But serious conflict between a president and his pursuers in the media has often been the way of life in Washington. Richard Nixon put CBS’s Dan Schorr and columnist Mary McGrory on his enemies list; his vice-president Spiro Agnew memorably called journalists “nattering nabobs of negativism”; and Nixon’s press secretary, the glowering Ron Ziegler, regularly attacked what proved to be the accurate Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush engaged in a famously hostile interview with CBS anchor Dan Rather in which the then-vice-president, furious, finally blurted out, “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?” (A year earlier, Rather had deserted the set in protest of a televised tennis match eating into his newscast’s time.) Four years later, Bush’s relationship with the press was summed up with a campaign button that surfaced during his unsuccessful 1992 re-election bid: “Annoy the Media. Re-elect President Bush.”
The media’s ardent pursuit of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, among other things, turned the Clinton White House into one of the fiercest press critics in history. The president complained to Rolling Stone magazine that the “knee-jerk liberal press” had failed him, and he accused the New York Times’ then–editorial page editor, Howell Raines, of Southern inhospitality. In 1995, the administration went so far as to produce a 300-plus-page report, titled “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce,” that explained how bogus “fringe stories” migrated from the conservative press into the mainstream media.
In the past five years, Clinton’s successor has continued to evince as much, if not more, disdain for the role of the media. George W. Bush eschewed press conferences and professed his lack of interest in newspapers while his administration was employing fake journalists to produce video news releases and paying pundits to toe the party line. Although the combative Ari Fleischer and the obfuscating Scott McClellan had different styles as press secretaries, both oozed distaste for the White House press hounds. ABC recently broke the news that the FBI is tracking reporter phone calls in a hunt for leaks, and Attorney General Gonzales just rattled the news industry’s cage with his professed view that the government has the authority to put those who publish classified information behind bars.
In the recent Editor & Publisher story on the subject of tracing journalists’ calls, Carl Bernstein, who is often vocal in his criticism of Bush, said, “If indeed it is being done — which would be totally consistent with the draconian and disingenuous policies of this presidency in regard to press and the war in Iraq — it is one more offense against the truth by President Bush and his administration.”
But with all due respect to Bernstein, complaining about the administration’s tactics or attitudes is not journalism’s job. Instead, the media’s response to any offense against the truth should be to launch an even more intensive search for it.
It’s already been proven that aggressive and motivated journalists can pierce and expose White House spin and have a serious impact on the public’s view. That occurred during last summer’s Katrina disaster, when a brigade of reporters unearthed a clueless and confused federal response. (“How is it possible we’re getting better intel than you’re getting?” CNN’s Soledad O’Brien snapped on-air to soon-to-be-deposed FEMA director Mike Brown.)