Criticizing Obama, WSJ editorial falsely suggested Bush didn't use a preselected list of reporters to call on at press conferences

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

A Wall Street Journal editorial falsely suggested that, unlike President Obama, former President Bush never used "a list of reporters preselected to ask questions" when deciding who to call on at presidential press conferences. In fact, Bush also used such a list, as former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters in a March 2003 press briefing.

A February 11 Wall Street Journal editorial falsely suggested that, unlike President Obama, former President Bush never used "a list of reporters preselected to ask questions" when deciding who would be called on at presidential press conferences. In the editorial, the Journal wrote that Obama, at his February 9 press conference, used such a list, and that his staff "had decided in advance who would be allowed to question the President and who was left out." It later stated, "We doubt that President Bush, who was notorious for being parsimonious with follow-ups, would have gotten away with prescreening his interlocutors." In fact, Bush also used such a list, as then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters in a March 7, 2003, press briefing.

Further, during the February 9 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Fleischer was asked by host Bill O'Reilly if "George Bush came in ... with a list of guys he was going to call on." Fleischer responded, "Yeah, I used to prepare it for him. I would give him a grid, show him where every reporter is seated. And there are some reporters, you know, in that briefing room, as you can imagine, Bill, you get a lot of dot-coms and other oddballs who come in there who aren't really mainstream." Fleischer added: "And I used to put them all out in one section. I would call it Siberia. And I told the president, 'Don't call on Siberia. Just stay right here and call on these people on the grid in front of you.' "

From the March 7, 2003, White House press briefing, the day after Bush held a primetime presidential press conference:

Q Last night, after the fifth time has looked down at an apparent list of reporters, [Bush] smiled and he said, "This is scripted."

MR. FLEISCHER: Are you going to complain he didn't call on you?

Q No, no, no. No, no. Which surely suggests that he did not write that script which gave two questions to one network, two questions to one wire service, and one to other vague and wealthy media -- but left all the rest, including Helen Thomas, ruled out in advance of any chance to ask, and left to serve only as window dressing.

And my question is, since you are always fair, Ari, in recognizing all of us, who was it that wrote that script that the President confessed to? Was it Karl Rove or Karen or who?

MR. FLEISCHER: It was me who gave the President a suggestion on the reporters to call. And the President called on all reporters, the President did not call on any columnists.

[...]

Q Two quick questions. First of all, without regard to who the President called on last night, what's the reason for working from a prepared list, as opposed to doing it in a more spontaneous --

MR. FLEISCHER: Because, as you know, from many of the people who have covered the President's pool sprays, this is nothing new to you. The President just thinks it is actually a more orderly news conference, rather than to have the usual cacophony of everybody screaming, where the person who gets called on is the person who has the loudest voice. I thought it was actually a very -- it was a long news conference, it was a solid news conference. Reporters were called from all over the place.

Many people rushed out and bought new --

Q Nobody from --

Q No, Ari.

MR. FLEISCHER: Many different outlets. The President noted many people went out and bought new shoes. The President was pleased to have done it.

Q Is that what I did wrong? (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: That's a personal question, Ken.

From the February 9 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

O'REILLY: All right. Now, the press, in general -- and the press corps follows this at the White House -- are notorious front-runners.

FLEISCHER: Yeah.

O'REILLY: That if you -- you're doing OK, and your approval rating is high -- you saw that after 9-11 --

FLEISCHER: Yeah.

O'REILLY: -- that President Bush was not challenged very much in his anti-terror strategies, the press corps -- and they were criticized for it later for being lap dogs and this and that.

I think we're in that stage now. But I do think that Barack Obama is -- look, he had those guys listed, written down, who he was going to call. He had them written.

FLEISCHER: Yup.

O'REILLY: Now, in other press conferences, they just look around, and they go, "Oh, right, right, right." And they go, "This one, that one, this one." Correct?

FLEISCHER: Well, George Bush never did that, and I don't know how Bill Clinton did it, but it's a bad idea to reward the guy with the loudest voice.

O'REILLY: OK. So --

FLEISCHER: Writing it down gives the president more control.

O'REILLY: So George Bush came in with a -- with a list of guys he was going to call on?

FLEISCHER: Yeah, I used to prepare it for him. I would give him a grid, show him where every reporter is seated. And there are some reporters, you know, in that briefing room, as you can imagine, Bill, you get a lot of dot-coms and other oddballs who come in there who aren't really mainstream.

O'REILLY: Like the Huffington Post -- gets called on.

FLEISCHER: And I used to put them all out in one section. I would call it Siberia. And I told the president, "Don't call on Siberia. Just stay right here and call on these people on the grid in front of you."

O'REILLY: All right. Ari, we appreciate it very much. Thank you for the inside baseball.

From the Wall Street Journal editorial titled "Obama's Press List":

About half-way through President Obama's press conference Monday night, he had an unscripted question of his own. "All, Chuck Todd," the President said, referring to NBC's White House correspondent. "Where's Chuck?" He had the same strange question about Fox News's Major Garrett: "Where's Major?"

The problem wasn't the lighting in the East Room. The President was running down a list of reporters preselected to ask questions. The White House had decided in advance who would be allowed to question the President and who was left out.

Presidents are free to conduct press conferences however they like, but the decision to preselect questioners is an odd one, especially for a White House famously pledged to openness. We doubt that President Bush, who was notorious for being parsimonious with follow-ups, would have gotten away with prescreening his interlocutors. Mr. Obama can more than handle his own, so our guess is that this is an attempt to discipline reporters who aren't White House favorites.

Few accounts of Monday night's event even mentioned the curious fact that the White House had picked its speakers in advance. We hope that omission wasn't out of fear of being left off the list the next time.

Posted In
Government, The Presidency & White House
Network/Outlet
Wall Street Journal
Stories/Interests
Propaganda/Noise Machine
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