And guess what?--I told him this several times.
For more, see www.highvizpr.com/reputation_management_
Columbia Journalism Review: The Water Cooler
---from March 11, 2005
Ari Fleischer on Truth, Balance, Confrontation and 'Jeff Gannon'
Ari Fleischer served as President Bush's press secretary from January, 2001 to July, 2003. Prior to joining the Bush campaign, he spent five years as spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee and served as Sen. Pete Domenici's press secretary from 1989 to 1994. He recently chronicled his two and a half years in the White House Briefing Room in a book, "Taking Heat: The President, The Press And My Years In The White House (William Morrow).
Paul McLeary: In your book, you make much of your contention that the press displays an ideological bent toward the left. One example you cite is when the president declared an "end to major combat operations," and you seem to think that it was unfair for reporters to mention that when reporting the body count. Do you think it was somehow illegitimate of the press to mention this? Or that they were being unfair to the president?
Ari Fleischer: No. Neither. I don't think it's proper journalism to report the body count.* My point in the book is that one of the things I think is missing from journalism is how to deal with subtleties and mitigating circumstances...My only question is why doesn't the press say "Five hundred servicemen died since president Bush warned that Iraq remained dangerous." Or, do both statements; that "Five hundred servicemen died since president Bush declared an end to major hostilities, while warning Iraq remained dangerous." He said both. It's entirely accurate for the press to say that 500 servicemen died since president Bush declared an end to major hostilities. Entirely accurate. But it's missing something too, and that's my point. And that's where I think journalism -- and it doesn't matter whether you're covering a Democrat or a Republican -- this is where I think that there is too much of a focus on conflict, and that mitigating circumstances and subtleties -- nuances -- get lost.
PM: You write in your book that the press is only interested in confrontation and stirring up trouble -- whether they're covering Democrats or Republicans. But isn't it the role of reporters to challenge the country's leadership?
AF: Yeah, it is, and I say that. But it's not the only role. That's my point again. I really tried to write a book that dealt with the hardest issues, and dealt with it not in a knee-jerk way. I have a lot of sympathy for reporters; I have worked with reporters for more than 20 years and I understand how hard it is to work on a deadline and to deal with the pressures that they get not only from their editors, but they also feel squeezed from both parties when they're writing about politics. But the point I'm making here is the American people deserve to know what's wrong. And the press does its job for society by telling them, and by asking the hard questions, and by probing. But the American people I believe, also deserve to know a little bit more about what's going right, for example in Iraq. It is exactly proper for reporters to tell the American people about the killings on a daily basis. But I think there's a lot more news to be found in Iraq, such as the economy of Iraq, and the strong recovery -- how the streets of Baghdad, let alone the other cities of Iraq, are flowing with commerce.
I give an example [in the book] where my brother who was a civilian in Iraq in charge of the recovery program for Iraq was doing an interview on Ron Insana's [of CNBC's "The Ron Insana Show"] show. Halfway through the interview, as he was talking about how the conditions in Iraq were getting better, they cut away from him and his voice carried over but they showed pictures of bombs going off and smoke and fire in the streets. Now that to me is terribly unfair. But it's a part of journalism. It's a focus on that which is worst. We do need to know what's bad, but that's not the only thing we need to know. I'm not saying stop covering the bad things - we're a better country because the press does that. And I put on the back flap of the book -- I wanted it very very prominent -- that we are a better, stronger country because the press gets a thousand facts right every day. And it's within that context that I get into my two beefs. One that the press is too confrontational regardless of who they cover, and secondarily the ideological issue.
PM: In what ways do you think that your office, and this administration in general, has improved information management between the White House and the press? Do you feel like you were able to make some strides in that area?
AF: What a fascinating question, and I'll tell you it's a great example of how the cycle of journalism works. On January 20, 2001, I think it's fair to say that White House reporters breathed a sigh of relief because there was a very regular habit in the Clinton administration of giving exclusives to one newspaper in substantial part to punish another newspaper if they didn't like a story. Particularly as it dealt with the president's ethical issues. And so if the New York Times wrote a story that people in the White House really objected to, the next day the Wall Street Journal might get an exclusive story on an unrelated policy initiative of President Clinton's. And the Wall Street Journal loved it, if their lucky number came up, but at midnight all the other reports got woken up by their desks, saying "Match it." And you know they had about an hour to match it at midnight when their sources were asleep. And reporters really started to rankle under that, they didn't like it.
I think they were really relieved on January 20 2001 when I said to them, "We're going to treat everybody the same. We're going to try to have the president make the news, we're not really going to do a lot of that -- maybe sometimes we will -- but that's not the Bush administration's typical way." And at the beginning reporters loved the fact that they didn't get woken up at midnight. But pretty quickly it started to become "You know, we're trying to break the news ourselves, and the only person who seems to be breaking the news is President Bush. You guys aren't telling us anything. Can't you give us an exclusive? Can't you give us a tip? Can't you let my paper break the story before the president says it?" And I used to say we try to treat everybody equal, try to treat everybody fair. And the irony was after reporters took a couple months off and enjoyed not getting woken up at midnight, they started to clamor for "Why can't you treat everyone differently? Can't I get mine?"
I think the biggest source of frustration reporters have with the White House when they call us tight lipped and secretive stems from the fact that President Bush believes that it's his job to make the news. And the press's job is to cover it. A smart, enterprising reporter tries to break the news ahead of the presidential announcement. And to do that they need a good tip from the inside, and the Bush staff doesn't typically do that. And I think that's what led to frustration, because reporters want to break the story, it's good for careers and its what an enterprising reporter should try to do. But it doesn't mean the Bush administration is secretive. I make that case that the real issue is "Does the public still get the information?" Now if President Bush announces a new aspect of his Social Security plan, whether a sharp reporter breaks the story two hours before the president does, or whether the president does it as planned, doesn't the public get the same information? And having lived in that room , I know it frustrates reporters because they're not getting the scoops. But I don't think that means this administration is as secretive as people say. We are tight-lipped, but the information still comes out, it just happens to come first from the president, for the most part.
PM: And do you think that the administration's policy of speaking to smaller, regional papers, rather than the big names, has had a discernable effect on press coverage?
AF: Well, one, I think the administration speaks to all, but there's no question of course an effort is made to talk to regional papers. I make the case, very proudly, "What's wrong with that?" No national reporter should have a monopoly on information. There's nothing new about that; I mean administrations historically have dealt both with national reporters and regional reporters. I think regional reporters and local reporters can be plenty tough too.
PM: This next one is the requisite Jeff Gannon question. You told Editor & Publisher last month that Jeff Gannon was "just as legitimate as some of the fringe organizations in the room..."
AF: Yeah, I have to say I believe that's true. Other than his personal life, which is not the business of government officials.
PM: I agree, but what other organizations in the room would you compare, in terms of partisanship, to Talon News?
AF: Well, there's a reporter in there who works for Corporate Crime Reporter who took a leave of absence to work against President Bush on Ralph Nader's presidential campaign. I just think we're increasingly entering this era where it's hard to define who's a reporter. I err on the side of a more broad definition. It would be easier on the press secretary if it were a more narrow definition, if some of those kind of wacky fringes weren't in the room. You'd get less wacky questions. But you know what, if you believe in the competition of ideas and believe in the marketplace of ideas, you shouldn't limit them. No government official should pick and choose on the basis of ideology as to who gets to ask a question. And I did that in that room. I called on the left, I called on the right, and just because he's a conservative doesn't mean he should be disqualified from being a reporter.
PM: Absolutely not. But were there any groups comparable to Talon News on the left that were represented in the room?
AF: Well, there's talk radio on the left, there's talk radio on the right. Helen Thomas certainly, despite her storied career, now almost always gives her opinion and doesn't ask questions. And her opinion is not what I would call conservative or moderate. So, it's the nature of the room. And the press secretary's job is to take the heat.
PM: Finally, do you see the role of the press secretary as being merely an advocate for the president, or is his ultimate responsibility to tell the truth?
AF: It's both. I think there's no reason that the two would ever be inconsistent. You can be an advocate for the president and tell the truth, but my first job was to be the spokesman for the president. The definition of the job is to speak for him and report what he thinks. Does that mean that I am also OvalCam [an Oval Office camera]?
Is it my job to tell reporters 24 hours a day every sentence that is uttered in the Oval Office? Like I'm a TV camera in the Oval Office? No. And so press secretaries have to use their discretion about how much of what they know they share, but everything they share has to be the truth.
*NOTE: In a subsequent conversation with Mr. Fleischer, he noted that he meant to say “I don't think it's improper journalism to report the body count,” rather than “I don't think it's proper journalism to report the body count.”