AltHippo, in "A Lawn Gnome of Journalism Comes Up Defensive," is unhappy with Dana Milbank, who writes:
A Giant of Journalism Comes Up Short: Helen Thomas's new treatise, "Watchdogs of Democracy?" is really two books in one.... The second is a rather unpleasant rehashing of the liberal criticism of the press's performance before the Iraq war.... It is an effort unworthy of a woman who, whatever her late husband was, truly is a journalistic icon.
"Nothing is more troubling to me than the obsequious press during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq," she tells us, citing pulled punches at news conferences. "Critics are still wondering why White House reporters were so quiescent at President Bush's March 6, 2003, news conference, which was scripted and in which he made it eminently clear that the United States was going to war.... White House reporters became a laughingstock before the viewing public, who wondered about all the 'softballs' being pitched to the president at such a momentous time."
Really? Let's review some of the "softballs" that were tossed that night:
- "If all these nations... have access to the same intelligence information, why is it that they are reluctant to think that the threat is so real, so imminent that we need to move to the brink of war now?"
- "I wonder why you think so many people around the world take a different view of the threat that Saddam Hussein poses than you and your allies?"
- "How would you answer your critics who say that they think this is somehow personal? As Senator Kennedy put it... your fixation with Saddam Hussein is making the world a more dangerous place."
- "What went wrong that so many governments and people around the world now not only disagree with you very strongly, but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power?"
- "There are a lot of people in this country... who still wonder why blood has to be shed if he hasn't attacked us."
- "Do you ever worry... that this could lead to more terrorism, more anti-American sentiment, more instability in the Middle East?"
- "What can you say tonight, sir, to the sons and the daughters of the Americans who served in Vietnam to assure them that you will not lead this country down a similar path in Iraq?"
This is quiescent and obsequious?...
Milbank's editing makes it hard to see what the seven questions he picks (out of twenty-seven) really are.
The first question he cites has a second part, which turns it from judgement-of-intelligence question into a diplomatic-strategy-at-the-UN question--Milbank quotes the windup, but doesn't quote the softball delivery.
The second question is a hardball one--but Bush doesn't answer it, and there is no follow-up. The one thing the White House press corps doesn't do is for one reporter to say, "But you did not answer my colleague's question."
The third question also has a second half that Milbank does not quote, and that turns it from a hardball into a softball that asks Bush to outline "worst-case scenarios," which Bush answers by saying that he takes his responsibility to protect America seriously.
Question four is once again a legitimate hardball question. And Bush doesn't answer it. And there is no follow-up asking for a real answer.
Question five is a place where Milbank's ellipsis has changed the meaning of the question. As AltHippo writes, "the context... indicates that the questioner believes that those 'who still wonder why blood has to be shed if he hasn’t attacked us' are misinformed. That’s a completely different meaning than the excerpt [implies]."
Questions six and seven seem to me to be entirely reasonable ones--and they get answers, false answers we now know, but answers.
So of Milbank's seven examples of the White House press corps not being "quiescent and obsequious," we have three softballs, two dodged questions because the press corps won't help each other, and two real questions that get answered.
And, of course, there are the twenty questions Milbank doesn't pick, including:
Can any military operation be considered a success if the United States does not capture Saddam Hussein, as you once said, "Dead or alive?"
[H]ow is your faith guiding you? And what should you tell America? Well, what should America do collectively as you instructed before 9/11? Should it be pray? Because you are saying, "Let's continue the war on terror."
I score this for Helen Thomas. The press corps is quiescent and obsequious--even though individual members of it do not want to be. The press corps is quiescent and obsequious for four reasons. First, many of its members are quiescent and obsequious. Second, all of its members are perennially underbriefed. Third, its members don't back each other up. Nobody says: "You didn't answer my colleague's question." Fourth, its members are, by and large, lousy questioners: they ask multi-part questions with one hardball and two softball components, and so the president gets to pick and choose which part he will answer.
How much of what is wrong with the White House press corps could be fixed if they routinely backed up the previous questioner and limited themselves to one-part question? I'm not sure. Less than if they were properly briefed. But it couldn't hurt. And the way it played out on March 6, 2003 was very different than a casual reader would gather from the seven questions excerpted by Dana Milbank.
Let's roll the tape: all questions, unedited, on March 6, 2003, from http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/03/06/bush.speech.transcript/, with the phrases picked out by Milbank in italics:
Let me see if I can further -- if you could further define what you just called this important moment we're in. Since you made it clear just now that you don't think that Saddam has disarmed and we have a quarter million troops in the Persian Gulf and now that you've called on the world to be ready to use force as a last resort, are we just days away from the point at which you decide whether or not we go to war? And what harm would it do to give Saddam a final ultimatum, a two- or three-day deadline to disarm or face force?
Thank you. Another hot spot is North Korea. If North Korea restarts their plutonium plant, will that change your thinking about how to handle this crisis? Or are you resigned to North Korea becoming a nuclear power?
Mr. President, you and your top advisers, notably Secretary of State Powell, have repeatedly said that we have shared with our allies all of the current, up-to-date intelligence information that proves the imminence of the threat we face from Saddam Hussein and that they have been sharing their intelligence as well. If all of these nations, all of them our normal allies, have access to the same intelligence information, why is it that they are reluctant to think that the threat is so real, so imminent that we need to move to the brink of war now? And in relation to that, today, the British foreign minister, Jack Straw, suggested at the U.N. that it might be time to look at amending the resolution perhaps with an eye toward a timetable, like that proposed by the Canadians some two weeks ago, that would set a firm deadline to give Saddam Hussein a little bit of time to come clean. And also, obviously, that would give you a little bit of a chance to build more support with any members of the Security Council. Is that something that the governments should be pursuing at the U.N. right now?
Thank you, Mr. President. Sir, if you haven't already made the choice to go to war, can you tell us what you are waiting to hear or see before you do make that decision? And if I may, during a recent demonstration many of the protesters suggested that the U.S. was a threat to peace, which prompted you to wonder out loud why they didn't see Saddam Hussein as a threat to peace. I wonder why you think so many people around the world take a different view of the threat that Saddam Hussein poses than you and your allies?
Thank you, Mr. President. Sir, how would you answer your critics who say that they think is somehow personal? As Senator Kennedy put it tonight, he said your fixation with Saddam Hussein is making the world a more dangerous place. And as you prepare the American people for the possibility of military conflict, could you share with us any of the scenarios your advisers have shared with you about worst-case scenarios, in terms of the potential cost of American lives, the potential cost to the American economy and the potential risks of retaliatory terrorist strikes here at home?
The potential crisis in terms of... for the economy, terrorism.
Thank you, sir. May I follow up on (a previous) question? In the past several weeks your policy on Iraq has generated opposition from the governments of France, Russia, China, Germany, Turkey, the Arab League and many other countries, opened a rift at NATO and at the U.N. and drawn millions of ordinary citizens around the world into the streets into anti-war protests. May I ask what went wrong that so many governments and peoples around the world now not only disagree with you very strongly, but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power?
Mr. President, good evening. If you order war, can any military operation be considered a success if the United States does not capture Saddam Hussein, as you once said, "Dead or alive?"
Is success contingent upon capturing or killing Saddam Hussein in your mind?
Mr. President, to a lot of people it seems that war is probably inevitable, because many people doubt -- most people I would guess -- that Saddam Hussein will ever do what we are demanding that he do, which is disarm. And if war is inevitable, there are a lot of people in this country -- as much as half by polling standards -- who agree that he should be disarmed, who listen to you say that you have the evidence, but who feel they haven't seen it, and who still wonder why blood has to be shed if he hasn't attacked us.
Thank you, Mr. President. As you said, the Security Council faces a vote next week on a resolution implicitly authorizing an attack on Iraq. Will you call for a vote on that resolution, even if you aren't sure you have the votes?
Mr. President, are you worried that the United States might be viewed as defiant of the United Nations if you went ahead with military action without specific and explicit authorization from the U.N.?
Thank you, Mr. President. Even though our military can certainly prevail without a northern front, isn't Turkey making it at least slightly more challenging for us, and therefore at least slightly more likely that American lives will be lost? And if they don't reverse course, would you stop backing their entry into the European Union?
Mr. President, as the nation is at odds over war, with many organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus pushing for continued diplomacy through the U.N., how is your faith guiding you? And what should you tell America? Well, what should America do collectively as you instructed before 9/11? Should it be pray? Because you are saying, "Let's continue the war on terror."
As you know, not everyone shares your optimistic vision of how this might play out. Do you ever worry, maybe in the wee, small hours, that you might be wrong and they might be right in thinking that this could lead to more terrorism, more anti-American sentiment, more instability in the Middle East?
Mr. President, if you decide to go ahead with military action, there are inspectors on the ground in Baghdad. Will you give them time to leave the country, or the humanitarian workers on the ground, or the journalists? Will you be able to do that and still mount an effective attack on Iraq?
Mr. President, good evening. Sir, you've talked a lot about trusting the American people when it comes to making decisions about their own lives, about how to spend their own money. When it comes to the financial costs of the war, sir, it would seem that the administration surely has costed out various scenarios. If that's the case, why not present some of them to the American people so they know what to expect, sir?
If I can follow on (a previous) question on North Korea, do you believe it is essential for the security of the United States and its allies that North Korea be prevented from developing nuclear weapons? And are you in any way growing frustrated with the pace of the diplomacy there?
Thank you, sir. Mr. President, millions of Americans can recall a time when leaders from both parties set this country on a mission of regime change in Vietnam. Fifty-thousand Americans died. The regime is still there in Hanoi and it hasn't harmed or threatened a single American in 30 years since the war ended. What can you say tonight, sir, to the sons and the daughters of the Americans who served in Vietnam to assure them that you will not lead this country down a similar path in Iraq?
Thank you, Mr. President. In the coming days, the American people are going to hear a lot of debate about this British proposal of a possible deadline being added to the resolution or not. And I know you don't want to tip your hand; this is a great diplomatic moment. But from the administration's perspective and your own perspective, can you share for the American public what you view as the pros and cons associated with that proposal?