Rather than hurl adjectives about media bias, Fleischer inundates the reader with examples. Two days after Bill Clinton took office, Dan Rather reported: "Today with the stroke of a pen, President Clinton delivered on his campaign promise to cancel several anti-abortion regulations of the Reagan-Bush years." When Bush rescinded the Clinton order, Rather said: "This was President Bush's first day at the office, and he did something to quickly please the right flank in his party." (ABC had a similar shift in tone.)
Fleischer ties this episode to the botched Rather story last year on Bush's National Guard service. "If you happen to privately be on one side," he says, "it's easier to accept facts that support your side than accept arguments that support the other side. . . . It's not out of malice. It's human nature."
"Taking Heat," Ari Fleischer's book about his tenure as White House press secretary, hits stores today.
(Charles Dharapak -- AP)
Unbalanced labeling also makes him angry. A New York Times story calls the Heritage Foundation a "conservative research group," but calls the Citizens for Tax Justice -- dubbed liberal by other papers -- "a nonprofit research and advocacy group" funded "in part by labor unions." A Washington Post story on a Bush proposal to make fetuses eligible for health insurance describes opposition from "women's groups and abortion rights advocates," while the measure appears "aimed at satisfying social conservatives." Writes Fleischer: "Why does the Republican side get an ideological label while the other side has the universally appealing label 'women's groups'?"
Even when the news is good, Fleischer argues, journalists are "trained" to end many of their stories on a "down note." After the third straight month of job growth last year, NBC said: "The job market, finally gaining momentum. But is it enough to put over 8 million unemployed Americans back to work?"
Fleischer says that networks, far more than newspapers, are reluctant to correct mistakes. He called ABC's Peter Jennings to complain about a story that said the anthrax sent to Tom Daschle's U.S. Senate office in 2001 had characteristics that made it "a trademark of Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program." After Fleischer complained for six days there was no such evidence, ABC backpedaled in a follow-up report.
The former spokesman admits to a couple of blunders but defends his style of rarely conceding an inch, even in background conversations with reporters.
When correspondents asked about the growing split between Colin Powell and Vice President Cheney over the impending Iraq war, Fleischer said things like "This is much ado about no difference," even though he admits he was carefully couching his denials. Still, he chides the press for being fixated on internal conflicts.
Fleischer takes a very literal view of his job. He recalls telling NBC's Brian Williams the day after the 2001 terrorist attacks that there had been a threat against Air Force One. That turned out not to be true, based on the misuse of a code word by a White House official. But for all that Bush, Cheney and he knew at the time, Fleischer writes, "the threat was real."
In the same vein, he once complained to CBS's Bill Plante that "you're ignoring the tremendous number of success stories that have taken place inside Iraq."
"What success stories?" Plante shot back. They later argued privately about whether the media's coverage was too negative.
Plante says that "the continuing daily death tolls," then as now, were the big story. "I thought Ari as press secretary stuck very closely to the White House line, toed it very carefully," he says. "There are ways to address questions like this without being disloyal. For the most part, he was reluctant to do so."
Pressed about his penchant for robotic spin, Fleischer says both he and White House reporters have become performers since the White House began allowing the daily sessions to be televised: "The modern-day briefing room has lost a lot of its value. The press is playing its aggressive role and the press secretary is playing a defensive role. The press focuses on, 'Isn't everything wrong?' and the press secretary, myself included, focuses on, 'Isn't everything good?' "
He says Bush reads some newspaper stories but only occasionally watches network and cable news, presuming that most of it would be negative. "He's keenly interested in what the press is thinking but is not consumed by it," Fleischer says.
"Taking Heat" makes clear that Fleischer is a true believer who got a thrill from such things as playing catch with the president on the South Lawn. The book does contain one hint of disagreement with the boss, though, when Fleischer, two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, told the president during a limo ride that the issue of terrorism "was more complicated than 'good versus evil.' "
"If this isn't good versus evil, what is?" Bush replied, adding that Ronald Reagan didn't go to Berlin and tell Mikhail Gorbachev to take a few bricks out of that wall.
"The president has a morally declarative speaking style that makes millions of people nervous," Fleischer says. "It also makes millions of people inspired."
Why didn't he include more behind-the-scenes material from the West Wing?
"I could have made a lot more money if I'd decided to write about clashes, or criticize the president, or even criticize the press more," says Fleischer, "but I chose not to."