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For Media on Campaign Trail, Little Access to Candidates

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2004; Page A09

In the section of John F. Kerry's campaign plane reserved for members of the news media, calendar pages marking the days until the Nov. 2 election hang from a prominent spot on a bulkhead wall. A date on one of the pages, Aug. 9, is circled several times in dark ink. Above it, someone has written the words "Last Press Avail!!!"

It is a pointed, if silent, comment from the media pack that follows Kerry on the campaign trail. Despite a growing press presence as the election nears, Kerry's direct contacts with his media entourage have dwindled. The Democratic presidential nominee has not held a formal news conference or even answered questions from smaller groups of reporters -- an "avail" in campaign-speak -- in more than a month. In the two weeks before the Democratic National Convention, Kerry spoke to the media just twice, answering a total of six questions.

If anything, President Bush has been less available on the campaign trail, and in the White House generally. The president delegates all press inquiries to his White House communications staff and his reelection campaign. He has not taken a question from the reporters who are following his campaign for several weeks.

As president, Bush has held just 15 solo news conferences and 67 shorter question-and-answer sessions with the media during his term, according to data compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor who studies White House communications. That is by far the least of any president since Ronald Reagan. Measured by news conferences alone, Bush's 15 are the fewest for any president in 50 years, the figures show.

Kerry and his aides have criticized Bush's isolation from the media and have vowed to be different. At a campaign stop in Wisconsin on Aug. 3, Kerry told reporters that as president he would hold at least one news conference a month. "I don't have anything to hide," he said. "I want America to know what I'm doing. I want you to know what I'm fighting for. I want you to ask me questions."

Yet Kerry has also remained elusive. During the candidate's visit to Cincinnati last week, aides passed word that he intended to make a statement to the media, raising hopes for some unscripted give-and-take. But as reporters scrambled into position, Kerry came to the microphones, read a brief statement about the "tragic milestone" of the 1,000th U.S. war death in Iraq and walked off, ignoring shouted questions.

Kerry has been almost as sparing in his informal contacts, too. Early in the campaign, it was not unusual to see him venture back into the media section of his Boeing 757 jet for get-to-know-you chats. But these off-the-record conversations have grown less frequent, too, veteran reporters say.

Last week, reporters traveling with the candidate were surprised to see a smiling Kerry in their midst. Kerry delivered a candle-lit birthday cake for an impromptu celebration for CBS reporter Steve Chaggaris, who has covered Kerry for months. Kerry sang "Happy Birthday," wished Chaggaris well -- and, after some perfunctory small talk, disappeared into his curtained-off section of the plane. It was the first time in several weeks that members of the traveling media had seen Kerry up close, despite sitting just a few feet away from him on his plane.

Stephanie Cutter, Kerry's communications chief, acknowledged reporters' complaints about the candidate's availability but defended the campaign's access policy. "We strive to have the right balance, to play into the news of the day, to stay on message and to be as accessible as possible to the news media," she said. "We don't always achieve these goals, but that's what we try to do."

Cutter noted that Kerry gave interviews to Time magazine and the New York Times last week and talked to Don Imus on his MSNBC program and radio show yesterday. Kerry also does three or four satellite TV interviews per week with reporters from battleground states, as well as one-on-one interviews with local media outlets in the cities he visits. And in contrast to Bush, she said, the Kerry campaign does not screen questions asked by people at his "town hall" meetings. Bush's sessions with the public are by invitation only.

The two vice presidential candidates are not much different from their bosses. Democrat John Edwards chatted up reporters on his plane when he was first selected for the number two slot in early July, but he hasn't been back since, other than to retrieve his two youngest children, who like to sit with reporters. Vice President Cheney is no schmoozer, either; he grants even fewer interviews than Bush to swing-state journalists.

Cheney's relationship with the press is such that his staff has denied a seat on Air Force Two to the New York Times, which has written critically about him. Richard Berke, the Times's Washington deputy bureau chief, declined to say why the paper has not been able to travel with the vice president, although the paper is seeking permission. "It hasn't stopped us from covering him wherever he goes," he said.

Journalists may grumble, but political pros say that in a highly stage-managed campaign, interviews and news conferences carry potential pitfalls for the candidates.

Both candidates have gotten themselves in trouble by making statements to reporters that did not comport with the campaign's official line. Bush, for example, said in an interview with Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" show last month that he felt the war on terror could not be won, a statement he later reversed.

Kerry, speaking to reporters at the Grand Canyon in early August, said he would have given Bush the authority to invade Iraq even with what he now knows about its lack of weapons of mass destruction. Kerry has been struggling to explain that statement ever since, including yesterday on Imus.

Advisers to both candidates say potential gaffes are not the reason they avoid news conferences -- rather it is the risk of losing control of the scripted daily message. Kerry's aides are concerned that if he says something newsworthy at a news conference, he will crowd out the issues that the campaign is trying to push. By limiting media access to Kerry, the campaign ensures that Kerry's planned statements receive prominence in the daily news cycle.

Kerry and Bush are not the only presidential candidates to keep their distance from the media. Al Gore went two months without direct contact with the press during one stretch of the 2000 campaign. Bush, as a candidate in 2000, was famous for joking around with reporters on his campaign plane, but he often ended the encounters when reporters pressed him for answers to serious issues.

Speaking of Kerry, Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio and Television News Directors Association, said, "I don't recall having a presidential candidate this off-limits in this way for this long." She added: "There are all kinds of important developments in Iraq, in Congress and around the country, and [the media] would like to get the response of the person who wants to be president. The news of the day may not be the message the campaign is putting out, but it's important for the public to know what he thinks."

As for Kerry's promise of one news conference a month, Cutter said that applies to his potential term as president, not as a candidate.

Cochran is not so sure: "I can't think of anyone having more press avails after they leave the campaign trail than while they're on it. It doesn't bode well."

Staff writers Vanessa Williams, Lisa Rein and Mike Allen contributed to this report.

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