George W. Bush's press conference last week was a news story all around the country -- live coverage on the news networks, headlines in all the big newspapers, the talk of radio shows and bloggers for a day or two afterward. It's big news when the president speaks, especially when he deigns to take questions. Or so you'd think.
As the New York Times reports today, Bush has begun sitting down for informal chats with small groups of White House reporters invited to join him inside the White House residence. What does the president say away from the glare of the TV lights and the posturing of the press room? You don't know -- and neither do we -- because the reporters invited to the sessions have promised the White House that they won't say anything about them.
It's not the first time Bush has engaged in such sessions; reporters aren't allowed to reveal the substance of any discussions with the president at his annual Crawford, Texas, barbecue, either. And the Times acknowledges that its reporters and editors have participated in informal, off-the-record sessions with Bush and with other presidents before.
This time, however, the Times is drawing a line in the sand: Its reporters have been invited to chat with the president, but the paper has declined the invitation. "As a matter of policy and practice, we would prefer when possible to conduct on-the-record interviews with public officials," Phil Taubman, the Times' Washington bureau chief, said in a statement.
Taubman said the Times wouldn't want to be seen withholding information from readers. CNN apparently has no such concern. "Most of the time, the environments that our reporters deal with the president in are very structured, very managed, and they rarely get to just kick back and have a conversation," David Bohrman, the network's Washington bureau chief, tells the Times. "I think there's a lot of value in it for both sides."
Editor and Publisher says that reporters from the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, Cox Newspapers and the Washington Times are known to have attended the meetings so far. There may be others. No one who has attended is leaking the substance of the discussions -- the war in Iraq is apparently a major topic -- which leaves the White House free to benefit from the generalized assessments like those offered by Washington Times reporter Stephan Dinan. "It was very pleasant," Dinan said of his meeting with the president, a man he described as "very thoughtful and frank" in the small group setting.