Introduction to a Q, No A
Last week, I thought I would be featuring at my weblog, PressThink, a long and (I thought) very interesting Q and A with John Harris, the national politics editor of the Washington Post. It was completed on Feb. 11, but at the last minute Harris pulled the plug and decided against publishing the interview, which we had worked on for several weeks. I would tell you the reason, but in fact I don't know the reason. Harris apologized for not being able to explain more, and for wasting our effort.
I was surprised, to say the least, because I had done an earlier Q and A with Harris, which received quite a lot of attention. This was a kind of follow-up to that post, except that we addressed matters that were missing from earlier and much discussed controversies.
Sadly, I cannot bring you his replies, but I can show you one of the questions I asked Harris. Actually, it's nine-tenths monologue, one tenth question, but that's permitted under the rules of my Q and As for PressThink. (I explain here how the ground rules permitted Harris final approval.)
I've been convinced for a long time that the current White House has changed the game on the Washington press. My last piece for Huffington Post explained how Cheney changed the rules of disclosure, leaving the White House press to charge him with violating a known procedure, when he was actually abandoning a ritual he has no use for.
But that fits within a much larger pattern, which I have been writing about for two and a half years, ever since John Ashcroft used the Secret Service to bar newspaper reporters from press conferencing with him, while he answered questions from local television crews. (This while touring the country and talking up the Patriot Act.) I've written about the Bush thesis that reporters are just a special interest. I've explored the post-press strategems of this Administration. I've described the de-certification of journalists by the current White House, and the desire of the Bush forces to be the press. Trying to capture in one word the Bush agenda, I have called it Rollback: "Back 'em up, starve 'em down, and drive up their negatives."
This policy toward the press has many strengths as a working piece of politics, and supporters of it abound within the Bush coalition. I believe the ultimate goal is to enhance executive power and maximize the president's freedom of maneuver -- not only in policy-making, and warfare, but on the terrain of fact itself. This is why Bush the Younger's political project inevitably collides with journalism, a conflict that has largely been won by the Bush forces. They have succeeded in changing the terms of engagement with journalists.
So that's what I wanted to ask John Harris about. He's deeply involved in the terms of engagement with the White House, since he's the boss of the Washington Post's political desk. Here, then, is the text of my question, which is a summary of my view on what's been happening between this White House and the Washington press corps. It's also background for what happened this week after Cheney shot his friend Harry Whittington.
What if Bush Changed the Game on You?
A PressThink Question to John Harris of the Washington Post
You wrote a book about Clinton, and you have covered junior Bush, and so you are more than qualified to dispute my thesis in this next question, which is a little long (but then this is PressThink.)
I think the Bush years have been a disaster for the Washington press. In my view, the White House withdrew from a consensus understanding of how the executive branch had to deal with journalists. It correctly guessed that if it changed the game on you, you wouldn't develop a new game of your own, or be able to react. I believe this strategy is still working, too.
The old understanding, which lasted from Kennedy to Gore, was that the White House has a right to get its message out, and the press has a right to probe and question, and so there will always be tensions in the relationship. There will always be spin. There will always be stonewalling. There will always be attempts to manipulate the press.
Likewise, there will always be pack journalism. The press will always exploit internal conflict and make juicy stories from it. Because of its appetite for anything it regards as the "inside" story, the press will always be vulnerable to manipulation by leak. It will always seize on miscues and call them missteps.
But despite all this, and the struggles and complaints, the parties would end up cooperating most of the time because presidents "need to get their message out" (that was the phrase) and communicate with the country, while journalists need stories, pictures, quotes, drama -- news from the power center of the world.
And so a rough balance of power existed during that era; people could even imagine that the press had a semi-permanent or quasi-official "place" in the political order. It was known that White Houses tried to manage the news, which was part of governing. It was also known that there were limits on their ability to do so.
But where, John, is it written that these limits will always be observed? What prevents a new understanding from coming into power in the White House, one that withdraws from the earlier consensus? In fact, there is nothing to prevent it; and I would argue that the Bush forces have done exactly that. They sensed that the old press system was weakened and they changed the game on you. They knew you wouldn't react because to do so would look "too political."
Other White Houses had a "line of the day" they wanted to push. None had a spokesman like Scott McClellan who, no matter what the question, will mindlessly repeat the line of the day as a way of showing journalists that they have no rights to an answer. That isn't "spin," although it may superficially look like spin. That's shutting down the podium and emptying out the briefing room without saying you're doing it.
Armstrong Williams isn't business-as-usual, it's changing the game. Not meet the press -- be the press! But at least the contract that paid Williams $240,000 was undisclosed. Look at the disclosed picture: The Bush team has openly said they don't believe in the fourth estate role for the press. They have openly said: big journalism is a special interest. Bush has openly denied that journalists represent Americans' interest in anything, including the public's right to know. Bush is openly hostile to questions that aren't from friendlies.
Dick Cheney will look into the eyes of a journalist on television and deny saying what he's on tape saying! And when the first tape is played on the air, then the second, it doesn't prompt any revision from his office. That too suggests a new game, in which flagrant factual contradiction is not a problem, but itself a form of cultural politics. Different game.
On top of that, the Republican party gains political traction and excites its base through the act of discrediting journalists as the liberal media. I don't recall the Democratic Party developing any coalition like that. The liberal media charge is part of the way the GOP operates today -- routinely. On top of that secrecy by the executive branch has reached levels beyond anything you have dealt with in your career.
Aside from the coverage of weapons of mass destruction, which is seen to have failed, my sense is that you and your colleagues think you have handled the challenge of covering this government pretty darn well. (Correct me if I am wrong.) The game hasn't changed, you contend. We're still in a recognizable, fourth-estate, meet-the-press, rather than beat-the-press universe. Those -- like me -- who accuse Bush of taking extraordinary measures to marginalize, discredit, refute (and pollute) the press are said to be exaggerating the cravenness of this Adminstration and ignoring the parallels and precedents in other White Houses, including the Democratic ones.
Actually, I may have understated the magnitude of the change Bush and company have brought to your world, because I didn't connect the pattern we can find in journalism to the Bush Administration's treatment of science, its mistreatment of career professionals and other experts in government, and of course its use and misuse of intelligence. All have to be downgraded, distorted, deterred because they're a drag -- also called a check -- on executive power and the Bush team's freedom from fact.
To offer one more example, there's no precedent that I'm aware of for what's happened to public information officers under this Bush. These are the government's own flaks who have to be brought to heel by the political people, who want to erode any trace of professionalism. That's changing the game; and to say in response, "well, there have always been flaks, Clinton had flaks, Carter had flaks" is just pointless and dumb.
[You've said you believe in a] mainstream press that is detached from the fight for power, and I would like to believe in that too. I think it's noble. I think it's necessary. How can you have an independent press without that kind of distance? But power -- the executive power under Bush -- hasn't "detached" itself from the press, John. Not at all. It is actively trying to weaken journalism, so that it can over-ride what the newspapers say, and act like they don't exist.
Finally, then, here are my questions for you: Do you ever worry that Bush might have changed the game on you, and put in practice a different set of rules? And if you don't worry about that, why the hell not? And why shouldn't you guys -- the Post and the press corps at large -- change the game on Bush and company?
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and writes the weblog PressThink.