The Nuclear Briefing

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 18, 2005; 12:21 PM

Simmering tensions between the White House and the media about such issues as credibility, accountability, and the appropriate role of the press burst into full boil yesterday as spokesman Scott McClellan took to his podium in the briefing room and proceeded to tell Newsweek magazine how it should do its job.

In one of the most belligerent briefings yet (here's the complete transcript) McClellan and the press corps traded shots in the wake of the news magazine's retraction of a report that a Pentagon investigation had confirmed that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay threw a Koran in the toilet.

McClellan said that Newsweek should make further amends for its mistake "by talking about the way they got this wrong, and pointing out what the policies and practices of the United States military are when it comes to the handling of the Holy Koran."

To which ABC News' Terry Moran replied: "With respect, who made you the editor of Newsweek? Do you think it's appropriate for you, at that podium, speaking with the authority of the President of the United States, to tell an American magazine what they should print?"

"Are you asking them to write a story about how great the American military is; is that what you're saying here?" asked New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller.

Bumiller also questioned McClellan's assertion that the Newsweek item was responsible for rioting deaths in Afghanistan, citing a conflicting assessment from Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

And reporters suggested that McClellan was being a bit hypocritical in his media criticism.

Here's Ken Herman of Cox News Service: "In context of the Newsweek situation, I think we hear the caution you're giving us about reporting things based on a single anonymous source. What, then, are we supposed to do with information that this White House gives us under the conditions that it comes from a single anonymous source?"

McClellan said he has recently reduced the use of the so-called "background briefings" -- but would not pledge to curtail them.

Herman's conclusion: "With all due respect, though, it sounds like you're saying your single anonymous sources are okay and everyone else's aren't."

Not explicitly stated in the briefing room, but the buzz of the blogosphere, is what some consider the ironic nature of McClellan's position, given that the Bush White House has made considerably bigger and vastly more consequential mistakes than Newsweek ever has -- but hasn't exactly jumped to make amends itself.

And a big question in today's coverage is whether the White House is jumping all over Newsweek for purely political purposes.


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