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How The White House Controls The Press

by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

on how the press favors Bush
For almost two years now, we have covered the Bush White House with astonishment.

We are astonished by the simple fact that this President, with such strong ties to the corporate establishment, has for two years sailed smoothly through our democratic waters, at a time of rising popular discontent, unemployment, corporate scandals, national security disasters, and most recently, gasoline above $2 a gallon.

How does he do it?

First and foremost is the failure of the political opposition. The Republicans are bought and paid for. The leadership of the Democratic Party is timid, bought and paid for. So, with no effective opposition in Washington, the President gets a free ride. Unless the press puts his feet to the fire.

Now, the Bush White House press operatives are, if anything, professionals at ducking, banning, evading and dodging. President Bush has given the fewest number of press conferences of any president in recent years. The President's press office is perhaps one of the best in recent years, if you define its job as keeping reporters at bay.

How do they do it? Well, first, they keep out reporters who they dislike. Remember Sarah McClendon? She has been a thorn in the side of presidents since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She passed away last month. Ari Fleischer went to her memorial service.

For more than 60 years, Sarah McClendon had unfettered access to White House press briefings with her White House press pass. But the Bush White House wanted no part of her, so they refused to renew her press pass in June 2001, according to John Hurley, a colleague who still runs the McClendon Study Group.

We were denied access to the White House for a number of months in 2001 -- we were told we told it was about "national security." Translate -- we don't like your penchant for asking about corporate power.

Then, when we beat the rap, we were told that there was no way that we were going to get a White House press pass. Why? Because we didn't meet the criteria. What are the criteria, we asked?

After months of no answer, we were told the criteria are: You have to be assigned to cover the White House daily. Check. You are accredited by the House and Senate gallery. Check. You are willing to undergo the required Secret Service background investigation. Check.

Check, check and check.

So, we meet all the criteria. Why don't we get a pass? More months have passed. Still no answer. But we are welcome at the White House, we are told, no problem, just call ahead every day so that we can clear you in. No problem.

So, we call ahead every day, and we get cleared in. Unless the day is like yesterday, when we e-mailed our handler at the White House to get cleared in, are e-mailed back telling us that we were cleared in, but then when we get to the White House, we are told we are not cleared in. Sorry. You'll have to wait until you are cleared in.

Yesterday, Ari Fleischer's press briefing was scheduled at 12:15. Ari starts his press briefing then. We are left waiting at the White House gate until 12:40. We get in. Take a seat, and Ari gets to us, and skips over us.

So, first they ban you. Then they leave you stewing at the gate. Then they skip over you.

And yesterday is not the first time we've been through that scenario. If you get in, and if Ari calls on you, he limits the number of questions you get. The Fox News reporter gets four, five or six a day. We get zero, one or two.

If Ari takes your question, he more often than not evades the question. And if pressed, he dodges the question. Like today. Here's the exchange:

Question: Ari, two things.

Ari Fleischer: We're going to -- the one question rule has to be in effect because I'm going to have to be in the Oval Office at 1:05PM. [Unless you're from Fox News.]

Question: Okay. The Washington Post reported yesterday on its front page that "many people in the world increasingly think that President Bush is a greater threat to world peace than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein." Why do you think that millions of people around the world hold that view?

Fleischer: I don't think that -- number one, the President is going to do what he thinks is right representing the American people ...

Question: But why do you think millions of people hold that view?

Ari Fleischer: I'm not in a position to judge it ...

This is typical Fleischer. He first starts talking about the American people -- the question was about people overseas. Then when pressed, he says -- I'm not in a position to judge it. Evade and dodge.

Toward the end of the press conference today, a reporter from South America raises the question of President Bush bribing foreign governments to side with the United States against the will of their own people on war with Iraq.

This is obviously happening, and has been reported just today by the Associated Press and USA Today, among others. The United States is sending billions of taxpayer dollars to countries like Spain and Turkey, where more than 90 percent of the people oppose the war. We bribe their governments to turn against the will of their own people.

And the President talks about exporting democracy?

Anyway, the South American journalist wanted to know whether the President was seeking to buy the vote of Mexico in the United Nation's Security Council's upcoming vote on war in Iraq by promising some "sort of immigration agreements like amnesty or [a] guest worker program."

"Think about the implications of what you're saying," Fleischer responds. "You're saying that the leaders of other nations are buyable."

Even for the laid back White House press corps, this was too much. They break out in laughter. Ari walks out. End of press conference.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor

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Albion Monitor February 25, 2003 (

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