How Not to Keep Your Head Down

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2006

Nothing makes journalists madder than the feeling that they're not getting the full story -- and the Bush administration has been giving them plenty of practice.

On one controversy after another, the White House has been the gang that couldn't shoot straight, buying itself additional rounds of bad publicity by suppressing or delaying embarrassing information.

Spokesman Scott McClellan was hammered as he struggled to explain how Vice President Cheney could shoot a fellow hunter with no one bothering to announce the mishap for a full day. The White House's refusal to release photos of President Bush with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff set off a scavenger hunt until Time published one of the pictures. And the withholding of internal e-mails involving Hurricane Katrina yielded a front-page New York Times story that the administration had been notified that a New Orleans levee had broken a day earlier than publicly acknowledged.

"The sooner you put a spotlight on bad information, the sooner it gets cleaned up," says Torie Clarke, a former spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "Every minute, or in this case hours, you spend defending why you didn't get out word about the hunting accident are minutes and hours wasted. . . . This is not my cousin in southwestern Pennsylvania having a hunting accident. It's the vice president of the United States."

Ari Fleischer, Bush's former press secretary, says Cheney had "a responsibility to the public and a duty to disclose" the accident on the night it happened. "This is the definition of news." Fleischer says that White House correspondents "are justified in being upset," but have gone "bonkers" in pummeling McClellan.

The White House says it is a mistake to lump together different controversies. "We don't try to keep things from the press for the purpose of annoying the press," says communications director Nicolle Wallace. "I'm not unaware that sometimes that is the outcome of our deliberations."

Of the hunting mishap, Wallace says: "It was a personally painful experience, as the vice president has said, where he fired his gun and hurt his friend." The Katrina correspondence was withheld because "the president's priority is to preserve his ability to get candid advice." As for the Abramoff photos, Wallace says Bush's desire was "not to throw flames on a politically charged story" that remains under investigation.

But the administration frequently seems to lean against disclosure. "The culture of White Houses, Republican and Democratic, is to hold back bad news on the expectation it won't get out," says Lanny Davis, who often argued as a Clinton White House lawyer to release embarrassing material so he could then declare a scandal old news. Davis says he lost an internal battle to release photos of President Clinton and several fundraisers under investigation, but that the pictures leaked anyway.

Predictably, some liberal critics say White House reporters should have shown the aggressiveness they have displayed on Cheney's hunting mishap on far more important stories, such as the Iraq war, while some conservatives say that journalists are blowing a routine accident way out of proportion.

Cheney's decision to allow an owner of the Texas ranch where he accidentally shot Harry Whittington to give the news to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times further inflamed the White House press corps. McClellan hinted that he would have handled the episode differently but left the matter to Cheney's office. On Tuesday, McClellan briefed reporters without disclosing that Whittington had suffered a minor heart attack.

In a further effort at message control, the vice president granted an interview last week only to Fox News anchor Brit Hume. Cheney, of course, could have reached a far bigger audience on one of the broadcast networks. Clarke believes he should appear on more television shows, or hold a news conference, because "not everybody is going to see that interview." But Cheney and his strategists seized on what they viewed as a non-hostile forum, figuring every other news outlet would have no choice but to carry excerpts.

Such an approach is hardly unprecedented for public figures on the hot seat. Gary Condit talked to Connie Chung. Monica Lewinsky talked to Barbara Walters. Ken Starr talked to Diane Sawyer. Hugh Grant talked to Jay Leno. Michael Jackson talked to Ed Bradley. Saddam Hussein talked to Dan Rather. James Frey talked to Larry King, before he got smacked around by Oprah.

On the Katrina e-mails, it was inevitable, with several congressional investigations, that they would eventually surface. By holding back the exchanges involving the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the White House ceded the story to the "congressional investigators" cited in the Times story on Feb. 10, the morning that former FEMA chief Michael Brown was to testify before a Senate panel -- and let Brownie blame the administration in an advance interview.

The dozen or so Abramoff photos mean little by themselves, since the president does grip-and-grins with thousands of supporters, visitors and even reporters each year. But in the video age, everyone wanted the image of the two men together. By withholding the pictures, the White House inadvertently elevated their importance. So Time made news with a shot of Bush meeting with Indian tribal leaders represented by Abramoff -- even though the lobbyist was so far in the background you practically needed a magnifying glass to see him.

These episodes have reinforced the public perception that the administration routinely stiffs the press. Why, then, has the White House waited for the facts to dribble out?

"Human nature," Clarke says. "Your natural instinct is just to go underground and say, 'If we avoid this, maybe it will just go away.' "

The People's Choice

Newsrooms aren't exactly democracies, but a Madison, Wis., newspaper has decided to give readers a vote.

On the Web site of the Wisconsin State Journal, people can now pick which of five stories they want to see on the next morning's front page, and the winner is guaranteed such display, with a yellow bar labeled "Readers' Choice."

"People were worried about this being some sort of popularity contest, with a lot of celebrity and entertainment coverage, but that's not how it worked out," says Tim Kelley, managing editor of the 93,000-circulation paper. "The readers have preferred hard news and analysis over some lighter fare."

One day, readers picked an analysis of the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections over pieces on identity theft, General Motors' losses and the anniversary of the Challenger explosion. Another day, they voted for a story on a big retail chain overcharging customers, rather than a report on the health benefits of fish oil and a feature on a club formed to curb schoolyard bullying.

In another instance, half voted for a story on whether the state legislature would allow the carrying of concealed guns, followed by one on Onion editors complaining they can't find fat New Yorkers for fake photos (21 percent), a follow-up to the State of the Union (14 percent), a study of why people cheat on diets (8 percent) and the Samuel Alito confirmation (6 percent). As many as 700 people have participated in the electronic balloting.

"Editors always think health stories are what people want to read," Kelley says. "There was a time we tried to put a health story on the front page every day. This challenges us to think more broadly about what belongs on Page 1."

Exit Signs

Ron Insana, host of CNBC's "Street Signs" and a mainstay anchor for the financial network since 1991, is bailing out, more or less. He will become a daily commentator so he can start a financial business.

"It's a challenge I just really had to try," explains Insana, saying he could not yet describe the new venture. Although he has "wildly mixed feelings" about giving up anchoring after two decades, "an exciting opportunity came my way. I'm going to take a shot."

Now Insana can try to make the big bucks rather than just analyzing the market for others.

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