While reporting White House press secretary Tony Snow's defense of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) need for access to a plane that can fly nonstop to her district, numerous media outlets -- including CBS, CNN, National Public Radio (NPR), Fox News, and The New York Times -- failed to note that Snow's defense came the same day the Republican National Committee (RNC) issued a press release attacking Pelosi. As Media Matters for America has noted, the Bush administration has a pattern of purporting to take the high road during controversies while allowing surrogates to smear the opposition.
On February 8, Snow called the Republican-led controversy a "silly story" that has "been unfair to the Speaker." Almost simultaneously, as Media Matters noted, the RNC issued a press release attacking Pelosi. Under the banner "Pelosi Power Trip," the press release accused " 'Non-Stop' Nancy" of "want[ing] [a] non-stop military aircraft for herself, staff, family, and other members in California Delegation"; of requesting a plane that "includes [a] private bed, entertainment center, and costs $22,000 per hour to operate"; and of "go[ing] beyond what prior Speakers requested." The RNC is chaired by Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), who was reportedly recruited by Bush to fill the position.
Snow was pressed about the RNC's actions during his February 8 press conference, and he reiterated the White House's "position":
SNOW: [A]s speaker of the House, she is entitled to military transport, and that the arrangements, the proper arrangements are being made between the sergeant of arms office in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Department of Defense. We think it's appropriate, and so, again, I think this is much ado about not a whole lot. It is important for the speaker to have this kind of protection and travel. It was certainly appropriate for Speaker Hastert. So we trust that all sides will get this worked out.
When asked if "the RNC [is] now beyond the president's purview? If you think it's a silly story, is there -- they're able to just operate if they want to attack like that on their own?" Snow replied: "Well, apparently they did this time." When pressed further if there was "no message coordination between you guys and the RNC," Snow stated: "[T]here is from time to time, yes. But in this particular case, we've got a clear view."
Snow also noted that "the president's position is that Speaker Pelosi, because of an agreement that was made, I think wisely, of necessity after September 11th, has access to U.S. Department of Defense transportation, under suitable rules and guidelines, and that is going to be negotiated between DOD and the sergeant at arms, and that's as it should be." Snow further explained that, regarding the types of planes available and the distances in which said planes can travel: "You're talking about a limited fleet. The jet that Speaker Hastert used probably gets you about halfway across the country. They got G-3s and G-5s that can get you all the way."
Yet, in reporting on Snow's comments regarding Pelosi's access to a government plane, numerous media outlets failed to note that Snow's defense of Pelosi came as the RNC was orchestrating attacks against her. For instance:
- On the February 8 edition of the CBS Evening News, CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reported House Republicans' objections surrounding the issue and noted only that "the White House ... isn't anxious to jump on Pelosi's case about the plane." Attkisson did not report the questions about "message coordination" or Snow's response to them.
- Similarly, on the February 8 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, CNN correspondent Kitty Pilgrim reported that "White House spokesman Tony Snow defended" Pelosi's "right to military transport as speaker of the House," but followed up by saying only that Republicans "on the House floor raised voices and passions" over the issue.
- Also on CNN, during the 7 p.m. ET hour of The Situation Room on February 8, CNN congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel reported that "[e]ven the White House seemed to come to her defense," aired Snow's defense, and did not note the RNC's nearly simultaneous attack.
- During the February 8 edition of NPR's All Things Considered, NPR Capitol Hill correspondent Andrea Seabrook noted that "Pelosi has another ally in this: President Bush. She says he's repeatedly told her she needs extra security, and today, White House press secretary Tony Snow called this whole story silly and unfair to the speaker." Seabrook did not mention the RNC press release.
- On the February 8 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, both guest host Chris Wallace and Fox News correspondent Steve Centanni noted Snow's defense of Pelosi but did not mention the RNC's attack in their reporting. Centanni reported simply: "She has support from the White House, even though the Defense Department says there are no promises of nonstop, coast-to-coast service. Press secretary Tony Snow suggests Pelosi is not making any extravagant demands."
- A February 9 New York Times article titled "Speaker's Plane Becomes a Point of Criticism" reported on House Republicans' attacks and added only:
The White House weighed in, as well. 'This is a silly story,' its spokesman, Tony Snow, said.
Mr. Snow said that the Republican criticism was unfair and that the Bush administration essentially sided with Ms. Pelosi.
- A February 9 CNN.com article, "House security chief: Pelosi didn't ask for plane; I did," reported that the "White House also stood behind Pelosi," but did not mention the RNC.
Media Matters also noted that the Associated Press and the San Francisco Chronicle ignored the RNC's press release attacking Pelosi while reporting Snow's defense on February 8. A later version of the AP article -- updated after the Media Matters item written but before the item was posted -- noted that Snow's defense of Pelosi stood in contrast to the RNC's attack. The Chronicle also noted the disconnect in a different article by the same reporter, which was published in the paper's February 9 edition. The Chronicle article reported that while "Snow, too, brushed aside the claims made by the leaders of the president's party in the House ... [t]he Republican National Committee issued a statement attacking the speaker."
By contrast, as Media Matters documented, CNN Political Ticker producer Alexander Mooney noted the disconnect between the White House and the RNC in a February 8 CNN.com post, as did Time magazine national political correspondent Karen Tumulty in a February 8 post on Time's Swampland weblog. The Los Angeles Times further noted on February 9: "While the presidential spokesman defended Pelosi's right to military security, the Republican National Committee -- usually a White House echo chamber -- was busy beating her up with blast e-mails about 'Nancy's flight of fancy.' "
Media Matters previously identified the Bush administration's pattern -- largely ignored by the media -- of purporting to take the high road during controversies while surrogates smear political targets. Media Matters has cited numerous examples:
- In the days after Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot his 78-year-old hunting partner on February 11, 2006, friends of Cheney's took to the airwaves and claimed that Cheney's victim was to blame for not following proper hunting protocol. Days later, in his first public statements regarding the incident, Cheney stated, "[I]t was not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."
- In November 2005, after Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA), a decorated Vietnam veteran, called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, former White House press secretary Scott McClellan attacked the lawmaker during a press briefing, and congressional Republicans quickly followed suit. But on November 20, 2005, when Bush addressed the controversy for the first time by calling Murtha "a fine man, a good man" who made the "decision to call for an immediate withdrawal of our troops ... in a careful and thoughtful way." In a speech the following day, Cheney followed Bush's lead and described Murtha as "a good man, a Marine, a patriot."
- In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, Bush administration officials and Republican surrogates attempted to deflect blame for the botched response onto state and local authorities. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, for example, repeatedly employed false or misleading claims to shift responsibility away from the federal government, as Media Matters repeatedly noted. Meanwhile, President Bush repeatedly avoided answering questions regarding accountability for the Katrina response. Finally, at a September 13, 2005, press conference, Bush accepted blame for the government's handing of the disaster. He said, "[T]o the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."
In their coverage of these comments, news outlets regularly depict Bush and Cheney as taking the high road, while failing to point out that they nonetheless benefit from attacks and smears by their surrogates. In the case of Pelosi, Snow defended Pelosi -- with some in the media, such as Attkisson, reporting that he was doing so to maintain civility with Pelosi in advance of "a major confrontation with the House over Iraq next week" -- while the RNC attacked Pelosi. Subsequently, congressional Republicans criticized Pelosi on the House floor, and the media continued to treat the GOP-generated story as news.
From the February 8 edition of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric:
ATTKISSON: The White House, already bracing for a major confrontation with the House over Iraq next week, isn't anxious to jump on Pelosi's case about the plane.
SNOW: I don't believe she's asking to be sent on the, you know, on the space shuttle.
[end video clip]
ATTKISSON: Pelosi today suggested sexism may play a role in all of this, that as the first woman speaker, she wants no less opportunity than the men have had. The Pentagon says that's exactly what she'll get, the same small jet, Katie.
COURIC: Sharyl Attkisson reporting from Capitol Hill tonight.
From the February 8 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:
PILGRIM: What Mrs. Pelosi's staff admits to is asking the DOD for a plane that could fly nonstop to San Francisco. The DOD letter in response doesn't reveal whether she indeed asked for a C-32, the same plane as Vice President Dick Cheney's Air Force Two, a plane that carries 45 people. The DOD letter only says they will provide a plane subject to availability and not always guaranteed.
"Aircraft assigned to these missions will accommodate between seven and not more than 10 passengers. Your family will be required to provide reimbursement to the Treasury."
White House spokesman Tony Snow defended her right to military transport as speaker of the House.
SNOW: I don't believe she's asking to be sent on the, you know, on the space shuttle.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would you like her to be put on the space shuttle, Tony?
PILGRIM: But the debate on the House floor raised voices and passions.
From the 7 p.m. ET hour of the February 8 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
KOPPEL: But Pelosi is insisting she fly nonstop. And in a statement, the top House law-enforcement officer said he recommended it due to the post-9-11 threat environment.
Even the White House seemed to come to her defense.
SNOW: It is important for the speaker to have this kind of protection and travel. It was certainly appropriate for Speaker Hastert.
KOPPEL: But in a letter to Pelosi on Wednesday, the Pentagon indicated the offer wasn't open-ended. "While every effort will always be made to provide nonstop shuttle support, such support is subject to aircraft type and availability and therefore may not always be guaranteed."
From the February 8 edition of National Public Radio's All Things Considered:
SEABROOK: Pelosi has another ally in this: President Bush. She says he's repeatedly told her she needs extra security, and today, White House press secretary Tony Snow called this whole story silly and unfair to the speaker.
SNOW [audio clip]: I think this is much ado about not a whole lot. It is important for the speaker to have this kind of protection in travel. It was certainly appropriate for Speaker Hastert. And so we trust that all sides will get this worked out.
SEABROOK: In the end, the Pentagon told the speaker's office that it can't guarantee a larger plane will always be available, so Pelosi says she'll fly commercially nonstop with her security detail. And there you have it, the speaker's first full-blown, all-out Washington kerfuffle.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
From the February 8 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
WALLACE: Welcome to Washington. I'm Chris Wallace, in for Brit Hume. The White House calls it a silly story, but the House of Representatives is taking it seriously. The debate over what kind of military airplane House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to use and what she's entitled to. Correspondent Steve Centanni takes us along for the bumpy ride.
CENTANNI: She has support from the White House, even though the Defense Department says there are no promises of nonstop, coast-to-coast service. Press secretary Tony Snow suggests Pelosi is not making any extravagant demands.
SNOW: I'm not aware that this is a primary concern at this point. I don't believe she's asking to be sent on the, you know, on the space shuttle.
CENTANNI: But Pelosi is pulling no punches, accusing her critics of trying to change the subject.