You are a White House reporter, invited for a rare sit-down meeting with the President. The only condition is that the conversation, whatever it covers, will be strictly off-the-record. Do you agree to talk with the President on the President’s terms? Knight Ridder White House correspondent Ron Hutcheson weighs the options with Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. The President has been meeting informally with reporters who cover the White House. Don't look for accounts of those conversations in your local paper or on the news, however, because they're strictly off the record, begging the question - what's the point? Ron Hutcheson is a Knight Ridder reporter and former President of the White House Correspondents Association. He is here to articulate the thinking behind chatting or not chatting on the President's terms. Hutch, welcome back to OTM.
RON HUTCHESON: Hey Bob, how are you?
BOB GARFIELD: Well, thank you. So all of this, I guess, is pretty academic for you, since you weren't invited to [LAUGHS] talk to the President off the record. First of all, why not? I mean, is it your coverage? Bad blood? Your breath? What?
RON HUTCHESON: [LAUGHS] I don't know, Bob. I wish I knew, but I'm not going to the prom, evidently.
BOB GARFIELD: But had you been invited, what would have been your call on this one?
RON HUTCHESON: Yeah, we just talked about it here at the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau with my editors the other day and basically decided that if I am invited into one of these sessions that I'll just take a pass on it. I hasten to add I don't criticize anybody for going.
BOB GARFIELD: What is the President up to here, or what is any President up to when he wants to speak off the record to the press?
RON HUTCHESON: I think in this case, I think this is pretty clearly part of the administration's recent efforts to offer reassurances about the war in Iraq. I think he's particularly interested in meeting with some people that he doesn't know as well, because he is a charming, affable fellow in private, in person, but you don't really see that side of him when he's in the staged setting.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Now, the press corps in Washington typically and historically has gone to off-the-record briefings with secretaries of state, with defense secretaries who are identified only as, you know, high administration officials, and so forth. Why should it be different with a President if he wants to go back channel?
RON HUTCHESON: The first point is why should we be playing that game to begin with? I mean, in a large group setting, it seems to me there's really not much excuse for not doing it with attribution. And I, in fact, led a spectacularly unsuccessful walk-out when a senior administration official refused to be identified by name. I got outside the room, looked behind me and there was nothing there but air, but –
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
RON HUTCHESON: So we've been trying to discourage it altogether. But I've always said, you know, never say never, 'cause there clearly are times when somebody needs the cloak of anonymity and the information is worth it.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, that argument didn't prevail at your news organization. It didn't prevail at The New York Times, which has declined to participate. You were quick to not criticize your colleagues who are taking the President up on his offer. Tell me why you shouldn't be rolling your eyes and thumbing your nose at those guys.
RON HUTCHESON: I think the calculus is there is something to be gained for the readers. Take, for example, the one area that I've always felt that there's some justification for – going off the record is kind of hard - but, at least for not attribution, are sensitive diplomatic areas. Now, I would love to hear what President Bush has to say in private right now about Vladimir Putin. If he thinks that Putin is one big scumbag, he clearly cannot say that in public. I'd love to hear what he says, because if, on the one hand, he says, “oh, you know, I've still looked in his soul and I think he's a wonderful man,” well, that tells me something. But if he says, “you know, I am just about fed up to here with that fella,” that tells me something. And either way, it'll inform me, the next time I see the two of them together and I can't sit down and write about it, but I think I could give somehow a more accurate presentation to the readers that I might not otherwise be able to give, or I could at least use it to try to pry information out of somebody else.
BOB GARFIELD: Could you? Or would you be all informed up with no place to go? I mean, you -
RON HUTCHESON: [LAUGHS] That's also quite possible. You know, that's the big "who knows?" And it could also be that this is all about, you know, let me show you the Truman balcony and the Lincoln bedroom and, you know, the little tour that he likes to give people in the Oval Office where he shows off the rug. And, you know, if that's it, well, you know, the only benefit is to your ego, and the readers don't get anything out of it, and it's a big fat waste of time and would be, by any measure, a big mistake.
BOB GARFIELD: Among those who accepted this invitation are Stephen Dinan from The Washington Times, The Associated Press, David Bohrman from CNN - conspicuous by its absence, The New York Times, which has said it's boycotting. The fact that The Times is not going to participate, do you think that will give other organizations the courage to stand up against the White House attempts at glad-handing?
RON HUTCHESON: You know, if anything, it's the opposite, because there's the feeling that, well, The Times isn't going but they have access to top Administration officials that some of the rest of us do not have, just because of who they are. So, you know, there's an element of, “Oh well, they can afford not to go. But man oh man, this is my one chance to get, you know, some face time with the President.”
BOB GARFIELD: So when it comes to your job of informing the, you know, many millions of readers of Knight Ridder newspapers around this country, you can't win for losing.
RON HUTCHESON: [LAUGHS] Sometimes it seems that way, that's for sure. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Ron Hutcheson is a Knight Ridder reporter and former president of the White House Correspondents Association. All the best, bye-bye.
RON HUTCHESON: It's an interesting topic. Bye. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]