The White House Press Corps
"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda." (Applause.)
-President Bush speaking at a social security forum in New York on May 24,2005.
When activists opened the Crawford Peace House, they became a major resource for the White House Press corps. On many occasions, reporters from major outlets, including Reuters and the Associated Press, asked members of the Peace House to respond to Bush's press conferences. Peace House residents like to say, "For $800 a month, we'd get to answer the most powerful man in the world."
Kay Lucas, an activist who maintains the house, says the press doesn't come around as much as it used to. "The press corps has gotten more and more intimidated. I can't believe they're as ignorant as they pretend to be. They can't be," she says. "A while ago, a woman interviewed me and asked if I was afraid of Saddam. I said no. She said, you're not? No, I don't think he has weapons. If he had them, he would have done something by now because his whole country is going to pieces. She couldn't believe it. I'm thinking to myself, how can you be a journalist of your caliber and act like I should be afraid when you of all people oughta know that he has no weapons. It was unbelievable, but this is what we're dealing with."
Paul McDaniel, a Vietnam Vet and member of Waco's Friends of Peace group, has had similar experiences with the White House press corps at the Peace House. I met up with Paul at a cafe in Waco to discuss his experiences over the past few years. Here are excerpts from that interview:
You've had many conversations with the White House press corps since you opened the Peace House in March of 2003.
Oh yes, we've tried to woo the international press and the White House press, although the White House press is an exclusive bunch. We've invited them over to the Peace House, but they're schmoozed so much by the president, our dishes of stir fry and lentils don't sound too appealing when they're being offered lobster and caviar. So we said to a few of the major networks that were willing to talk to us, don't you feel a little bit bought? And they said, well, it's our corporation, it's not us. When we ask them what they really think about something personally, they're all afraid to say, we're in favor of this or we don't agree with that. We've had a few be very candid with us. One high-profiled female journalist said, I can't write this. I wish I could, but this will not fly. I know what my editors will accept and I can't push the envelope this far. When we express our opinions or talk about the facts about WMDs or other issues relating to the war, they say, we've heard that. Other people must also feel that way. Our response was, well, are you going to write about it? No, I think we already ran a story about that on the back page. So basically, if it doesn't fit with their editorial goals, they're not going to chase it down. It's hard to find investigate reporters anymore.
When you set up shop, the AP and Reuters often asked you to counter Bush's remarks.
We do get that from time to time because they were looking for anything to balance out the article. We would get the last few paragraphs in the story, so yeah, we felt thrilled that we got our views in there. Some of the media sources, like the AP and Reuters, often said, we can't run with this if it's completely one-sided. We gotta see if there's an Iraqi person or someone else who is willing to say something. It's pleasing to know that they feel that way, but we also felt that some of these White House reporters were bought hook, line and sinker. They're pleasant people who would stop by and say, we're bored. There's nothing to do. We hate being here in the summer. But we're sure not going to do a story about you guys because it would never fly.
Did you ever ask those reporters why they don't ask Bush better questions or push a little harder during his press conferences?
I said very candidly to a few reporters, why don't you ask about this issue or that issue. And they always said, that's already been asked one time three press conferences ago so why keep asking? What they're telling me is, we're not allowed to pursue that stuff.
Did any reporters open up to you and express frustration about the way the White House runs its press conferences. If you ask tough questions, you're either put in the last row or you won't be called on again.
Yes, one gal was very candid. She said, it drives me crazy to hear some of the stuff that is coming out of the Bush administration. She said she knew she was hearing flat out lies, but she's been in the business for 20 or 30 years. She has kids back in Washington. She's not gonna risk losing her job.
How has press coverage changed since Bush started his second term?
They used to hang around and come a day or two before and after to look for other angles. Now they're in and out. They second he leaves, they're gone.
Do they still come by the Peace House?
Not as often as they used to. We get more international press from places like Sweden, Germany and Tokyo. Most of them are independent. They're not allowed in with the White House press corps.
What's your experience like when working with American journalists versus the international journalists?
What are the differences?
The White House press corps don't ask questions. We had a couple guys here from Germany and they asked the most probing questions. Why isn't the American media asking the same questions? Some of the national big names, CNN, NBC, CBS -- I don't want to say they're so much controlled as they conform to a certain guideline or standard. They're about the quick story and they really don't want to do in-depth articles.
What about local media?
They're much better. They camp out with us for weeks or even months and say, I want to get to know Crawford. They talk to the mayor and walk around to different houses and get to know the people. They've done many good in-depth stories.
Has your perception of the media and the way you use media changed since becoming involved with the Peace House?
I've learned some things. It's easy to build a relationship with a reporter, but they have so little control. That's the excuse they use anyway. I've talked to some of the editors and they mention another level of power. It's the classic way of negotiating. You always have another party to refer to in case you need an out. That's frustrating, but you have to play the game in order to get coverage.
Has your level of trust in the media changed at all?
There are two issues there. One is, you know the game and know what works and what doesn't. You just have to play it. The other one is distortion. I've been upset about edits and being taken out of context. That bothers me more than anything else, but other than, it's a game.