Fleshing Out the Truth

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When Ari Fleischer was press secretary for the Bush administration, he had a measurable effect on the behavior of the White House press corps. Not just on what we wrote—that was his job of course. But you could see it in the actions of the correspondents after a briefing: Lots of kicking of trash cans or spontaneous verbal eruptions to no one in particular. The Bush team promised to crimp the flow of information from the White House and Fleischer executed that policy masterfully.

In December 2002, I had a spell of the Ari Agitation. We were returning on Air Force One from St. Petersburg, Russia. I was trying to get Fleischer to explain how the President's hope that Saddam Hussein would peaceably disarm was consistent with his earlier view that the Iraqi leader should be removed from office. Fleischer insisted that Bush's policy was "regime change," a term the Administration used to muddle the less diplomatic but real goal of removing Saddam from office. It was a familiar dodge, but a little clarity from the plainspoken Texan's administration about going to war seemed a reasonable request. The President had said in private that he wanted to remove Saddam. Oh, and he'd said it in public too. With Britain's Tony Blair on April 6th, Bush declared: "I explained to the prime minister that the policy of my government is the removal of Saddam."

Couldn't the press secretary help us reconcile the President's public comments? Fleischer would not acknowledge what the President had said, but repeatedly retreated to the safety and meaninglessness of the "regime change" language. We talked in circles in the aisle of the press cabin. He didn't budge. I soon felt like hurling myself through any opening I could find in the fuselage.

When I sat down to read Taking Heat, Fleischer's memoir of his White House years, I should have brought a cold compress. Fleischer spends much of the book knocking the press, as you might expect. Such criticism isn't the problem; he makes some good points and as a partisan booster of the President he is entitled, like all before him, to swing back at the press corps.

What brings on the fever is that while wagging his finger, he bungles the facts. In some cases, he matches blunder-for-blunder the press corps sins that he's cataloging, mirroring precisely the things he likes least about the press. He cherry picks facts to fit his theories about how the press cherry picks facts to fit their theories. He is relentlessly negative about a press corps he claims is relentlessly negative. Unfortunately, it makes for a misleading revisitation of how the press and the President interacted during his tenure, and it undermines many of his larger criticism of the press corps.

The rest of the book is a glowing portrait of the President. Perhaps all we should expect from the man who served with such distinction in one of the hardest public jobs in politics. But Fleischer witnessed sweeping history. Surely there is something to be gleaned from being so close to the center of such drama. We don't need secrets, just insight. No luck. Even the behind-the-scenes moments he recounts have an off the rack quality: Bush is strong, resolute and likes making decisions.

To use a metaphor from Fleischer's own beloved baseball, it's as if a guy who got to ride on the Yankee's bench for two World Series seasons emerged from the dugout to tell us that Derek Jeter can really hit and field. "After [the press conference] was over," Fleischer writes, "I joined the President in the residence and told him I thought he did great. He felt good too, as he reclined in his chair and lit a cigar."

When criticizing the umpires though, Fleischer can really throw his back into the task. Make no mistake—to use a favorite White House cliche—he raises important issues about White House reporting. His central point is that the press is biased toward conflict. It is and should be. Policy, politics and the formation of new ideas take place in an atmosphere of conflict. But not all newsworthy events contain stir and angst. Getting the balance right is important. Fleischer's discussion of left-leaning bias is relevant but feels outdated in a world where Fox news and right-leaning bloggers are ascending.

It's also an incomplete assessment. He offers the critique as a rumination on an important American institution, but Fleischer's not trying to give a full picture of the state of the White House press corps or American journalism. There is no thoughtful examination, for example, of whether reporters asked the right questions or enough of them in the run up to the war. Fleischer gripes about the press, but offers scant insight into how the Bush White House, one of the best message machines in modern politics, used video news releases, local media and direct appeals by the President to bypass the national media. They were blowing off the MSM long before bloggers made it so fashionable.

Speaking of which, there's a fair amount of blogmeat to be found in these pages. Here are few worth sinking your teeth into:

The Recount: As an example of liberal bias in the press, Fleischer asserts that the coverage of the Florida Supreme Court's 4-3 decision to re-start the counting of votes during the 2000 election was reported without modifiers because it favored Al Gore. When the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to settle the election controversy in George Bush's favor, the papers described the justices as "bitterly divided." He cites a Washington Post story the day after the Florida decision as an example, saying the paper made "no reference to a close or bitter decision."

Well, maybe not in the story that Fleischer cites. But that piece ran on A17, and was narrowly focused on how the Gore camp was reacting. The story about the decision itself ran on the front page, however, and cited "the bitterly divided court." The paper not only used the very expression Fleischer says was missing, but the editors put it at the top of the paper's lead story about the Florida ruling

Labeling: Conservatives are always labeled as such, he writes, but liberal organizations are presented as objective actors. He uses another example from the Washington Post: "On September 5, 2003, the Washington Post, writing about Moveon.org, a left-wing group that has spent tens of millions of dollars against President Bush and in favor of liberal policies, simply called it "an online advocacy group." Lets shelve for a moment that the story wasn't about Moveon.org, as he makes it seem. It was about Texas redistricting and included a single passing mention of the group. If you look at all the 14 Washington Post mentions of the organization from July to September—the months surrounding the citation Fleischer chooses—Moveon was referred to as "liberal" or "left-leaning" or as "an organ of the left," 10 times. The instances in which it goes un-labeled are either unnecessary because the political leaning is clear, or incidental. That's almost the exact treatment The Post gives Americans for Tax reform, a conservative group Fleischer says is more frequently singled out for its ideological leanings.

Taking Sides: Early in his term, George Bush issued an executive order banning federal funding from overseas family planning clinics that performed abortions. It was a reversal of a measure Bill Clinton issued early in his first term. Fleischer argues "the White House press corps didn't like" Bush's decision. To make his case he sites several examples, including a comparison of ABC Newscasts from 2001 versus 1993. In 2001, he says, ABC's Terry Moran reported that George Bush "made anti-abortion conservatives happy." Yet in 1993, ABC anchor Peter Jennings had softer language about Clinton's decision to allow such funding. "President Clinton kept a promise today..." said Jennings. Fleischer opines that the Clinton description was more neutral, whereas the language to describe Bush's action was "in a highly political vein." What Fleischer ignores is that in the same 1993 newscast he sites, ABC ran an entire separate story on the Clinton decision built around how it was political payback to his pro-choice backers. If describing the presidential moves in a political vein is a sin, then ABC's longer treatment of Clinton's political action was more faulty, not the one about President Bush.

Beyond the shoddy examples, there is the rickety logic. After decrying how the press and partisans in Washington reflexively think the worst of the other side—President Bush floats above, according to Fleischer—he then quotes, without irony, the President talking about the Florida recount. "If they're going to steal the election, they're going to steal it," Bush serenely said to me at his ranch the day I left Texas." "Stealing" is not, by most people, considered a value-neutral term.

Enough. The examples can drive the fever to dangerous heights. The point is not that all of Fleischer's facts are wrong, it's that he has too many groaners in a book that sighs: "reporters sometimes want so badly to believe something is true that they ignore facts to the contrary." Or a book that tut-tuts: "the news industry typically doesn't work in such a nuanced, more accurate way..."

Fleischer raises important points, but the sloppy execution ruins any chance he might have at convincing those in the media to mend their ways.