Back in September, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams said a long period of reticence by news organizations – which he dubbed “the 9/11 syndrome” – ended with Hurricane Katrina.
Maybe he was right. Because it seems like the White House press corps has gotten more feisty lately.
The most recent example of this came on Wednesday, when the press corps asked Press Secretary Scott McClellan why it was okay for President Bush to comment on Travis County (TX) District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s ongoing investigation into alleged wrongdoing by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), but not about Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s ongoing investigation into the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity.
Rather than simply accept empty Bush Administration spin, the press corps pressed McClellan and stated the obvious. They had caught the administration in a dreaded “flip-flop,” and they weren’t going to accept McClellan’s lame defense.
From the press briefing:
Q Scott, the president told Brit Hume that he thought that Tom DeLay is not guilty, even though the prosecution is obviously ongoing. What does the president feel about Scooter Libby? Does he feel that Mr. Libby —
McCLELLAN: A couple of things. First of all, the president was asked a question and he responded to that question in the interview yesterday, and made very clear what his views were. We don’t typically tend to get into discussing legal matters of that nature, but in this instance, the president chose to respond to it. Our policy regarding the Fitzgerald investigation and ongoing legal proceeding is well-known and it remains unchanged. And so I’m just not going to have anything further to say. But we’ve had a policy in place for a long time regarding the Fitzgerald investigation.
Q Why would that not apply to the same type of prosecution involving Congressman DeLay?
McCLELLAN: I just told you we had a policy in place regarding this investigation, and you’ve heard me say before that we’re not going to talk about it further while it’s ongoing.
Q Well, if it’s prejudging the Fitzgerald investigation, isn’t it prejudging the Texas investigation with regard to Congressman DeLay?
McCLELLAN: Again, I think I’ve answered your question.
Q Are you saying the policy doesn’t apply?
Q Can I follow up on that? Is the president at all concerned that his opinion on this being expressed publicly could influence a potential jury pool, could influence public opinion on this in an improper way?
McCLELLAN: I think that in this instance he was just responding to a question that was asked about Congressman DeLay, about Leader DeLay, and in terms of the issue that Peter brings up, I think that we’ve had a policy in place, going back to 2003, and that’s a White House policy.
Q But that policy has been based in part, in the leak investigation and other things, on the idea that it is simply wrong for a president to prejudge a criminal matter, particularly when it’s under indictment or trial stage. Why would he —
McCLELLAN: And that’s one — this is an ongoing investigation regarding possible administration officials. So I think there are some differences here.
Q There are lots of times when you don’t comment on any sort of legal —
McCLELLAN: There are also legal matters that we have commented on, as well. And certainly there are legal matters when it goes to Saddam Hussein.
Q So the president is inconsistent?
McCLELLAN: No, David, we put a policy in place regarding this investigation —
Q But it’s hypocritical. You have a policy for some investigations and not others, when it’s a political ally who you need to get work done?
McCLELLAN: Call it presidential prerogative; he responded to that question. But the White House established a policy —
Q Doesn’t it raise questions about his credibility that he’s going to weigh in on some matters and not others, and we’re just supposed to sit back and wait for him to decide what he wants to comment on and influence?
McCLELLAN: Congressman DeLay’s matter is an ongoing legal proceeding —
Q As is the Fitzgerald investigation —
McCLELLAN: The Fitzgerald investigation is —
Q — As you’ve told us ad nauseam from the podium.
McCLELLAN: It’s an ongoing investigation, as well.
Q How can you not — how can you say there’s differences between the two, and we’re supposed to buy that? There’s no differences. The President decided to weigh in on one, and not the other.
McCLELLAN: There are differences.
Q And the public is supposed to accept the fact that he’s got no comment on the conduct of senior officials of the White House, but when it’s a political ally over on the Hill who’s got to help him get work done, then he’s happy to try to influence that legal process.
McCLELLAN: No, not at all. Not at all. You can get all dramatic about it, but you know what our policy is. … I think the American people understand.
Q No, they don’t. And the only thing that’s dramatic is the inconsistency of the policy and you trying to defend it.
McCLELLAN: No, the policy has been in place since 2003.
Ironically, the “9/11 syndrome” began to end not after Katrina, but rather in July, when McClellan changed the rules on commenting on Fitzgerald’s investigation. At that point, the press corps battered McClellan with a whopping 33 questions, challenging contradictions and preventing him from falling back on empty Bush Administration spin.
The July episode was the first of several fights. In September, for example, NBC’s David Gregory battled with McClellan over whether President Bush still had confidence in the increasingly embarrassing FEMA Director Michael Brown. And the corps didn’t back down in October when McClellan suggested that US troops in Tikrit had not been coached, even after video evidence had appeared showing they were.
Yes, the press corps still lets McClellan spin tales unchecked. Just in the last few days, JABBS has noted times when the press corps failed to counter McClellan’s fake math on US support for the Bush Administration’s “Plan for Victory” in Iraq. And it didn’t notice when McClellan mispresented a Bush statement, turning it into a personal attack against war critics.
But even though the press corps can be unprepared to deal with spin – and other times, doesn’t seem to pay attention to significant details when listening to McClellan’s spin – there are signs that the “9/11 syndrome” is ending. And that can only be good news.
This item first appeared at Journalists Against Bush’s B.S.