Ari Fleischer on "the grid in front of" the President

Bush's former Press Secretary explains how he managed press conferences by ensuring that only favored reporters would ask questions.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published February 11, 2009 10:52AM (EST)

(updated below)

Daily Kos' Meteor Blades points to a rare moment of television candor last night, as Ari Fleischer explained to Bill O'Reilly how and why the White House determined which reporters were allowed to ask questions at Press Conferences (i.e.: only establishment journalists seated by Fleischer "in the grid in front of" the President -- not "dot coms and other oddballs who come in there"):

Indeed.  It was extremely important to the White House that only "reporters" such as NBC's David Gregory, CNN's John King, Fox's Jim Angle and friends be allowed to ask questions -- because they could be relied upon to stay within the approved White House script.  And that's exactly what they always did.  

In a March 7, 2003 Washington Post article -- published one day after Bush's notorious  pre-Iraq-War Press Conference where reporters set a new low for fear-driven meekness and which, as Eric Boehlert documented, was fully scripted (as the President even made a mocking point of noting) -- Mike Allen, then a Post reporter, wrote that Bush, by that point in his presidency, had held far fewer press conferences than his predecessors.  But he quoted White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett to explain why they nonetheless decided to hold that pre-war Press Conference on March 6 (via Nexis; h/t Buzzflash):

"In this case, we know what the questions are going to be, and those are the ones we want to answer," Bartlett said. "We think the public will see the thought and care and attention he's given to a lot of the different questions that are being asked about the diplomatic side and the military side and the potential post-Iraq issue. These are all legitimate questions that he has answers for and wants to talk about."

Of course they "knew what the questions were going to be" -- i.e., only "the ones they wanted to answer" -- because, as Fleischer explained last night, they only call on the journalists who can be trusted to pose predictable questions that the President would want to answer:  only those favored-by-the-White-House journalists who were seated, as Fleischer said, "on the grid in front of you."  That is how -- to use Cheney aide Catherine Martin's explanation for why Dick Cheney loved to go on Meet the Press and considered it his "best format" -- the White House "controlled the message":  by only interacting with reporters they knew would adhere to their script, while excluding the disfavored ones relegated to "Siberia" (a very revealing and appropriate term for the White House to have used).

The only risk of script-deviation would come from allowing reporters outside of this favored establishment circle -- i.e., ones who are something other than royal court spokespeople -- to ask questions.  Being chosen by Ari Fleischer to "sit in the grid in front of the President" is probably the most embarrassing indictment of a journalist's integrity as one can imagine, though they undoubtedly consider it a proud hallmark of their importance and prestige.  Indeed, as Meteor Blades notes, one of the "reporters" placed "in the grid in front of the President" along with David Gregory, John King and Jim Angle -- and thus authorized to ask questions -- was Jeff Gannon of "Talon News," who asked questions like this.  Clearly, access to the favored grid was based on nothing other than a reporter's willingness only to ask the questions the President wanted to hear.

At his first presidential Press Conference this week, Barack Obama also had a pre-scripted list of reporters who he called on, but -- to the White House's credit -- it included the excellent Sam Stein of The Huffington Post as well as Helen Thomas, who, together, asked the only two unpredictable, meaningfully adversarial questions (Stein cited Pat Leahy's argument about the need for full-scale investigations into Bush crimes while Thomas challenged Obama's condemnation of Iran's nuclear program by asking who the only Middle Eastern country was with a nuclear weapon).  And AmericaBlog's Joe Sudbay was credentialed to attend the Press Conference, though he wasn't called on.

In his book, LapdogsBoehlert wrote in detail about the night of March 6, 2003 -- the last Press Conference the President would give before attacking Iraq:

The press corps's barely-there performance that night, as reporters quietly melted into the scenery, coming at such a crucial moment in time remains an industry-wide embarrassment. Laying out the reasons for war, Bush that night mentioned al-Qaida and the terrorist attacks of September 11 thirteen times in less than an hour, yet not a single journalist challenged the presumed connection Bush was making between al-Qaida and Iraq, despite the fact that intelligence sources had publicly questioned any such association. And during the Q&A session, nobody bothered to ask Bush about the elusive Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind whom Bush had vowed to capture. Follow-up questions were nonexistent, which only encouraged Bush to give answers to questions he was not asked.

At one point while making his way through the press questioners, Bush awkwardly referred to a list of reporters whom he was instructed to call on. "This is scripted," he joked. The press laughed. But Bush meant it was scripted, literally. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer later admitted he compiled Bush's cheat sheet, which made sure he did not call on reporters from some prominent outlets like Time, Newsweek, USA Today, or the Washington Post. Yet even after Bush announced the event was "scripted," reporters, either embarrassed for Bush or embarrassed for themselves, continued to play the part of eager participants at a spontaneous news conference, shooting their hands up in the air in hopes of getting Bush's attention. For TV viewers it certainly looked like an actual press event.

That was not the night's only oddly scripted moment. Before the cameras went live, White House handlers, in a highly unusual move, marched veteran reporters to their seats in the East Room, two-by-two, like school children being led onto the stage for the annual holiday pageant. The White House was taking no chances with the choreography. . . .

The entire press conference performance was a farce -- the staging, the seating, the questions, the order, and the answers. Nothing about it was real or truly informative. It was, nonetheless, unintentionally revealing. Not revealing about the war, Bush's rationale, or about the bloody, sustained conflict that was about to be unleashed inside Iraq. Reporters helped shed virtually no light on those key issues. Instead, the calculated kabuki press conference, stage-managed by the White House employing the nation's most elite reporters as high-profile extras, did reveal what viewers needed to know about the mind-set of the MSM on the eve of war.

They chose well the cast to play the role of "journalists" and who, for their faithful script-adherence, were "rewarded" with a starring role, in the royal court box in front of the President.  Notably, two of the handpicked media stars from that event -- David Gregory and John King -- have both since been promoted within their networks to two of the most prominent "news" roles on television.  The rewards for sitting politely in the grid in front of the President are bountiful.


UPDATE: In The New York Observer, Michael Crowley wrote an excellent account of that March, 2003 Press Conference, really capturing how subservient was the behavior of the selected journalists and how coordinated and contrived the whole event was.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------