George W. Bush has been in office for just a week, but the honeymoon already may be over. Host Brooke Gladstone talks to Slate.com’s Timothy Noah about the tone of political coverage during week one of the Bush presidency.
Reporters As Theater Critics
January 27, 2001
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. George W. Bush has barely sharpened the pencils in the Oval Office and already the press has turned into a blunt instrument. The targets of media ire this week were not specifically the actions President Bush took, for example, cutting aid to agencies that provide abortion services overseas or proposing education vouchers, but the way he took them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Timothy Noah writes the Chatterbox column for Slate.com. Welcome, Tim.
TIMOTHY NOAH: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We've just completed Week 1 of the Bush Presidency. What do you think of the coverage of the new Administration so far?
TIMOTHY NOAH: Well, we are in the honeymoon phase, I guess. But one thing I was dismayed to see was that even during the honeymoon phase the reporters insist on constantly criticizing the White House for not sticking to its script. It's constantly complaining that the Presidency isn't sufficiently stage managed. And we saw a bit of that, I thought, in the exchange between R. A. Fleisher [?] and some of the reporters in the White House briefing room this week.
REPORTER: Do you not risk being distracted in your legislative agenda by doing this right out of the box?
R. A. FLEISHER: No, I think it's something that everybody expected.
REPORTER: You think it is at the top of the President's agenda, he takes over a country and this is the top? And of all the issues-- [OVERTALK]
R. A. FLEISHER: Well, he issued a series of executive orders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Bush Administration's surprise announcement of its policy stance on Federal aid for abortion counseling overseas got a lot of press but was there a lot of policy reporting and analysis?
TIMOTHY NOAH: I didn't think there was, and there were some very good policy questions to ask. There was very little of exploration of that, and quite a lot of tedious discussion about whether the announcement on abortion was stepping on the education message, which was the message of the week. Why reporters should care what the message of the week is, I don't know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Is this style over substance coverage typical post-inauguration?
TIMOTHY NOAH: I think it's typical all the time. It's a myth that reporters are not permitted to have opinions. The fact is they're not permitted to have o--opinions about important things like whether or not abortion should be legal. But they are encouraged to have opinions about all sorts of trivial things, like whether or not the President is manipulating his message effectively.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And--
TIMOTHY NOAH: They're allowed to be theater critics but they're not allowed to be policy analysts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give a few recent examples of that kind of behavior?
TIMOTHY NOAH: Well, you're constantly seeing a lot of gum beating on cable TV, particularly by political analysts about how this or that politician is presenting the message and not what the actual content of what the politician is saying. You saw a lot of people discussing whether Al Gore was too wooden, as compared to discussion of the substance of what Al Gore was saying he'd like to do if he became President.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But we always expect that kind of coverage during an election. I guess the question is do you think it's going to continue on into the Bush Administration?
TIMOTHY NOAH: Yes, I think unfortunately [LAUGHS] it probably will. We saw quite a lot of it during the Clinton Administration, and we saw quite a lot of it during previous administrations. I think probably the, in my recollection the person who really started this was Mike Deaver. There was rather than criticism of Deaver when he was running the message shop in Ronald Reagan's White House, rather than criticize him you saw reporters often expressing appreciation for the fact that he manipulating the message. And they came to get annoyed when, when it wasn't manipulated well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Timothy Noah, it was a pleasure talking to you.
TIMOTHY NOAH: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Timothy Noah writes the Chatterbox column for Slate.com.
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