BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. We in the media have loudly complained about the relative lack of access granted by President Bush. Over the past three and a half years he has given a mere 15 solo press conferences -- the least of any president in 50 years. By way of contrast, a President Kerry would grant one press conference per month -- or so he promised at a campaign stop in Wisconsin on August 3rd. But it turns out that Candidate Kerry is not quite so generous with his time. He last made himself available to traveling reporters who sit just a few yards away in the back of his campaign plane on August 9th. Here to talk about this recent brownout by the Kerry campaign is Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi. Paul, welcome back to the show.
PAUL FARHI: Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've taken three trips on the Kerry campaign plane since he was nominated. Is this a sudden change in access?
PAUL FARHI: It's been gradual. We're now in a new phase, obviously. It's less than two months before the election, and the stakes are incredibly high, and the campaign, I think, is taking no chances. They feel that if they gave unlimited access or even partial access to Kerry, that the chances for, one, a slipup or two, for Kerry stepping on his daily message of the day would be high.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is a legitimate concern though, isn't it? Either slipping up or changing the focus --it's happened.
PAUL FARHI: Yes. Back in August 3rd, he gave a brief interview to the press pool, and he was asked whether he had any regrets about his vote on the Iraq war resolution, and he said in effect, no - no regrets. And of course he has since been put on the defensive about that statement and has had to explain and re-explain himself for the last month.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's often been noted that Al Gore actually alienated his press corps, and suffered thereby. Is the lack of accessibility in the Kerry campaign breeding resentment?
PAUL FARHI: Yes, I was in Cincinnati with him last week, and we were all fired up, because they passed the word that he was going to come out and make a statement, which suggested to us that he was also going to take questions. We were all arranged on the tarmac at the airport. He read a statement for about 26 seconds or so, and he turned his back and walked away, and-- it's moments like that that make you feel like a campaign stenographer rather than a campaign reporter -- we are being fed what the campaign wants us to have and not, obviously, what we'd like to know about. And-- you could hear, literally, people fuming about - and [LAUGHTER] see people fuming about the way we were treated at that moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think this media strategy is working or working against him?
PAUL FARHI: In their own narrow way, it is working. What they want to do is have a message that they have crafted and have that as the only message that gets out. In Kerry's case, he's basically saying - and in Bush's case as well - they're basically saying - here is your news and here is your only news - and that's what we want you to write about. And to the extent that we can't ask them the other questions, we only have a very few options about what the story of the day is going to be -- and it turns out that it's the story they want us to have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what do you think this suggests about Kerry's campaign promise to make himself available every month as president if he's not willing to do that as a candidate?
PAUL FARHI: The campaign aides were telling me that this only applies to when he's president. It doesn't apply [LAUGHTER] to when he's on the campaign trail. So, take your pick.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, as you said in your article in the Washington Post, which is why we called you up, he makes himself available to regional reporters, especially in swing states; he'll go on Don Imus. He just tends to shirk his responsibilities to the boys and girls at the back of the bus.
PAUL FARHI: When you sit down with a publication or a news outlet, you probably have prepared certain points you want to make. It is only the illusion of spontaneity, really, that you're giving in those sessions. Whereas on the campaign trail, you open yourself up to considerable risk if you step in front of the microphones and take it from all sides.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the vice presidential candidate, John Edwards?
PAUL FARHI: He seems to be a little bit better, but not really too much better. I covered Edwards back when he was still alive in the primaries, and he did have a, a certain accessibility, and he did try a little bit harder to make himself available. Now I think he's sort of getting the message from the Kerry handlers that that's not the way we do things around here, and he's cut back somewhat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's compare now Kerry-Edwards with Bush-Cheney. Back in 2000, we saw that documentary by Alexandra Pelosi, and we saw Candidate Bush getting very chummy with campaign reporters. How about this time around?
PAUL FARHI: Not at all. His contact with the press, even in those informal kinds of ways, has become extremely limited. Back in 2000, he had a lot of get-to-know-you sessions with the reporters. He gave them nicknames. Now, of course he's president, the circumstances have changed, and the reporters on his campaign plane - on Air Force One -don't get to see him much at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you know, we have heard that John Edwards is sort of the charming side of the John Kerry campaign, and I think it's safe to say that Dick Cheney does that for Bush, right? [LAUGHTER]
PAUL FARHI: No comment. Cheney's even worse than Bush. Cheney is by far the least accessible and most difficult to deal with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Paul, thank you very much.
PAUL FARHI: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Farhi is on the campaign trail for the Washington Post. [MUSIC]