It’s a ritual of diplomacy we’ve all come to expect - foreign dignitary visits White House, and the two leaders hold a press availability. But when Afghan president Hamid Karzai dropped in this week, many White House reporters took a pass. White House staffers reportedly scrambled to fill empty seats with interns. Did it signify newfound spine on the part of reporters? Brooke speaks with Ron Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspondents Association.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, President Bush and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai met at the White House to have their pictures taken together and stand in the East Room to take a few questions from the press. Both presidents were under the impression that several members of the Afghan press would be on hand.
GEORGE Bush: Somebody from the Afghan press?
HAMID KARZAI: Anybody from the Afghan press? Do we have an Afghan press? Oh, here he is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was just one Afghan reporter present. According to NPR, nine other Afghan reporters had intended to make the trip to Washington, but were detained, in the end, by their own government who decided that the journalists could attempt to flee once inside the United States. Reportedly, according to an anonymous source quoted in the Washington Times, an image-conscious White House quickly packed the empty reporters' seats with interns, and not just the Afghan reporters. They also filled the seats of American reporters, because most of them didn't show up either. Ron Hutcheson is the White House correspondent for Knight Ridder and the president of the White House Correspondents' Association. He joins me from his office in the capital to discuss empty chairs at the press availability. Ron, welcome to OTM.
RON HUTCHESON: Hi, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, first of all, did you attend the briefing?
RON HUTCHESON: No. I did not. I was going to, until I heard that it was going to be the usual two questions per side format - that is, two questions for the American press, two questions for the visiting press. And I decided not to go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was this the boycott that we've been hearing about? We have heard that the Washington press corps was talking about boycotting background briefings, but this one was on the record.
RON HUTCHESON: Yeah, this is a totally different issue, and in this case, what happens is you start to feel like a prop after a while, because it's clear that there's a protocol here, and the two questions are always going to go to the wire service reporters, first the Associated Press, and then Reuters. So the rest of us are just kind of sitting there, providing a backdrop. There's not much of a boycott in either case, to be honest with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that partly because the New York Times has declined to join it, or was it just a pipe dream?
RON HUTCHESON: That was just a pipe dream. In fact, Brooke, I, I tried it once, and it turned out to be a one-man walkout. [LAUGHTER] I looked over my shoulder, and there was no one there, but I don't really fault my colleagues for that. I mean the, the problem with that scenario is if one person stays, you lose some competitive advantage. The approach that we have taken is to just press the White House not to do it, and we've seen some improvement. There's been at least two cases I know where they initially said they would be on background, and after protests, they put 'em on the record. So we're not where we want to be, but we've seen some improvement in that regard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'd like to shift gears now a little and talk about a new study that came out this week from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. This study showed what most of us already knew, that journalists have a lot more faith and place a lot more importance on journalism than the non-journalists of the population do. When serious mistakes were made, 74 percent of the journalists said news organizations report quickly the error, but only 30 percent of the public thought so; 41 percent said they tried to cover them up. There seems to be a problem here with the public perception of journalism.
RON HUTCHESON: That's an understatement, Brooke, and for those of us in the business, it's pretty depressing to see the public views toward the media, and you know, sadly, a lot of these wounds are self-inflicted. There's been just, you know, more cases than I can name of journalists who have done things that are beyond the pale, ethically, and all of us pay the price every time that happens. And it's compounded by the generally positive development of media watchdogs out there - programs like this, which - helping to keep us all honest, but unfortunately, the process has exposed some glaring inadequacies that have really shaken confidence in the media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I thought that the most interesting finding in the report, and tell me what you think, is that only 16 percent of the news professionals polled thought that it was a good thing if some news organizations had a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news, but 43 percent of the non-journalists thought it was okay.
RON HUTCHESON: We tend to view ourselves as professionals who leave our opinions at home, and the public just doesn't buy it, and you hear all the time, well, if you're going to have a bias, let's just be right up front about what it is. And, I mean we're kind of seeing that with the popularity of Fox, and I think it's a, it's a real disturbing trend, 'cause people increasingly tune in to news outlets that reinforce their opinion instead of challenge them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Finally, I, I want to address something completely different that's come up a lot in our email, and that is the infamous Downing Street memo published this month in the London Sunday Times.
RON HUTCHESON: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The memo, from 2002, seems to show that the Bush administration had resolved to go to war in Iraq long before it had officially formulated its case based on weapons of mass destruction. Now we've gotten a lot of complaints that this hasn't gotten traction in the U.S. press. Has it come up in the gaggle?
RON HUTCHESON: You know, what you've got is somebody who had a good source in British intelligence that I, frankly, don't have. In a situation like that, what you try to do is use information to pry out more information. Well, now I'm relying on somebody else's account of a source that I don't have, so it's really hard to use it as much of a club. Somebody in the White House press corps brought it up and got a non-responsive answer. You can keep asking and keep getting non-responsive answers, but we need to find a kind of a leverage point to break something out on that. I mean I do think it's a story worth following up. It's just a difficult one in practical terms to follow up on. I can understand the frustration of some of the readers who've noticed this, and by the way, I've gotten quite a few emails myself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, thank you for that.
RON HUTCHESON: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron Hutcheson is Knight Ridder's Washington correspondent and the president of the White House Correspondents' Association. [MUSIC]