Bush Pulls Press Corps Bypass

Oct 20, 2003  •  Post A Comment

An initiative by President Bush on Columbus Day to bypass most of the White House press corps and take his message about what America is doing in Iraq to the American heartland was pronounced a success last week by an administration spokesman.
“It was an effort to reach Americans that get their news from their local television stations,” said Allen Abney, a White House spokesman.
However, a CBS report labeled it the “public relations equivalent of a declaration of war.”
The Bush media blast came in the form of a series of exclusive eight-minute-long interviews that the White House arranged with the five major station groups it said regularly cover the White House-Cox Television, Hearst-Argyle Television, Tribune Broadcasting, Belo and Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Station representatives said no ground rules were set on what questions could be asked.
But the president clearly wanted to use the forums to counter a growing perception that the U.S. campaign in Iraq is faring poorly. In his interview with Hearst-Argyle reporter Laurie Kinney, President Bush spelled out an additional reason.
“There’s a sense that people in America aren’t getting the truth,” President Bush said. “I’m mindful of the filter through which some news travels. And sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people, and that’s what we will continue to do.”
At the major networks’ news departments, top executives seemed to feel that the journalistic sky had not fallen. They noted the networks had quick access to the video and audio from the regional interviews. Some doubted that the White House gambit would significantly alter the public’s perception of the president and his performance.
Still, on a slow news day-because it was a holiday-the fact that Mr. Bush was talking to regional television outlets, but not the networks, made it into the Big 3 network evening newscasts. CBS News White House correspondent John Roberts, whose report was the one that likened the move to a war declaration, echoed the frequently heard opinion that the White House felt that local news interviewers would not question him as strenuously or insightfully as the press corps at the White House every day.
A spokesman for Hearst-Argyle, which was the pool organization handling the three cameras used during the round of interviews, said: “We reject the notion that we can be counted on for softball questions. That’s not why we won so many journalism awards.”
The Hearst-Argyle spokesman said: “Our Washington bureau has been around since 1988. They earned a Dick Cheney interview in July 2001. They’ve been working to get an interview with President Bush since the administration took office. They’ve conducted interviews recently with Ambassador [Paul] Bremer and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and [the station groups] earned this interview on the basis of the fact that our nightly newscasts consistently draw a larger collective audience than any of the national cable news networks.”
Cissy Baker, Tribune Broadcasting’s VP for news operations, was also adamant that Tribune did not go easy on the president. She said Grant Rampy, who is her 24-station group’s Washington correspondent, is no “fly-by-night” local reporter who’s never been to the White House.
Mr. Rampy, a one-time newspaper reporter who broke into TV as the late Roger Mudd’s research assistant, covers the White House for Tribune Broadcasting, which has its own White House work space and unilateral standup location, from which Mr. Rampy files perhaps 20 live shots a day. “We are on a par with any network correspondent,” Ms. Baker said.
Ms. Baker added that Mr. Rampy’s interview was much in demand for a couple of days-with pickup by two wire services and requests for tapes or transcripts from as far away as Italy for copies from eight networks. “The questions he asked the president made news.”
The biggest ripples were made when Mr. Rampy posed a question that began by noting that even Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the day before, had said the president had lost control of Iraqi policy because of administration infighting and that concluded with Mr. Rampy’s asking the president: “What if we were to get out now?”
The President said bailing out of Iraq now would “be a terrible mistake” and said ““politicians here in Washington, D.C., who make comments [are] just wrong about our strategy. We’ve had a strategy from the beginning. … And the person who is in charge is me.”
One goal clearly was accomplished. Coverage either led the newscasts or received favorable airtime on most of their more than 120 stations, reaching millions of viewers in 34 states. “It got play on all of our stations,” said Heidi Wiedenbauer, Cox Television Washington bureau chief.
It is likely that the Bush administration will take this tack again. Recent research has shown that more Americans get their news from their local stations than from the TV networks. Indeed, a Radio and Television News Directors Foundation study earlier this year found that 49.9 percent of the public said they get most of their news from local stations, while only 23.2 percent said they get it from national TV networks.
There’s nothing new about a president doing an end-run around the TV networks and other major news organizations. Stephen Hess, a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution, said every president at least since Richard Nixon has tried to go around Washington’s national press corps, in part on the belief that they’ll get better, gentler play that way. “They think the Washington press corps is cynical,” Mr. Hess said. “And of course, they are.”