a lot," he said. And there is no doubt that he did.