Caught on Tape

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 14, 2005; 3:00 PM

White House spokesman Scott McClellan repeatedly insisted that the troops participating in a videoconference from Iraq with President Bush yesterday morning hadn't been coached.

But the satellite feed of painstaking rehearsals led by a senior Pentagon official said otherwise.

And as a result, television journalists for once had a field day exposing the sleight of hand to which they are more often accessories.

Up until now, the degree to which most Bush events are meticulously choreographed has not been a great story for TV. That's because the elaborate preparations -- the stage-setting, the screening and prepping of participants, and any number of steps to ensure that nothing remotely like dissent intrudes upon the president -- all typically happen behind the curtain.

In fact, TV tends to lap up precisely the kind of stirring, spotless imagery the White House normally cranks out for public consumption.

But yesterday, all that changed when an errant satellite feed fell in their laps.

Suddenly, instead of covering a highly artificial and largely newsless event the normal way -- broadcasting the desired images, playing the hoary sound bites and making it seem like something new was said -- pretty much everyone today led with the artifice.

On TV

It was extraordinary.

Brian Williams and Andrea Mitchell turned four full minutes at the top of "NBC Nightly News" into a report on the imbroglio -- and a discourse on the staged nature of so many White House events. (If the Williams/Mitchell link isn't working, Kelly O'Donnell used some of the same video this morning on the Today Show.)

Here's Williams:

"It was billed as a chance for the president to hear directly from the troops in Iraq. The White House called it a 'back and forth,' a 'give and take,' and so reporters who cover the White House were summoned this morning to witness a live video link between the commander in chief and the U.S. soldiers in the field, as the elections approach in Iraq.

"The problem was, before the event was broadcast live on cable TV, the satellite picture from Iraq was being beamed back to television newsrooms here in the U.S. It showed a full-blown rehearsal of the president's questions, in advance, along with the soldiers' answers and coaching from the administration.


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