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Media Notes: An Interview With Outgoing White House Press Secretary Dana Perino

Press secretary Dana Perino's low-key way of interacting with reporters has set her apart from her predecessors in the Bush White House.
Press secretary Dana Perino's low-key way of interacting with reporters has set her apart from her predecessors in the Bush White House. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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"If I gave you information that turned out to be false, and I balked at correcting it, you guys would be furious. You'd be shocked," Perino says.

On Thursday, she complained to CNN after anchor Rick Sanchez showed video of foreign leaders shaking hands with each other but not with Bush. "He seems like the most unpopular kid in high school that nobody liked, the one with the cooties," Sanchez said. Perino says the president had shaken hands with the leaders earlier. CNN says Sanchez's show will air a clarification today.

She felt burned in July when Agence France-Presse reported that she was "disappointed" by the International Olympic Committee's decision to ban Iraq from the Summer Games. Perino actually said she was disappointed for the Iraqi athletes. "It was like wildfire," Perino recalls. "How do you correct every single story once it's online?"

Sometimes Perino supplied the match. CBS's Mark Knoller asked her last year about a Hillary Clinton campaign ad charging that U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were "invisible" to Bush.

After initially declining to comment, Perino said Clinton's charge was "absurd" and called it "unconscionable that a member of Congress would say such a thing." The response generated big headlines, prompting Clinton to fire back.

"I took the bait," Perino admits.

From her vantage point, the rise of the blogging culture has damaged journalism. With mainstream reporters posting blog items throughout the day, "it's snappy, sarcastic. It doesn't necessarily engender trust between the reporter and the press people." And she sees the growth in "analysis" pieces as an excuse for some reporters to vent "what their feelings are about an issue."

Everyone, she says, feels pressure to compete in the insta-news culture. When Bush met with Obama at the White House earlier this month, the New York Times, Washington Post, ABC and others quoted anonymous sources as saying the president had tried to link a free-trade pact for Colombia with passage of an economic stimulus package -- which Perino denies. One reporter who didn't run with the story told Perino she got in trouble with her bosses.

The soft-spoken Perino can take a hard line when it comes to defending administration policy. When a reporter asked last week about reports that Obama's team plans to review techniques for interrogating terror suspects, Perino said that the methods were used "to protect the country from possible imminent terrorist attack. We did not torture." Administration officials have acknowledged waterboarding suspects, and critics, including John McCain, have said that is torture.

"I absolutely feel comfortable with what I said," Perino says now.

Perhaps the biggest change during her tenure has been an easing of tensions in the briefing room. Perino was troubled by the years of contentious sessions between the reporters and Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan and the late Tony Snow, whom she served as deputy.

"It made me uncomfortable," she says. "I don't think it was helping us win arguments. It just wasn't my style. I realized that's just not me and it's going to come across as fake."

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