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. Dana Milbank, the White House correspondent for the Washington Post wrote this week that, quote, "The flowering of the Enron bankruptcy scandal has reintroduced a strange animal to the White House briefing room -- the press corps foil." We have some tape from a briefing last week where White House spokesman Ari Fleischer wields the press corps foil like the skilled fencer he is. In this case, the foil is a Mr. Goyal, of the Indian Globe.
ARI FLEISCHER: Go ahead, David.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ari Fleischer has just taken a question from a reporter about Enron--
REPORTER: ...Enron had made this case across the street at the Treasury.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's a pretty specific question.
ARI FLEISCHER: ...about that. Enron made the case across the street?
REPORTER: Yeah. When Enron called, that what started [...?...] line was [...?...]-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah, this Enron stuff is just not going to stop.
REPORTER: --and then some other Enron officials say it would be a systemic [...?...]-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The press spokesman is ready to make his move. Where is Mr. Goyal? He's usually in the back of the room. Wait a minute! I've spotted him! There he is! [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE]
ARI FLEISCHER: We'll come back.
RAGHUBIR GOYAL: Ari, let me follow that Ari.
ARI FLEISCHER: [...?...] Goyal, go ahead.
RAGHUBIR GOYAL: If I may go back to India and Pakistan, these days very high level visits are taking [...?...] to and from India. One--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, Dana Milbank, what exactly happened just then?
DANA MILBANK: The idea is it becomes a feeding frenzy in the press room -- you're just getting hammered with question after question you don't really want to answer, but if you're careful you can call on somebody like Mr. Goyal, who's known to all as Goyal, who will predictably ask you about isn't it time we start bombing Pakistan, because he's representing an Indian point of view. There's a whole host of them you can call on, but the -- you can pretty reliably change the subject.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:In fencing terms, and I looked this up, what Mr. Fleischer did was perform a classic displacement which is moving the target to avoid an attack -- basically a dodge.
DANA MILBANK: Yes! It -- what's interesting is that -- I called Ari and asked him if he would admit to the use of the foil which is - or, or displacement which is very obvious to all of us, but he said no, in fact he does not. He calls on all people in the room equally, and I actually got many e-mails and phone calls with my colleagues saying they were groaning over that line, because of course there's nothing wrong with using the foil! [LAUGHTER] We - he should admit it; he should revel in it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And it's not a question of calling on people; it's when and how you call on them. In the press conference you described, Mr. Goyal wasn't the only foil he used. Who are some of the others?
DANA MILBANK: Well there are, there are actually sort of one-purpose foils who are actually serious journalists like if you write for Congress Daily, you're not going to write about foreign affairs; if you call on the reporter from--American Urban Radio Networks, you're not going to get something about foreign affairs -- if that's the particular scandal you're trying to avoid. But then there's sort of all-purpose foils, and the king of this is Lester Kinsolving [sp?] who's on -- does a radio show in Baltimore and-- he'll pick the most outrageous event that's happened in the country that day and, and demand to know what the president's personal point of view is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when in doubt, reach for the Kinsolving. To move from fencing to golf, he's kind of the reliable 5 iron.
DANA MILBANK:[LAUGHS] He is the all-purpose foil, and invariably when you - as soon as he gets called on, the wire reporters in the front row who are the ones who say they've had enough of the briefing will say thank you in very loud voices, and we can all go back to our desks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:This maneuver isn't original with Ari Fleischer. Mike McCurry also used it, I guess to avoid questions about the Lewinsky scandal. Who were the foils that were most often employed during the Clinton administration.
DANA MILBANK: Well the-- Joe Lockhart said he had a favorite. It was a, a Greek reporter who would constantly be asking very technical and obscure questions about Crete which he would actually prepare on so Lockhart could answer him at some length, and it's sort of a filibuster to try to run out the clock. But surprisingly enough, Lockhart said when you're in a jam, you go to Goyal. [LAUGHTER] The Goyal foil pre-dates the Bush administration and-- with luck for press secretaries everywhere it will outlast the Bush administration.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So the predictable obsessions of particular journalists are the press secretary's best friends!
DANA MILBANK:They certainly are! I mean what - the way the press briefing room is arranged you've got the networks and the wires in the front row; then the big newspapers, and as you go further and further back, it gets very obscure to the point where there'll be some unassigned seats and there's one very small elderly gentleman who wears an enormous hat. We believe his name is Miguel, and we suspect he is Cuban, and he shouts out questions in a completely unintelligible way and nobody knows exactly what he's says.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Things like the Enron scandal and-- the Lewinsky scandal are just boom time for the foreign press corps.
DANA MILBANK:Yes, you can -- if, if you are a journalist representing an obscure African nation, you might want to plant yourself in the White House press room and you'll get multiple followups.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Dana, thank you very much.
DANA MILBANK: Okay, glad to be of help.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dana Milbank is a columnist and White House correspondent for the Washington Post.