Increasingly, Bush Escapes the Media Pack

When President Bush spoke in Wisconsin about the British terrorism arrests, few reporters were present  --  no press plane had followed him to a private fundraiser.
When President Bush spoke in Wisconsin about the British terrorism arrests, few reporters were present -- no press plane had followed him to a private fundraiser. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 12, 2006

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- On one of the scariest days yet in the five-year battle with terrorists, President Bush prepared to make a speech to reassure the American people. But the White House press corps was 1,000 miles away in Texas.

Bush had left his ranch vacation and jetted north for a scheduled closed-door fundraiser. No press plane accompanied him. And so when news broke that Britain had broken up a major terrorist plot, the only ones there to convey the president's reaction were a handful of local reporters and a few pool journalists who ride in the back of Air Force One.

The idea that Bush could travel across the country without a full contingent of reporters, especially in the middle of a war, highlights a major cultural shift in the presidency and the news media. In the four decades since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, presidents traditionally have taken journalists with them wherever they traveled on the theory that when it comes to the most powerful leader on the planet, anything can happen at any time.

But increasingly in recent months, Bush has left town without a chartered press plane, often to receptions where he talks to donors chipping in hundreds of thousands of dollars with no cameras or tapes to record his words for the public. Barred from such events, most news organizations will not pay to travel with him. And so a White House policy inclined to secrecy has combined with escalating costs for the strapped news media to let Bush fly under the radar in a way his predecessors could not.

"A lot of it is a reflection of the times," said C-SPAN's Steve Scully, president of the White House Correspondents' Association. "The whole thing is changing."

For veterans of past administrations, the changes are striking. "When the president moved it was a big deal, and I can't even remember an occasion when we didn't take a charter," said Ed Rollins, who was Ronald Reagan's White House political director.

"Go back 20 or 25 years and say we're at war and the president is traveling around the country and there are only, what, three people with him?" asked Joe Lockhart, who was Bill Clinton's White House press secretary. "That would have been unthinkable."

In some ways, it may not seem to make much difference. Like presidents before him, Bush still always travels with a small media pool that includes wire services, television cameras and a single newspaper reporter who files a report to others left behind. The advent of instant video feeds, cable television, the Internet, e-mail and transcripts of the president's every public word has made it possible to cover Bush without being anywhere near him.

Yet fewer eyeballs on a president means less scrutiny, in the view of some media and government watchdog groups. Fewer reporters, they say, means fewer questions and fewer versions of what happens available to the public. News accounts written from a different time zone invariably miss context and texture. And in closing the doors of some fundraisers, the White House has reversed a policy adopted under Clinton after fundraising scandals raised questions about what donors are seeking when they hobnob with presidents.

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition formed three years ago that includes groups such as the American Library Association, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the Society of Professional Journalists, called the changing pattern of coverage "quite disturbing" and part of a "rising tide of secrecy" in Washington.

"It's another way of closing off responsibility and accountability and shutting themselves off from public view," she said. "I think the public would prefer that somebody be in the room who is not there for their own interests to be served."

White House spokesman Tony Snow said there is nothing insidious about closing fundraisers in private homes and noted that news organizations choose whether to pay for a plane follow the president. "It's really all about money," he said. "It used to be that media organizations had more dough."


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