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President Bush cavalier with media traditions, public access to data
May 19, 2003

In 1799, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following to friend and former student, Archibald Stuart: "Our citizens may be deceived for awhile, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light."

At the time when Jefferson wrote these words, the citizens of this country were totally dependent upon ink and paper for news. With the advent of radio and then television, things began to change.

If Jefferson could somehow see the size, scope and power of what we call the news media today, he would be probably be stunned - and perhaps frightened for the nation he helped found. Why? Because it may be that the news has never been so well managed as it is in this country today.

A free press toppled Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and caused Bill Clinton to be impeached. Reporters did so by mercilessly and unrelentingly reporting the truth - as opponents of the powers that be, not as apologists for politicians.

The television networks today - especially those that serve up round-the-clock news - are in an unending contest to produce the next scoop. The same stale bits of information are chewed over and spat out repeatedly until a fresh scrap of rumor or innuendo comes to light.

In fact, I think it was Jon Stewart of the satirical "Daily Show" who said that the electronic media was so desperate at times for fresh material to air during the most recent invasion of Iraq, it showed reruns from the first War Gulf War.

Some praised the embedded reporters of the Iraq war as a magnanimous gift from the Bush administration. I think that remains to be seen. The most honest of reporters embedded with a military unit cannot help but be aware that they are present only through the good graces of the government - nor can they be expected to stay remotely objective while living with soldiers on a daily basis.

Have no doubt that the press can be managed, played like a harmonica, in fact. Since taking office, George W. Bush has held only eight press conferences - that is to say, press conferences where he formally faced the press and took all questions without a foreign leader or other public figure beside him. By comparison, during the same length of time in office, Lyndon Johnson had held 52, Nixon 16, Ford 37, Carter 45, Reagan 16, the elder Bush 58 and Clinton 30.

In terms of public appearances, George W. Bush may well be the most visible president in history, but scripted speeches are considerably safer than press conferences where a president can be asked tough questions for which there are no written slogans. Of course, the potentially embarrassing questions can be largely eliminated with a little intimidation. Just ask Helen Thomas.

Thomas is 82 years old and has covered every president since Kennedy. She has had a place on the front row of White House press conferences, first as a reporter and now as a columnist, for as long as most of her fellow White House journalists can remember. There was a long-standing tradition of Thomas closing presidential press conferences, with a "Thank you, Mr. President."

At Bush's March 7, 2003, press conference, however, following a period during which Thomas had dragged Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, over the coals - the president's people apparently moved to protect their boss from dangerous elderly journalists. Thomas found herself sitting in the third row, and the president didn't call on her at all.

The president's friends in the news media immediately jumped to his defense on the grounds that Thomas had said nasty things about Bush and was not an unbiased reporter. Well, duh. She is a columnist, and columnists are paid to write opinions. And the last time I read the United States Constitution, it was perfectly legal to criticize the president or anyone else.

You can't blame Bush, I suppose. It's been said that Thomas has more testosterone than any other White House journalist. Besides, it's not like it's any of our business what the president is doing. After all, he did receive a mandate of nearly 50 percent of the people who voted in the last election - and it is his country. Just ask him.