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Eric Boehlert Headshot

The Lapdog Press Rolls Over, Again

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There was a telling quote in the Washington Post weekend piece about how president Bush, stiff-arming the press once again, now sometimes travels around the country--usually to private fundraisers--without a press plane in tow. The arrangement is unprecedented in modern times, as noted by the Post's Peter Baker: "The idea that Bush could travel across the country without a full contingent of reporters, especially in the middle of a war, highlights a major cultural shift in the presidency and the news media."

The move is just the latest part of the White House's war against the press; the way Bush essentially walked away from press conferences during his first term, the way former chief of staff Andy Card famously dismissed the press as just another D.C. special interest group seeking access, and the way the administration audaciously paid off pundits like Armstrong Williams. (Unfortunately, the Post article failed to include that proper context, suggesting Bush's latest move towards press secrecy was occurring in a vacuum.)

The article's money quote though, came from Lanny Davis, who served as White House special counsel during the Clinton years and who witnessed the non-stop attacks that the angry, agitated D.C. press corps launched against that Democratic administration. Davis expressed surprise that the recent change in White House policy of not including a press plane for all presidential trips hadn't generated my cries of protest. Said Davis, "I marvel at their ability to get away with it. I have to grudgingly admit to some envy. I admire their chutzpah."

But to paraphrase Dizzy Dean, the old-time baseball great who once quipped, "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up," when it comes to this White House dealing with the timorous press corps, it ain't chutzpah if you know you can get away with it. Because based on the Beltway press corps' six-year lapdog run, the White House knew full well that not taking the press along whenever the president traveled was unprecedented, it knew journalists would interpret the move as insulting, and it knew the ramifications--the organized push back--would be non-existent. And of course, the White House was right.

Here's the barely-there response the Post got from Steve Scully, president of the White House Correspondents' Association, when asked about the lack of a press plane: "A lot of this is the reflection of the times. The whole thing is changing." He's also quoted as saying, "As we move into the fall campaign, if this happens more often, we're going to put pressure on [White House spokesman Tony Snow] and others to open these events."

Forgive me if I doubt Snow is trembling in anticipation of the 'pressure' that may soon be brought to bear. After all, this is the same White House Correspondents' Association that did nothing in 2005 after it was discovered the Bush administration had waved a former male escort, Jeff Gannon, into more than a 100 press briefings despite the fact Gannon had no journalism background, had no accreditation with a legitimate news organization, and was not asked to sit for an FBI background check the way most White House reporters did.

The Beltway press corps has made it abundantly clear that the Bush White House can do pretty much whatever it wants in terms of dealing with the press, and journalists aren't going to object. They're too intimidated to even speak up. Yet reporters and pundits wonder why they get tagged as lapdogs?