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It's the Credibility, Stupid

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 3, 2006; 12:45 PM

President Bush's fundamental challenge as he tries to regain his political footing is that most Americans don't trust him anymore.

In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, for instance, 53 percent of Americans said they do not consider him honest and trustworthy. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found 52 percent of Americans believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public in making its case for war in Iraq. Serious stuff.

And yet, when Bush faces the press corps -- either en masse, in a news conference, or in the occasional sit-down interview -- the central issue of credibility typically goes unexplored.

That may be why so many Bush critics are so frustrated with the mainstream media coverage of the president -- and why you hear so many fantasies about how Jon Stewart, or a roused Oprah Winfrey, would do a better job.

Some of this came up in my Live Online discussion on Wednesday.

There is a reason members of the press corps don't grill Bush on issues like his credibility. But it's not (as many of my readers often complain) because they're craven.

It's the structure of the relationship. At a typical press conference, there are in fact quite a few tough questions. Consider last week's press conference, when the newest Los Angeles Times White House reporter, James Gerstenzang, asked Bush if his defense of domestic spying wasn't basically a variation on President Nixon's "When the President does it, then that means it is not illegal."

Typically, however, Bush didn't actually answer the question -- choosing to respond with some generic comments about his authority. And, like many tough questions, it was not aggressively followed up. Bush does not tolerate multiple questions from a single reporter, and other reporters are loathe to give up their questions to repeat one from a colleague.

The other thing is that daily news reporters tend to ask breaking-news questions rather than big-picture questions. That's a mistake, especially given how prepared Bush is with a vaguely relevant but usually non-responsive sound bite for virtually any breaking-news question. But it's the nature of the beast.

What about one-on-one interviews? Even for network anchors and the like, the opportunity to quiz the president comes so infrequently that it's hard to resist the temptation to try to cover a lot of ground. The result is then very much the same as in a press conference. Each question results in a mini-filibuster, and rather than have him repeat it, you move on to the next topic.

Consider, for instance, Bush's long interview last week with CBS News's Bob Schieffer. It covered a lot of ground -- but didn't make a lot of news. And with a few exceptions, it didn't get past the talking points.

So what's the solution?


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