The War Between Scott McClellan and The White House Press Corps
It truly sounds as if another area in which the Bush administration is blowing it is in continuing to have Scott McClellan as press secretary. Just note this item from Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin:
Press secretary Scott McClellan was questioned repeatedly and persistently about what sort of exemption the White House is requesting from a proposed congressional ban on torture.
He wouldn’t say. And when the journalists in the room wouldn’t back off, he lost his cool.
When Hearst columnist Helen Thomas kept interrupting McClellan’s talking points and demanding a “straight answer” about the exemption, McClellan shot back: “You don’t want the American people to hear what the facts are, Helen, and I’m going to tell them the facts.”
That’s no big deal, really. It’s a press secretary insisting he has the facts and the press is Stuck On Stupid B-u-t:
After NBC’s David Gregory jumped in — again, asking McClellan to explain why the White House feels an exemption is necessary — McClellan accused his interlocutors of being, essentially, anti-American.
“Well, obviously, you have a different view from the American people,” McClellan said. “I think the American people understand the importance of doing everything within our power and within our laws to protect the American people.”
Moments later, he repeated the accusation: “This involves information that relates to doing all we can to protect the American people. And if you have a different view — obviously, some of you on this room — in this room have a different view, some of you on the front row have a different view.”
At which point CBS News reporter Bill Plante plaintively pointed out: “We simply are asking a question.”
That’s perilous territory. Questioning the motives of the press in general or going after reporters individually doesn’t help foster a feeling in reporters that they’re being dealt with in good faith. In fact, it’s part of their job to raise questions and keep raising them until there is an answer that isn’t lawyerly or part of that great American tradition of spin where someone’s mouth gives an answer which even an alien newly-arrived from Jupiter knows is evasive but somehow you’re supposed to accept it as truth because their mouth moved and they said words.
Follow-up questions are what separates reporters from stenographers. (Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly use them all the time on their shows too, in case some haven’t noticed). And then there’s this:
Later, when American Urban Radio reporter April Ryan took up the question again, McClellan accused her of “showboating for the cameras” and told her she needed to “calm down.”
Surprisingly, there’s no outcry in today’s coverage over McClellan’s tactics. But it does make you wonder how much longer he can trade on his accumulated good will with the press corps.
The tipping point could come if there is a dramatic turn for the worse for this administration in terms of some new legal problem, scandal or political firestorm that drives Bush’s poll numbers down even more. Bush can only go down so far in the polls since his loyal base will stick with him no matter what.
But, if there is any kind of administration shake up, it’s likely that to cap the new face they’d want a friendlier, fresh face presenting the new face. McClellan is now becoming a story himself — a liability in public relations terms and “damaged goods” when trying to get his message out. Even if reporters still like him, what comes across on TV will likely win over only Bush’s hard-core supporters and leave most Democrats, many Republicans and independents cold. He can no longer CONVINCE.
UPDATE: How bad is it? Now the White House is trying to change the transcript of what McCllelan said — giving a NEW MEANING to the phrase “revisionist history…”