CHESTERTOWN, Md., April 18 -- Karl Rove was out of his element. He left the security of his West Wing office and the Republican fundraising circuit to face an audience of smart-alecky students on a college campus -- a liberal arts college, no less -- here in this reliably blue state. A show of hands found two-thirds of the audience opposed President Bush's plans for Social Security.
What lured Bush's most trusted adviser to this locale was an irresistible invitation: a chance to play media critic. For more than an hour, he lectured about everything that is wrong with journalism, and his conclusion may surprise conservatives such as Tom DeLay, who has been complaining in recent days about a "liberal media" smear campaign.
"I'm not sure I've talked about the liberal media," Rove said when a student inquired -- a decision he said he made "consciously." The press is generally liberal, he argued, but "I think it's less liberal than it is oppositional."
The argument -- similar to the one that former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer made in his recent book -- is nuanced, nonpartisan and, to the ears of many journalists, right on target. "Reporters now see their role less as discovering facts and fair-mindedly reporting the truth and more as being put on the earth to afflict the comfortable, to be a constant thorn of those in power, whether they are Republican or Democrat," Rove said.
His indictment of the media -- delivered as part of Washington College's Harwood Lecture Series, named for the late Washington Post editor and writer Richard Harwood -- had four parts: that there's been an explosion in the number of media outlets; that these outlets have an insatiable demand for content; that these changes create enormous competitive pressure; and that journalists have increasingly adopted an antagonistic attitude toward public officials. Beyond that, Rove argued that the press pays too much attention to polls and "horse-race" politics, and covers governing as if it were a campaign.
"If more people in government knew about the press and more people in the press knew about governing, the world would be a better place to live," Rove said. "Journalists would perform their craft better if they were more understanding of the realities and complexities of running for and serving in public life."
Offering his critique as a friend of the "indispensable" free press, he argued: "The work journalists do at this time is paradoxically more important than ever, so the need to get it right far more often than they get it wrong is absolutely critical to the function of a free society."
Rove left himself and the administration blameless for the tense relations between the Bush White House and the press and for the merger between politics and policy. He started out by quibbling with the title of his lecture "Polarized Press: Media and Politics in the Age of Bush." "It suggests the press is polarized because this is the Age of Bush," he said. "I disagree. The Age of Bush 43 did not cause the polarization."
Rove said that "we'd be better off with greater mutual understanding on the parts of both press and government." But despite Rove's increased visibility of late, the Bush administration prides itself on keeping journalists in the dark about goings-on inside the White House. Quoting the journalist Joe Klein, Rove said reporters should understand "how easy it is to make mistakes" in government. But the president has been famously unwilling to acknowledge mistakes.
Similarly, Rove attested that "most people I know on both sides of the aisle actually believe in the positions they take," and he proposed a rule: "Unless you have clear evidence to the contrary, commentators should answer arguments instead of impugning the motives of those with whom they disagree." But he did not square that with a White House that routinely challenges the motives of those who question Bush, calling them "partisan" and "petty."
Rove discussed the media's well-known tendency toward the negative. "The challenge for the press is to keep a proper degree of skepticism from turning into unremitting hostility and cynicism, and from ignoring good news and progress simply because it might reflect well on those in public office," he said.
But the case-study he cited -- the press's treatment of Bush's education plan in 2001 -- made the press sound far more cynical than it really was. He blasted the Houston Chronicle and The Post for falsely stating that Bush's education plan in 2001 was "stalled" and "bogged down" in the Senate -- but he didn't mention that both reports made clear the delay was only a week. He condemned the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for headlining its article after House passage of the bill, "Bush plan to face more challenges." But the report's main headline said, "House keeps tests in education bill," and it began by saying "President Bush's education reform plan easily weathered a challenge."
The students were warned in advance by the school's president to be polite, and the questions on topics ranging from Social Security to the Terri Schiavo case were mild.
At the end of the talk, Rove directed that a cherry pie be given to a reporter for enduring a speech that produced no news. On that, though, he was certainly wrong. There is more to news than polls and horse races.