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The White House and the Press

It was hard not to think "harmonic convergence" after a day in which Larry King aired an interview with 92-year-old W. Mark Felt (AKA "Deep Throat"), Fox Newsie Tony Snow replaced "Scramblin'" Scott McClellan as White House press secretary, and CIA employee Mary McCarthy -- fired for allegedly leaking information used in  Dana Priest's Pulitzer Prize winning reporting on secret terror prisons abroad -- claimed she didn't do it.

All three events help illustrate the contentious relationship between the media and the White House at a time when it seems like open warfare between this administration and the people who make a living trying to cover it.

1) King's show last night was more of a nostalgia bath than anything else, a Watergate "the gang's all here" session featuring Felt, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee. We should all be in Felt's shape at age 92, but his memory was clearly impaired and he gave so many two- and three-word answers that King really earned his keep. (For the record, Felt said he never uttered the famous phrase "follow the money" that came out of Hal Holbrook's mouth in "All the President's Men." ) Perhaps the most poignant moment came when the old man forcefully affirmed his place in history.

KING: Deep Throat will be forever embellished in our minds, and you are a now famous character of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

M. FELT: I'll accept it.

KING: You do not feel bad about it.

M. FELT: I don't feel bad about it.

KING: You changed the country.

M. FELT: Yes, I think we did a little.

KING: Are you proud of that?

M. FELT: I'm proud of it.

2) Relations between the media and the White House these days may not be quite as bad as they were when journalists made Richard Nixon's enemies list, when Vice President Spiro Agnew called the media "nattering nabobs of negativism" and when glowering press secretary Ron Ziegler was doing his damndest to intimidate reporters. But until now, the Bush White House has made little effort to disguise its palpable contempt for the media.

Bush's 17 press conferences in his first term were the fewest of any president in the television age and he has spoken -- with some pride -- about not reading newspapers. The administration paid some commentators -- most notably Armstrong Williams -- to tout White House policies and also created video news releases featuring pretend journalists narrating government produced reports. (The GAO found that they violated the law.)

In many ways, outgoing press secretary McClellan's increasingly contentious relationship with the White House press corps epitomized the ill-will between the White House and the people who report on it. Perhaps the appointment of Snow, who reportedly sought and won a real role in internal policy making, reflects an acknowledgement by the Bush White House that the press can't simply be treated like an enemy to either ignore or steamroll. Or maybe, with his job approval ratings at an all-time low, the president and his aides realize they need to make a few more friends in the media.

3) Finally, the firing of CIA employee McCarthy has to be viewed in the context of this administration's attempted crackdown on leaks that have led to Pulitzer Prize-winning  investigations by the Washington Post's Priest as well as by New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, who uncovered the warrantless wiretapping program. As New York Times executive editor Bill Keller put it in this piece by National Journal reporter Murray Waas, this campaign amounts to a Bush war against the press for daring to scrutinize the government:

In a response to questions for this article, Times Editor Bill Keller said in an e-mail that he believed the Bush White House is on a campaign to intimidate the press. "I'm not sure journalists fully appreciate the threat confronting us," Keller wrote. "The Times in the eavesdropping case, the Post for its CIA prison stories, and everyone else who has tried to look behind the war on terror."

Keller asserted that "there's sometimes a vindictive tone in the way [administration officials] talk about dragging reporters before grand juries and in the hints that reporters who look too hard into the public's business risk being branded traitors." He warned that journalists possibly are "suffering a bit of subpoena fatigue. Maybe some people are a little intimidated by the way the White House plays the soft-on-terror card. Whatever the reason, I worry that we're not as worried as we should be."


Even in his diminished state, the appearance of "Deep Throat" on TV last night seemed eerily well-timed. Maybe he will serve as a ghost from the past, sending a warning to those in the White House who believe the public has no business knowing their business.

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