Bill Moyers talks to Ken Auletta, heralded journalist and the best-selling author of eight books, including BACKSTORY: INSIDE THE BUSINESS OF NEWS, a collection of the author’s work as media correspondent for THE NEW YORKER. It provides a probing look at media today — from the bitter in-fighting at THE NEW YORK TIMES; to New York’s more openly brutal tabloid wars; to the corporate-consolidation of newspapers such as the LOS ANGELES TIMES, and even new revelations on the Jayson Blair scandal. Then we hear from Brooks Jackson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Washington and national politics for 32 years. Jackson has reported for Associated Press, the WALL STREET JOURNAL and CNN, where he pioneered the “adwatch” and “factcheck” form of stories debunking false and misleading political statements starting with the Presidential election of 1992. Currently, Jackson serves as director of Annenberg Political Fact Check and his Web site, Factcheck.org, is dedicated to holding candidates accountable for the dubious factual claims and outright falsehoods tossed around in the presidential campaign.
David Brancaccio sits down with journalistic pioneer Helen Thomas, who, among many distinctions, became the first woman officer of the National Press Club, the first woman president of the White House Correspondents Association and the first woman member of the Gridiron Club and later its first woman president.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. You can relax. David and I are not in Iowa, where it’s crowded enough, with journalists, pundits, political consultants, and pollsters. So many onlookers and so little to know until Monday night when Democrats pick their first delegates to next summer’s nominating convention. For the moment, the most interesting thing about Iowa to us is what it reveals about how America has changed. One hundred years ago, Iowa had eleven congressional districts and California had seven; now Iowa has five and California, 53. But in the presidential sweepstakes those millions of California Democrats may have less to say than a hundred thousand or so Democrats in Iowa. Go figure.
MOYERS: It’s this time of year every four years when the weather turns cold and the politics get hot that I especially miss the late Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He left us with much wisdom about life and many witticisms about politics. It was Patient Moynihan who famously said, quote, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.”
Well, there’s a new Web site with that distinction as its mandate: FactCheck.org. That’s the logo right there. You can link to it through NOW’s site on pbs.org. Factcheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. And its aim is to hold politicians accountable for dubious claims and outright falsehoods. Brooks Jackson runs it.
He’s a journalistic original. Utterly unpartisan and utterly unexcitable except by plain and simple fact. In a long career stretching from the Associated Press and the WALL STREET JOURNAL to CNN. And in his book HONEST GRAFT: HOW SPECIAL INTERESTS BUY INFLUENCE IN WASHINGTON, Brooks Jackson kept breaking new ground in reporting. He’s doing it again, this time on the Internet. Welcome to NOW.
JACKSON: Thank you, Bill. Pleasure to be here.
MOYERS: You say on your Web site that if a citizen wants to ask your help in finding out the truth or falsity of some political statement or some political ad. You will respond directly to that reader’s e-mail?
JACKSON: Well, we’ve done that. You can sign up, subscribe, we’ll send our articles automatically to you so you don’t have to constantly be browsing back to check them. And in one instance so far we’ve had a visitor who asked a question we found intriguing and it led to doing an article.
MOYERS: What was that?
JACKSON: Well, the visitor asked, she said, “I’m a New Hampshire voter. I wanna vote for Wesley Clark but I’m disturbed by what I’m hearing his rival say about his Republican background. Have you done an article on that?” Well, no, but now we will. Here it is.
MOYERS: Did you find that Clark had ever registered as a Republican as some people have alleged?
JACKSON: No, he’s never registered as a Republican. Like many career military folks, he registers as an Independent. One of the odd things we found, he’s from Arkansas. I didn’t know this. Ninety-six percent of everybody in Arkansas who registers also registers as an Independent. Only one in 0.6 percent registers as a Republican.
MOYERS: You did come up with some fascinating excerpts of speeches that Wesley Clark had once made. Let’s show the viewers a couple of those excerpts.
CLARK: But if you look around the world, there’s a lot of work to be done. And I’m very glad we’ve got the great team in office, men like Colin Powell, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Paul O’Neil — people I know very well — our President George W. Bush. We need them there because we’ve got some tough challenges ahead in Europe.
[End video clip]
MOYERS: Here’s another one.
I tremendously admire, and I think we all should, the great work done by our commander-in-chief, our president, George Bush, and the men and women of the United States armed forces.
[End video clip]
MOYERS: Wouldn’t you like to be running the Republican campaign against Wesley Clark if he is, in the fall, the Democratic candidate? You just play those back and say, “Why does he want somebody other than George W. Bush?”
JACKSON: Well, I’m sure we’ll be seeing some of those clips and TV ads possibly. But we should point out that that first one was at a Republican fundraiser. He also attended a Democratic fundraiser about the same time. And it was four months before September 11th. Very early in Bush’s tenure. And the second one was right after the American forces had toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Wesley Clark wasn’t the only Democrat praising George Bush at that point.
MOYERS: Context, I think of context as Brooks Jackson middle name. Brooks Context— Brooks Context Jackson. That’s what there’s little time to do in politics isn’t there.
JACKSON: Especially in these 30-second ads. I mean, that’s the art form of politics, and it almost guarantees that there’s gonna be distortion and things out of context if all you see are the television ads run by the candidates and the parties.
MOYERS: You put an ad up on your Web site yesterday of Gephardt in Iowa coming out swinging against Dean. Let’s take a look at it.
NARRATOR: Did you know Howard dean called Medicare one of the worst federal programs ever? Did you know he supported the Republican plan to cut Medicare by 270 billion dollars?
GEPHARDT: I will be a president who will fight to protect Medicare and Social Security.
I’m Dick Gephardt, and that’s why I approved this message.
[End video clip]
MOYERS: So what did you find out about that ad?
JACKSON: Well, the quote that the Medicare is the worst federal program ever is out of context. If you read the whole quote and other things he said at the time it’s very clear what he’s talking about is the administration of Medicare. He’s not criticizing the fact that it gives benefits to seniors, he called it a bureaucratic disaster. If all you saw was that ad you get a completely different impression.
MOYERS: Now a lot of people saw that ad in Iowa but how many people are gonna ever catch up with the context?
JACKSON: It’s absolutely true, these ads are repeated over and over and over again. And journalistic attempts to put them in context maybe get run once.
MOYERS: Howard Dean did catch your attention with this statement.
DEAN: But the fact is, since Saddam Hussein has been caught, we’ve lost 23 additional troops; we now have, for the first time, American fighter jets escorting commercial airliners through American airspace.
[End video clip]
JACKSON: Well, it’s not the first time that American fighters have been escorting airliners through American air space. We checked and since September 11th I think there have been hundreds and hundreds, I think I’m remembering right, 1,600 instances of jets being scrambled. So Dean was just wrong to say it’s the first time.
MOYERS: Are you holding these guys to an impossible standard of factuality?
JACKSON: Well, they probably think so and maybe we are. I mean, if they make a factual mistake we’re— and we can prove it we’re gonna put it up on our Web site. And we’ll let voters decide whether it’s close enough or mere puffery or a mere mistake or an intentional falsehood.
MOYERS: The pressures of a campaign really are intense, aren’t they?
JACKSON: They sure are. And I sometimes get the impression that the candidates are putting pressure on their senior staff who are putting pressure on the junior staff to come up with the best zingers they can. And by the time they come up with some factoid or statistic that has a footnote or a qualification that makes it accurate by the time it comes out of the candidate’s mouth all the footnotes are gone, all the context is gone and it’s just totally wrong. I think the pressure cooker of the campaign does create stuff like this.
MOYERS: Are you being hard on Democrats?
JACKSON: Right now I’ll be honest there’s more articles there criticizing Democrats than there are criticizing Republicans. But that’s totally a product of the fact that we’re in a very hot Democratic contest for the Presidential nomination. We’ve got Democrats calling other Democrats liars and when we’ve got to sort some of this stuff out. That will change during the general election I promise you.
MOYERS: You got up and running about six weeks ago, right. Back in December. At that time you took a look at a very tough ad that the Republicans were running implying that Democrats were something close to traitors. And you cried foul. Here’s that ad.
PRESIDENT BUSH: It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.
Our war against terror is a contest of will in which perseverance is power.
[End video clip]
MOYERS: What did you find out about that?
JACKSON: That graphic saying that some our attacking the President for attacking the terrorists and that phrase turns red just so you don’t miss it. We asked the RNC, Republican National Committee to document that, who are you talking about, who’s attacking the President for attacking the terrorists, Osama bin Laden?
Well, they’re talking about Democratic Presidential candidates. And they supplied a whole list of quotes. But not one of them attacked the President for attacking the terrorists. They attacked him for not getting enough international support before going into Iraq, for suggesting that we ought to seal ourselves up with duck tape in the event of a chemical attack.
And what we said was that they just couldn’t document their claim. And here are the ways they tried and fell short.
MOYERS: This ad was done by the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org.
NARRATOR: Seniors who thought the Bush prescription drug bill would really help them are in for a big surprise because, instead of standing up for seniors, George Bush sided with the drug companies who have given him huge contributions.
So the bill forbids Medicare from negotiating lower prescription drug prices, forbids it, and prevents getting lower priced prescriptions from Canada.
George Bush, he’s pulling the rug out from under Medicare.
[End video clip]
MOYERS: What about it?
JACKSON: Well, to show George Bush physically beating up on middle class senior citizens I thought was a little over the top. What we did was to go in and state for one thing that most seniors, the vast majority of them are gonna be financially better off under the very prescription drug benefit that MoveOn.org is complaining about here. It’s true it doesn’t have the price controls some Democrats wanted, many Democrats wanted.
Also they’re saying that Bush is responding to big time contributors from the pharmaceutical industry, Bush has gotten more than Democrats from the pharmaceutical industry. It amounts to way less than one percent of his total campaign contributions over the last two campaigns. And we lay out how much he’s gotten and put that in context as well.
MOYERS: The fact of the matter is that both political parties are they not are deeply indebted to special interests that contribute money to get what they want from government no matter who wins.
JACKSON: Well, that’s the campaign finance system we have. It takes tons of money to run for office.
MOYERS: And to buy these ads.
JACKSON: And to buy these ads. One effect I’ve seen of the McCain-Feingold law which is now in effect and has been upheld by the court and is being worked out in it’s particulars. There’s an obscure provision in it that I didn’t notice when it went through that requires candidates when they run ads to say I approve this message.
And it is amazing how much positive advertising we’re seeing from candidates. That Gephardt ad we saw earlier was absolutely the toughest ad that we’ve seen so far. The real tough stuff is coming from independent groups who don’t have these restrictions on them and can still take money from corporations directly from labor unions et cetera.
MOYERS: So once a candidate has to put his approval directly on the ad I approve of this message they clean up their act a little bit.
JACKSON: So far that seems to be happening. One of the rare instances of a reform having an intended effect. Go figure.
MOYERS: What’s gonna happen if this avalanche of money keeps coming down on the American political system?
JACKSON: I don’t know. I have no crystal ball about that. I think part of the problem is that the way it gets spent, especially in Presidential campaigns, is not so much in House races or lower level races. But it so much of it gets spent on television advertising which forces candidates to cram their message into a 30-second spot. And nuance is lost.
Footnotes are lost. Context is lost. It provides this strong incentive, frankly, to twist the facts. We’re trying to provide a little bit of an anecdote to that. And I hope we have some effect.
MOYERS: Once more, the Web site is?
MOYERS: Thanks, Brooks Jackson. We hope you’ll join us again on NOW.
JACKSON: I’d love to, Bill. Thank you.
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BRANCACCIO: In the sacred annals of Washington lore ’tis written that when God looked out upon the heavens and the Earth and pronounced good all that God had made, Helen Thomas had to check it out for herself. So it came to pass that she was the first reporter to find the worm in the apple and the snake in the grass. Apocryphal, of course.
Nonetheless, many consider Helen Thomas the mother of tough questions, the goddess of healthy skepticism, the queen of the raised eyebrow.
She’s been asking tough questions at White House press conferences for four decades, and every President in my lifetime and every press secretary, including our man Bill Moyers, has the scars to prove it.
Helen Thomas began her Presidential beat with John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, and she’s had a front row seat to history ever since.
As dean of the press corps, Helen Thomas would always be called on to ask the first question.
After she retired from UPI four years ago Hearst Newspapers offered her a job as a columnist. Her latest book is called THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, MR. PRESIDENT.
From his first news conference, President Bush seemed less than thrilled by Thomas’s questions.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes, ma’am. You’re next.
THOMAS: Why do you refuse to respect the wall between church and state, and you know that the mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter?
BRANCACCIO: And it was at a news conference a week before the outbreak of war in Iraq that the President declined to signal her to ask the first question.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Ron Fournier.
BRANCACCIO: In fact, she didn’t get the chance to ask any questions at all.
Her stature at these news conferences has reached the point that it has entered pop culture. Her treatment by the current White House was picked up by the gang at Saturday Night Live.
DRATCH AS THOMAS: Mr. President, you have not dealt with the main issue. You have yet to speak on the fact that half of the people of this country do not want this war – ohhh. [Laughter, Helen gets dart thrown at her neck.]
THOMAS: Oh lord!
BRANCACCIO: And the Secret Serviceman puts away his blow dart. Comedian Rachel Dratch does no justice to your—
THOMAS: Oh, no, no.
BRANCACCIO: — person.
THOMAS: She’s very good.
BRANCACCIO: But do you ever feel that way, that almost they’d like to chloroform you or shoot a blow dart at you?
THOMAS: Oh, sure. Sure. If you don’t feel that way you haven’t done your job.
BRANCACCIO: Do you see yourself somehow as an outsider after all these years? Just that— the sign of it is the tough questions you like to ask is the sign of an outsider, who doesn’t care that much about being accepted by the group.
THOMAS: I’m a reporter. And I’m trying to find out what’s going on. So, I don’t put myself in those categories.
BRANCACCIO: What’s that legend about Fidel Castro and Helen Thomas. How does that go?
THOMAS: Well, Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today had an interview with Fidel Castro a couple of years ago. And he asked Castro, “Now, what’s the difference between your democracy and ours?” And Castro said, “I don’t have to answer questions from Helen Thomas.” Which I considered the height of flattery.
BRANCACCIO: Probably a good tonic, though. Good for the soul, maybe?
THOMAS: All dictators should be questioned.
BRANCACCIO: By Helen Thomas?
THOMAS: By everyone.
BRANCACCIO: Sometimes it’s argued that Americans don’t really think that reporters are acting in the public interest anymore, that they’re more self serving.
THOMAS: I think reporters do act in the public interest when they are trying to inform the American people. Without an informed people — I’ll give you all my clichés — cannot have a democracy.
American people do not understand that we are the only forum in our society that can question a President. And if a President isn’t questioned, a President can be a king, a dictator.
BRANCACCIO: And there’s no consequence to asking very tough questions?
THOMAS: I am in the back row now.
BRANCACCIO: You’re in the back row.
THOMAS: Yes. And I’m not called on. I think that’s a consequence. But that’s alright.
BRANCACCIO: Well actually, let’s just take a look at that. Is that usual for you?
THOMAS: Not in other administrations.
BRANCACCIO: Why do you suppose you were put in the back row?
THOMAS: Because I challenge the President on very tough questions. And the first question I ever asked him when he came into the press room, first news conference, is, “Why don’t you respect the wall of separation of church and state?” And from then on, it was downhill.
BRANCACCIO: Have there been many press conferences where you’ve been — where you’ve not shown up in the lineup?
THOMAS: Well, but I’m persona non now but doesn’t matter. Just so good questions are asked. That’s the most important thing. He should be pinned down.
BRANCACCIO: Do you think the White House press corps in particular, this administration, but also over time, different administrations, is it really tough enough? I mean, there’s a long history of reporters covering Washington who start to take on the values of the people they’re covering. They use the same vocabulary. They think almost the same way.
BRANCACCIO: Pack journalism. Do you sometimes see that with your colleagues here?
THOMAS: I honestly think we’re all individuals. And I think we call came up in different ways and wanted to be there covering history every day. So I don’t share that kind of identification.
What I’ve seen is that 9-11 made us roll over and play dead. Everybody’s afraid to rock the boat. You’re un-American. Segues into a war, once again, you’re not supposed to, you know, jeopardize the troops, and so forth. So I think the press has been in a coma but they’re coming out of it.
BRANCACCIO: You feel that if you’re too tough during a time of war, you might be seen as, what, unpatriotic?
THOMAS: Read my mail.
BRANCACCIO: Oh, what do you get for mail?
THOMAS: “Why don’t you drop dead?”
BRANCACCIO: Oh dear.
THOMAS: That’s very tough. No. People get very angry because they think you’re not being patriotic.
BRANCACCIO: Certainly your opinions are not confined to your views on the Presidency. Let me try a few others on you.
BRANCACCIO: Government secrecy these days.
BRANCACCIO: Too much?
THOMAS: State of the art. What do you mean, too much? It’s always too much. The minute any President gets into the White House, they’re on the campaign trail, they always promise an open administration. Moment they get into the White House, the Iron Curtain comes down. And everything that I think belongs in the public domain becomes their private preserve. And they dole it out.
That is not, I mean, we should know what’s going on. Maybe not the top national security secrets. But we should know the thinking that’s involved in energy policy, which is totally secret. And everything else.
BRANCACCIO: You wouldn’t say this for each and every other administration?
THOMAS: Oh, yes. Every administration has been secretive. But they have it locked down. Everybody’s in lock step. You’re on board or you’re not. This is the way they operate. And it’s very effective.
BRANCACCIO: Have you had better relationships with some Presidents rather than others?
THOMAS: Well, they all hate us.
BRANCACCIO: They all can’t stand you?
THOMAS: No. I mean, no President since George Washington, I say, I wasn’t covering him. But I mean, there’s no reason they should like us. There we are, asking questions, baiting them in a way, they think. And, so it’s very understandable why we’re not loved. And we didn’t go into this business to be loved.
BRANCACCIO: Helen Thomas, this has been wonderful. Thank you for spending time with us on NOW.
THOMAS: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it, believe it or not.
MOYERS: As you heard Helen Thomas say a moment ago to David, every administration has been secretive and every President complains about reporters — but George W. Bush keeps them farther away and more under control than ever. That’s why the NEW YORKER’s lead article this week is entitled “Bush Beats the Press.” The report is the work of Ken Auletta, who for a decade or more now has been the magazine’s man on the media beat. The Columbia Journalism Review ranks him as the country’s premier media critic. Four of his eight books have been bestsellers, including THREE BLIND MICE, GREED AND GLORY ON WALL STREET, and WORLD WAR 3.0. In his new book BACKSTORY: INSIDE THE BUSINESS OF NEWS, Auletta flings himself into the murky twilight zone where the high ideals of journalism meets the real world of moguls whose thirst for profits is insatiable.
Welcome to NOW.
AULETTA: Thank you, Bill.
MOYERS: Helen Thomas asked tough questions of George Bush and got sent to the back of the room. And that’s where she is today in the press conferences. These people play hardball.
AULETTA: Oh, they’re tough. And they believe in punishing. They’re parental, actually.
AULETTA: Yeah, they’re parental. They basically… their attitude is that they could scare you and punish you. And, for instance, Dana Milbank of the WASHINGTON POST, someone whose pieces from the White House they don’t like. They froze him out for years. Didn’t call on him at briefings and press conferences.
MOYERS: You say they boasted to you of not returning reporters’ phone calls.
AULETTA: Oh, they say — they basically think that we have a job to do and talking to the press is not part of our job. At one point I interviewed Andy Card, the Chief of Staff. And he said, “You know, the press doesn’t check things the way they used to.”
And I said, “Well, how are they gonna check if you won’t return their phone calls?” And he said, “My job is not to leak.” But the equation he was making in his own mind, and this is a common equation in the Bush White House, is that talking to the press is equivalent to leaking.
MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson used to send us out to leak then excoriate us for leaking. Flagellate the people who — the reporters who carried the leak. And then have them for breakfast, lunch or dinner or take them to the ranch the next weekend. Is this different? Is this crowd playing a game like that?
AULETTA: I think this — I think they play the game more effectively than Johnson and other Presidents have. I mean, I think they are much more disciplined. And they don’t go out to Georgetown dinner parties. They are not— probably many of them won’t even stay in Washington. Their loyalty is to Bush. And Bush learned from his father to keep the press at bay.
So one thing that’s different is that they’re more disciplined and there’s fewer leaks. And the other thing that’s different, and this is really important, is that they view the press in a different way than Johnson and even Nixon did. The press is viewed as a special interest, not as representatives to the public interest.
MOYERS: What do you mean a special interest?
AULETTA: They see us as interested in gotcha and headlines and conflict, in getting our stories for the day. And not in, quote, as they call it, “the truth.” Or not as they might call it in printing their press releases. So they think that therefore, because the press is a special interest, we don’t rep… and we are made up of elitists from Eastern schools… that would don’t represent the public. And therefore they have less compulsion to talk to us.
MOYERS: I mean, aren’t they right to this extent that the media — I don’t like that word because it encompasses too much — but that media companies today are a special interest whose first concern is the bottom line?
AULETTA: Well, ratings and circulation and gotcha and infotainment. The Bush analysis of the press’s weakness is right on. And they understand something. They don’t say that the most operative — important press bias is a liberal press bias even though they believe that. They think that the most important press bias is a market bias. So they would never use that phrase ’cause it sounds —
MOYERS: A market bias?
AULETTA: Yeah, they think it’s about getting ratings and getting circulation and basically keeping their audience. And maximizing their profits. So the Bush take on what ails the press and the press bias is actually very similar to the liberal take on what ails the press.
MOYERS: Among the many interesting things you report in here is that this President, George W. Bush, has had far fewer press conferences than any President in modern history.
AULETTA: He’s held 11 in three years. And you contrast that, say, with Eisenhower who had 74 in the same period of time. Or Kennedy who had 64 in the same period of time. His father in the same period of time had 71. And Bill Clinton had 38. Even Richard Nixon, by the way, who was equally hostile, if not more so to the press, had 23 in the same period of time.
MOYERS: And compare that to the Prime Minister of Britain standing there week in and week out taking fiery, hostile, antagonistic questions from the opposition in the House of Commons.
AULETTA: Well, and it’s actually an extraordinary thing because the truth is we don’t have, unlike the House of Commons, we don’t have a parliamentary system. So the members of the Congress don’t get to question the President. The equivalent of it in our democracy is supposed to be the press questioning the President. But if you don’t allow that to happen and you don’t allow the follow-up questions to happen you’re losing something in that democracy. That essential check and balance function.
MOYERS: You called this White House “Fortress Bush.” Why?
AULETTA: Well, because they don’t return — In many cases, they don’t return phone calls and they’re proud not to. Because they don’t hold the kind of press conferences. Because they keep us at bay.
They are not Nixonian in the sense that Nixon broke the laws and blatantly lied about Watergate. But as I point out in my piece the press has some answering to do in fairness for why we didn’t do a more scrupulous job of pursuing weapons of mass destruction. And whether their claims were true or not.
MOYERS: Is that the press’s responsibility? Or is it —
AULETTA: Well, it is and it isn’t.
MOYERS: The lack of an opposition party?
AULETTA: Well, it certainly, I mean, that’s the press’s argument. When you ask reporters, “How come you did not do a more thorough job of reporting the claims made by this administration?” And I don’t think it’s the press’s job to take a position on whether they favor or don’t favor the policy in Iraq. But it is their job to get the facts right and to check assertions made by a President or an intelligence chief or defense chief.
They didn’t do that. They claim they didn’t do it because they didn’t have a Democratic opposition to go to. But the problem with that argument and why I think it’s wrong is it assumes that the press’s job is like covering a ping-pong match. You do the ping and the pong and the ping and the pong. Both sides you get a— but that’s not our sole job. Our job is also to try and assert and ascertain what is the truth? And we didn’t do that.
MOYERS: You call it Fortress Bush but you got extraordinary access. Now, I worked there and I know that Bob Woodward got extraordinary access and came out with a favorable book about Bush after 9/11, the White House after 9/11. I know that they only invite people in who may think will help get their message out. We did the same thing. What was the message they wanted you to carry to the country?
AULETTA: That the press is— it is a lot of pack journalism. That the press is adversarial. That the press is not thoughtful. That a lot of their questions are kind of pack. And the culture of the press is a conforming culture.
And, by the way, there’s a lot of merit to that point of view. But I also — I was interested also in how does the Bush Administration try and spin or control their message? And how do they operate with the press? And obviously they’re less pleased with that.
MOYERS: You say that they are in totally control of the news agenda.
AULETTA: Yeah, every administration, as you know better than I do, Bill, I mean, having worked and followed Washington more closely. Every administration is a battle between who’s gonna be on offense and who’s gonna be on defense. Everyday an administration meets and says, “What’s our offensive game plan? What’s the news we want to make today?”
The press is responding to headlines. They’re trying not to be placed — the administration’s trying not to be placed on defensive. This administration in three years has managed to play offense much more — probably much more than they should have played.
MOYERS: Yeah, I looked at this headline yesterday in the WASHINGTON POST. There’s President Bush after his — saying he’s gonna populate space sitting in front of what looks like Mission — it looks like he’s in charge of Mission Control. That’s a very effective photo opportunity.
AULETTA: Well, he’s very good at it. They’re really very good at it.
MOYERS: Is there a more fundamental scandal here that all of us is missing? Which is that here are all these people, hundreds of people accredited— thousands or more people accredited to cover the President who doesn’t want to be covered except on his terms. While the rest of government essentially is suffering for lack of attention.
Social Security, I think, has one reporter assigned by a major newspaper. That you can go right down the list of 19 agencies, according to a new study, that the press has just put off. THE FEDERAL REGISTER. We don’t ever read the FEDERAL REGISTER where it really records what government is doing, who’s winning, who’s losing.
AULETTA: Well, Bill, it goes back to a theme in my book, BACKSTORY, which is that one of the things that’s happened here is that with the conglomerization of the media, business people are now in charge of journalistic entities. And the business people, they are terrified of boring their viewers or readers.
And in their view, government is boring. And so we want more sizzle. We want more personality. We want more infotainment. We want more news you could use. And so a premium is placed on personality-driven journalism both at the White House and, by the way, at City Halls.
It used to be that the NEW YORK TIMES had reporters in all the agencies covering the city. And now they’re at City Hall. And actually I toyed with the idea of doing— and did some reporting on this. Is there an argument to move the White House press corps out of the White House? Would it force them to cover government more?
MOYERS: It seems to me now that news is essentially what government tells us it is.
AULETTA: Well, I think that’s a little simple. I mean, there are a lot of reporters at the White House who wake up and actually are better informed than you would imagine who would ask good questions and want to pursue the news. But they get trapped by all the announcements the White House are putting out, by breaking news.
I mean, if you’re doing television, if you’re doing cable television, John King’s a wonderful reporter on CNN. John King told me he gets up 20 times a day to do updates. And he says, “I don’t have any time to report.” And it’s even hard when you don’t get calls returned. So there’s an argument to get them back out of the White House and get them into covering government. Then the problem becomes that their bosses, including their editors who are reflecting their bosses, are terrified they’re gonna bore the viewer or reader.
MOYERS: When you got inside Fortress Bush did you see the President?
AULETTA: I did.
I didn’t get to interview him. What happened was I spent a day going— attending their meetings, the press meetings. They let me embed myself in the press operation and attend all their meetings from seven a.m. on.
And the President had an interview with the SUN, Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper in England. Soft questions, I might add. They let me sit in the Oval Office for that interview and take notes. It was on the record.
And then at the end of the press — at this interview he came over to me and we were talking. We were talking about someone we both know in common, Tommy Bernstein, who is an activist on Human Rights. And I said, you know, your friend Tommy Bernstein, gets a lot of heat in New York for supporting you from his Democratic friends. And he said, “Bernie’s a good guy.” He has a nickname for everybody. So Bernie—
MOYERS: The President has a nickname for every —
AULETTA: Yeah. And then the President turned to me and said, “You know, no President has ever done for human rights than I have.” And I looked at him, I mean, I hope my mouth didn’t drop. But I’m thinking Woodrow Wilson. I mean, Jimmy Carter. And I quote that. I use that quote in the piece.
MOYERS: I highly recommend to my viewers they read the current issue of the NEW YORKER and the book BACKSTORY: INSIDE THE BUSINESS OF NEWS by Ken Auletta. Thank you for being with us.
AULETTA: My pleasure, Bill.
BRANCACCIO: Let’s finish off our extended riff tonight on politics and the media with a news forecast. I will go out on a limb to foretell two big stories of the coming week. They are: the Iowa caucuses and the President’s State of the Union Address.
Of course, I can’t tell you who’ll win in Iowa and can only guess what the President will highlight in the speech. But this I guarantee: the rest of the media will be all over those stories once they happen.
What we can offer you in the meantime is a hybrid of those two stories — a kind of Iowa-meets-State of the Union.
Iowa governor Tom Vilsack gave his “Condition of the State” address on Tuesday. In it, you can hear to what extent a state that has such an outsized influence on national politics reflects the country as a whole.
That state’s budget crunch certainly sounds familiar. The Iowa Democrat spoke of the difficult funding choices presented by a sluggish economy, a jobless recovery, and what he called “zealous tax reductions.”
Then there’s the struggle find enough money for Iowa schools that may not come as much of a shock to parents, teachers and administrators in other hard-pressed districts around the land. The governor told the story of one parent, Desira Johnson, who discovered her child’s class was forced to learn from a 20-year-old textbook that still had the Soviet Union up and running.
The politics of funding in Iowa also break along familiar lines. Vilsack is a Democrat who wants to raise cash by closing what he sees as corporate tax loopholes and hiking the cigarette tax by 60 cents a pack. Reaction from Republicans in the Des Moines state house was arctic.
But Iowa as a model of America has its limits. In his speech, the governor was able to boast that 90 percent of all Iowans and 94 percent of all Iowa children have what he called “health care security.”
That’s a stunning achievement given some news that pretty much got buried this week.
After three years of study, a non-partisan National Academy of Sciences panel is calling for universal health coverage by the year 2010. 43 million American have no coverage. But here’s the showstopper: the report says about 18-thousand people die every year in America because they have no health insurance.
In this respect that is a bleak State of the Union—maybe that’s why we are going to Mars!
This transcript was entered on April 22, 2015.