Beat the Press

It's safe to say that Bob Woodward doesn't have much trouble getting his calls to the White House returned. If Woodward's latest opus for The Washington Post -- an interminable eight-parter titled "10 Days in September" co-reported with Dan Balz -- is any measure, the Bush administration practically gave Woodward a key to the Oval Office and a desk in the West Wing. And why not? In the Post's breathless account of the days after 9-11, the president and his staff are always resolute, action is always decisive, and pressure is always met by grace. "The plane was now 60 miles out," Woodward and Balz write. "'Should we engage?' [Vice President Dick] Cheney was asked. 'Yes,' he replied again. As the plane came closer, the aide repeated the question. Does the order still stand? 'Of course it does,' Cheney snapped."

"I didn't agonize over it," the vice president breezily tells the Post. Neither, apparently, did Woodward. But Dana Milbank might have. By general consensus, Milbank -- one of the Post's two White House correspondents -- is the administration's least-favorite journalist. And it's not hard to see why. Over the past year or so, Milbank, who previously covered the White House for The New Republic, has broken a number of stories that made life difficult for Bush. Last summer, he exhumed an administration plan to exempt the Salvation Army from state and local antidiscrimination laws -- a major embarrassment to Bush aide Karl Rove, who played a central role in the discussions. Milbank also broke early stories about the vice president's secret energy-task-force meetings (which prompted angry phone calls from Congress) and Bush's decision to abandon school vouchers (which prompted angry calls from conservatives).

So the White House, in return, has made life difficult for Milbank. According to people familiar with the situation, when Milbank was first assigned to the White House beat -- before Bush was even sworn in -- Rove put in a call to the Post and asked Milbank's bosses to reconsider the decision. The Post declined. Since then, it's been all downhill. Journalists on the White House beat say that administration officials regularly attack Milbank's reporting and on at least a few occasions have logged complaints with his editors.

One rather clumsy swipe at Milbank occurred the week he broke the Salvation Army story, when a communications staffer leaked one of his famously cheeky pool reports (detailed summaries of the president's activities that are shared among all the White House reporters) to the conservative National Review, which brandished it on the magazine's Web site in a pathetic attempt to prove Milbank too biased to cover Bush. "They've been terrible to Dana," sighs one reporter, "from day one. On fairly innocuous things."

The Woodward & Milbank show provides a splendid illustration of how the Bush administration manages the press. Journalists working on projects that fit the White House line -- like Woodward's narrative about a purposeful, well-organized administration Getting Things Done -- enjoy the royal treatment: spoon-fed chronology, high-level interviews, and juicy anecdotes galore. Reporters deemed disrespectful of the party line, like Milbank, get a different kind of treatment: angry calls to the boss, lack of cooperation on routine requests (such as travel schedules), and other petty -- and not so petty -- reprisals.

"I don't know if there's a physical blacklist – I'm sure they wouldn't be stupid enough to actually put it down in an e-mail," says one White House correspondent (who, like almost everyone spoken to for this article, refused to be quoted by name). "But there seems to be a system within the White House of retribution. Basically, if you write something [negative], it's like at the communication meeting with [Bush senior adviser] Karen Hughes the message goes out that so-and-so's on the blacklist -- in some cases for that day, in some cases for that week."

When asked for a response, a White House press staffer would only comment: "We value the relationship we have with the press, and we strive to work together with the press to ensure that the American people are fully informed about the activities of their elected government."

But some in the press corps don't see it that way. No one, of course, expects the White House to play nice. And it's neither unusual nor unwarranted for reporters to catch flak after their stories run. What strikes many journalists, though, isn't so much the Bushies' toughness but their unnecessary roughness -- the administration's oddly methodical, oversensitive, and aggressive responses to minor, unimportant, or thoroughly imagined slights. "Everyone expects them to be vigilant, to protect their boss -- that goes with the territory," says one correspondent. "But there's an over-the-top quality here."

The White House's first line of offense is press secretary Ari Fleischer. Fleischer, says one veteran newsman, "takes umbrage at things that Mike McCurry or Joe Lockhart" -- two of Bill Clinton's press secretaries – "wouldn't have raised an eyebrow at." At a press conference a year ago, for instance, when White House reporters pointed out that Bush had appeared poorly informed in an earlier statement about missile strikes against Iraq, Fleischer blustered that "the president's actions and his words are supported by all but the most partisan Americans." Colleagues say that Houston Chronicle reporter Bennett Roth has had it rough ever since asking Fleischer a question about substance abuse after Bush's twin daughters were caught sneaking into a bar in Austin last year. Fleischer even called Roth to inform him that his question had been "noted in the building."

Roth's colleagues were stunned. "He had pool duty, plus he's local press," says a fellow White House correspondent. "So it's his job to ask those questions." (Fleischer declined to respond, but his office directed the Prospect to Fleischer's comments at a January 18 press conference: "I treat everybody here with respect and professionalism and that's because I think the White House press corps has earned it, and I hope nobody would suggest anything to the contrary.") Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin (the top communications aides to Bush and Cheney, respectively) also come in for criticism. Matalin is "truly vindictive" about unfavorable press, says one reporter. "I thought she'd be much more professional." Several reporters recall that after Newsweek correspondent Martha Brant filed a short "Periscope" item about a lunch between Hughes and John Weaver, an adviser to Senator John McCain, Brant was for several weeks not allowed to attend the special weekly briefings held for news magazines.

Even the wrong photograph can earn a call. Fleischer aide Gordon Johndroe once called the Post to criticize the paper's choice of Bush portraits for an article. And a White House staff photographer once called The New York Times to complain about the purplish tint a Times photo had given to Bush's blue shirt. "The president's got serious business, he wasn't at a disco," the staffer sniffed.

But since 9-11, say many reporters, the administration as a whole has gotten even touchier. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, has gone to extraordinary lengths to control coverage of the war. By all accounts, the Pentagon's ideal Afghanistan dispatch consists of quotes from Rumsfeld's press conferences. "This is by far the worst the situation's ever been," says the Post's Thomas Ricks, a 10-year veteran of the Pentagon beat. "Rumsfeld has explicitly said to me he would like to send some of the people who leak to me to jail." When Ricks asked why he had been excluded from a trip on which American journalists were first allowed to cover a special-forces operation, one press-affairs officer told him flatly: "We don't like your stories, and we don't like the questions you've been asking."

The Pentagon, at least, has a war to run. But White House staffers have developed a similar attitude. "What September 11 has done," says one White House reporter, "is heightened their arrogance." Many among the working press say that some Bush officials seem to view tough questions as unpatriotic and negative stories, however accurate, as borderline seditious. "No one would ever overtly question your patriotism," says one reporter. "But there is a little sense of, 'This is wartime, how dare you ask those questions?'" In November, for instance, NBC White House correspondent Campbell Brown received an unsolicited call from a senior administration official, who "gently chided" her, according to the Times, for pressing Tom Ridge during one briefing. Two months earlier, according to Salon.com, senior communications staffers at the White House had called NBC to tell network executives that airing an interview
with former president Bill Clinton "would not be helpful to the current war on terrorism."

Not all White House reporters have a problem with the current regime. Some point out that the Clinton administration, too, singled out certain reporters (such as the New York Post's Deborah Orin) and contend that the Bush administration is no different from any other. "They are extremely disciplined," says NBC's David Gregory. "But I don't find this to be an overly aggressive White House." Time's Jay Carney points out that when the magazine decided not to name Bush its "Person of the Year" -- after the White House had rolled out the red carpet for a potential accompanying feature on the president – "they handled it really well. Some people were upset and expressed it initially, but all in all they've been very mature about it, especially Karen [Hughes]."

One difference between this White House and the last is message control. The Clinton White House leaked like a sieve, rival advisers duking it in the dailies with blind quotes and nasty gossip. The Bush White House, by contrast, is a famously tight ship; aides rarely air their disagreements publicly. Another difference has been the political environment: Several reporters recall that Clintonites such as George Stephanopoulos who were initially arrogant toward the press were quickly cut down to size by the administration's steady procession of scandals. Consequently, they were forced to develop "a much more sophisticated understanding, both of what the market would bear in terms of getting reporters to change their stories, and the tools and techniques they would use to try and make that happen," says a reporter who has covered both administrations. The Bush staffers "have a much more blunderbuss approach – 'That's wrong, and you'll be in trouble if you write this.'"

But for the moment, at least, those in charge at the Bush White House -- a wartime administration led by a president with stratospheric approval ratings -- seem to feel that they can get away with it. "These guys feel pretty confident that they can sort of tame the Washington beast. It's a fairly audacious experiment," says John Harris, a former White House correspondent for The Washington Post. "We don't know how it will work out. It's obviously in their interest if they can get away with it."

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