Bush's Media Cherry Picking

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; 1:18 PM

How much control should the White House have over who gets to interview President Bush? Specifically, should Bush be able to dictate which journalists at which outlets he talks to?

Those are among the questions raised by the White House's recent offer to let National Public Radio analyst Juan Williams interview Bush about race relations -- and NPR management's insistence that they should get to choose who conducted the interview.

The end result: Williams did the interview for his other employer -- Fox News.

Given how meticulously the White House picks and grooms Bush's audiences to avoid any unpleasantness, it should come as no surprise that the press office is very careful about who gets to interview Bush. It's certainly no secret that Bush has his favorite interlocutors. (Fox News host Neil Cavuto comes to mind.) And he habitually avoids potentially contentious sit-down interviews with journalists -- and entire news organizations, for that matter -- known for their accountability reporting.

NPR would qualify as one of those. Williams would not, having become in many cases an affable sounding board for conservative rhetoric. Somewhat tellingly, Williams served as Bill O'Reilly's sympathetic foil during the Fox News anchor's bizarre quasi-racist rant last week about his visit to a black restaurant and his observation that, to his apparent surprise, the patrons weren't running around screaming like addled rappers.

Would other news organizations allow the White House to determine who on their staffs would be allowed to interview the president? Would any responsible newspaper accept such conditions? I hardly think so.

And yet in some quarters, including Fox News and the right flank of the blogosphere, the outrage is being directed at NPR for having the audacity to turn down an interview with Bush under any circumstance.

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "The White House reached out to National Public Radio over the weekend, offering analyst Juan Williams a presidential interview to mark yesterday's 50th anniversary of school desegregation in Little Rock.

"But NPR turned down the interview. . . .

"Williams said yesterday he was 'stunned' by NPR's decision. 'It makes no sense to me. President Bush has never given an interview in which he focused on race. . . . I was stunned by the decision to turn their backs on him and to turn their backs on me.'

"Ellen Weiss, NPR's vice president for news, said she 'felt strongly' that 'the White House shouldn't be selecting the person.' She said NPR told Bush's press secretary, Dana Perino, that 'we're grateful for the opportunity to talk to the president but we wanted to determine who did the interview.' When the White House said the offer could not be transferred to one of NPR's program hosts, Weiss took a pass."

"Perino said she called Williams with the offer Saturday. . . . 'The president has talked with Juan before and we know him well. He's active in trying to keep good relations with us. . . . We could have done a print interview, but I felt I wanted people to hear the president's voice.'

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