When CBS correspondent John Roberts asked about the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers at a White House briefing last week, he expected a boilerplate answer.
Instead, press secretary Scott McClellan lectured the reporter: "Let's talk about the way you're approaching things . . . I would encourage you -- I know you don't necessarily want to do this -- but to look at her qualifications and record." Moments later, Roberts accused McClellan of "attacking me."
Roberts said in an interview that President Bush's spokesman "has adopted this siege mentality in which the best way to deflect the question is to attack the questioner. I'm not quite sure who he's playing to -- maybe the segment of the Republican Party that believes we're a bunch of liberals who have our own agenda."
McClellan, for his part, said his job is "to mix it up a little bit and keep them on their toes. Reporters like to swing away at others, but they don't like it when you punch back. The pack mentality goes into overdrive . . . The media's trying to get under our skin and get us off-message. My job is to help the president advance his agenda."
As the White House has been forced onto the defensive in recent weeks -- over Hurricane Katrina, the CIA leak investigation, the Iraq war and the Miers nomination -- the daily sparring between McClellan and the press corps has turned increasingly testy. While there has been an element of theater in these sessions since live television coverage began in 1995 -- clips are now routinely posted on the Internet -- McClellan's rebuttals have lately become more personal.
"There's been an attempt to put reporters on the spot and question the motivation of reporters," said David Gregory, NBC's White House correspondent. "It is irritating, and I for one think it's an attempt by the White House to change the focus from what is a legitimate question to what the talking point is. It's an effort to cast the media as out for red meat."
At the same briefing Thursday at which McClellan challenged Roberts, he lit into Hearst columnist Helen Thomas when she asked about Iraq. After Thomas, who has repeatedly criticized Bush over the war, disputed McClellan's answer by saying that "Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11," McClellan said: "I'm sure you're opposed to the broader war on terrorism."
Despite these clashes, many reporters say they like McClellan personally. The morning after their dust-up, Roberts assumed a mock boxing stance upon seeing McClellan.
"I don't take it as a personal affront that someone who's an advocate is going to try to present things in the best light," said CNN correspondent Bob Franken. But, he said, "many of us thought Scott had crossed a line by characterizing the motives of the reporters . . . We are foils, because we're riffraff in the eyes of the public, the ink-stained wretches."
Jim VandeHei, a Washington Post reporter who also mixed it up with McClellan last week, said the spokesman's style has evolved since he succeeded Ari Fleischer in 2003. "He used to be nice-guy Scott who always gave the exact same answers, very polite. He's become increasingly feisty and increasingly confrontational with reporters."
Mike McCurry, who was a spokesman for President Bill Clinton, said he had a few such disputes. When a National Public Radio reporter asked whether Clinton would release all medical records amid rumors that the president had a sexually transmitted disease, McCurry pressed the reporter to "just think for a minute" whether that question should be asked.
Such exchanges "create an us-versus-them mentality," McCurry said. "It's precarious for any press secretary to get out there and start challenging motive and legitimacy. You get the hackles up of the rest of the press corps. I took plenty of reporters' heads off, but I did it by phone after the briefing."
Despite extraordinary tension with reporters during the scandals that led to impeachment, the Clinton press office regularly engaged reporters in attempts to leak favorable information and suppress damaging allegations. In the Bush White House, the press office has been less enmeshed in strategies to influence news coverage, in part because Bush cares less about the daily headlines than his predecessor did. Some reporters say they do not regard McClellan, a Texan who began working for Bush in Austin, as a valuable source.
Seemingly routine inquiries can trigger verbal combat. On Sept. 7, Gregory asked whether Bush retained confidence in Michael D. Brown, his embattled director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. McClellan responded that "what you're doing is trying to engage in a game of finger-pointing and blame game," which Gregory called "ridiculous." Five days later, Brown resigned.
At Thursday's briefing, Roberts drew a rebuke for saying that some conservatives had suggested Miers might withdraw her nomination, and asking whether she had the "tenacity" to "withstand all this fire."
VandeHei asked McClellan whether he was denying that White House officials had touted Miers's faith and evangelical church membership to conservative activists. "You're putting words in my mouth," McClellan said.
VandeHei said later that he was "offended" by the response and that McClellan was engaging in "distortion."
McClellan, maintaining that such exchanges are not personal, said some journalists view themselves as above reproach. "My criticisms are extremely mild in comparison to the tone of some of the questions fired in my direction," he said.