BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We have been through a lot together. As I look to the room, I see Jake, Mike, Herman, Ann Compton. Just seems like yesterday that I was on the campaign trail and you were analyzing my speeches and my policies.
BOB GARFIELD: The Washington Post called President Bush’s final press conference “wistful.” The Los Angeles Times called it “wistful.” The Associated Press called it - “wistful.” Could they have meant “willful?”
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My friends say, what is it like to deal with the press corps? I say, these are just people that try to do the best they possibly can. And so here at the last press conference I'm interested in answering some of your questions, but mostly I'm interested in saying thank you for the job.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh, really? Thank you? I believed him when he said “you,” but I'm pretty sure “thank” isn't the verb of one syllable he had in mind, because for the past eight years this White House has mainly given the Fourth Estate and the First Amendment the finger. The Bush Administration ridiculed the press, ignored the press, stonewalled the press, bullied the press, maneuvered around the press, co-opted the press, censored the press, jailed the press, fabricated for the press, lied to the press and, for example, when caught illegally wiretapping Americans without a warrant, blamed the press.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in time of war.
BOB GARFIELD: This naked contempt for news organizations had something to do with politics. In the calculations of Karl Rove, the media represented a handy foil, an elitist enemy of the president’s base.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There’s a sense that people in America aren't getting the truth. I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people. And that’s what we will continue to do.
BOB GARFIELD: But media filtering was far more pernicious than wedge politics. It was rooted in fundamental administration dogma, that how the government goes about conducting the people’s business is none of the people’s business. This was signaled from the administration’s earliest days, when Vice-President Dick Cheney refused to disclose not only the deliberations of his Energy Task Force but the identities of oil executives and lobbyists consulted on government policy. After 9/11, that world view was cemented in the wanton classification of tens of millions of documents and public records and the de facto reversal by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft of the Freedom of Information Act. Indeed, the War on Terror gave the administration political cover for a wholesale retrenchment on both transparency and citizen rights, sometimes under the authority of the hideously named Patriot Act, sometimes by executive fiat. Alleged combatants were secretly detained, official emails were lost. Congressional subpoenas were ignored. Through so-called National Security Letters, unwilling informants were gagged, and on and on and on.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Records from back in the Reagan presidency that had been scheduled for release this year also have been kept under wrap.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The so-called “sneak and peak” provisions whereby the government can go in and conduct searches without telling a person, take stuff without leaving them an inventory, has not yet been challenged.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: You know, the original idea was to have 24 million Americans calling in tips on their neighbors.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah, yes, the notorious “tips” program, asking the Fed-Ex guy to keep his eyes peeled for enemies in our midst. One prominent tipster was Vice-Presidential Chief of Staff Scooter Libby, who revealed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame to several journalists after Plame’s husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, criticized the administration’s pretext for war. Libby, says Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, was-
PATRICK FITZGERALD: - the first official to disclose this information outside the government to a reporter. And then he lied about it afterwards – under oath, and repeatedly.
BOB GARFIELD: Wartime brought out the worst in the administration’s relationship with the press. High-level leakers fed phony intelligence to New York Times reporters, resulting in stories cited by the administration as supposed independent validation. Dick Cheney on Meet the Press:
VICE-PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: There’s a story in The New York Times this morning. This is – and I won't attribute The Times - I don't want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources – but it’s now public that, in fact -
BOB GARFIELD: Add to such manipulation news suppression, such as the Pentagon’s refusal to permit photographs of returning flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base, and even fabulism, like Hollywood heroics attributed to Private Jessica Lynch in Iraq and the late Corporal Pat Tillman, who died in a long-covered-up friendly fire incident in Afghanistan. California Congressman Henry Waxman.
HENRY WAXMAN: We say deceptive, misleading information. It wasn't misleading information. We have false information that was put out to the American people, stories that were fabricated and made up.
BOB GARFIELD: Public relations fraud did not end there. The administration staged at least one news conference involving fake reporters lobbing softballs to FEMA officials and another with the President in a supposedly off-the-cuff Q&A with soldiers in Iraq.
SERGEANT LOMBARDO: I can tell you over the past ten months we've seen a tremendous increase in the capabilities and the confidences of our Iraqi security force partners.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah, that’s important. And the American people have got to know it, and I appreciate you bringing us that up, Sergeant Major, about how – what the progress is like.
BOB GARFIELD: If you think that sounds scripted and unnatural, you should have seen the dress rehearsal, which was caught on tape. Then there were the payments to columnist Armstrong Williams and others to flog the administration line on No Child Left Behind, the appointment of professional propagandist Ken Tomlinson to the chairmanship of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in an attempt to neutralize the supposed liberal slant of public radio and TV, and the deployment of a shadow force of retired military officers to shill for the Pentagon on TV news. Turns out that under the Bush FCC, you can't say a naughty word on live TV or expose your nipple but you can go undercover for the Department of Defense. So, yeah, no wonder the filterer-in-chief in his last press room appearance was suddenly so meek and deferential. Maybe he really was wistful. He did everything in his power to subvert the first rough draft of history but leaves office knowing that history will have its due.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It has been a honor to work with you. I meant what I said when I first got up here. I wish you all the very best. I wish you and your families all the best.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Mr. President, thank you. No, really. Thank. You.