The President vs. the Press

The following is a transcription of the March 25, 2006 edition of "FOX News Watch", that has been edited for clarity:

ERIC BURNS, HOST: This week, on "FOX News Watch": the press and the president. Can't we all just get along?

The members of the "FOX News Watch" panel get along better with one another than the members of the White House Press Corps do with the president. Usually. Let's see what happens this week.

Jim Pinkerton of Newsday; syndicated columnist Cal Thomas; Jane Hall
of the American University; and media writer Neal Gabler.

President Bush held a news conference this week. And the veteran reporter Helen Thomas tried to hold one too.


HELEN THOMAS, REPORTER: My question is, why did you really want to go to war, from the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet — former Cabinet officers, intelligence people and so forth. What was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil - quest for oil. It hasn't been Israel of anything else.

What was it?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you as a — a lifelong journalist is that, you know, I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just - is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect.


BUSH: No, hold on for a second, please.


BUSH: Excuse me. Excuse me. No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true. I — my attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We — when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people.

Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen.


BURNS: And we could have played a lot more of that, Jane. It went back and forth. It was - it was seen by some as quite antagonistic.

How was it seen by you?

JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Well I think, unfortunately, anytime you state your opinion in a question as a reporter, you lose to the subject. And I think Bush — she has made no secret, since she became a columnist, of her opposition to the way. She's been asking press secretaries for years, you know, why Bush was bombing innocent Iraqi citizens. That's her position.

But he called on her for the first time, I think, in three years.

BURNS: Three years, yes.

HALL: So I think they made a calculated decision that he wanted try to restate to the American people why he went into this war. They knew she was going to ask it, and she handed him a fat pitch. She's getting criticized.

BURNS: Interesting point. Did you agree with Jane? Is there anything wrong with a reporter stating an opinion as part of a question, Jim?

JIM PINKERTON, NEWSDAY: I think it's OK — I mean, she's a columnist. So she would say, I'm not a reporter; I'm a columnist.


PINKERTON: So she actually said in a speech four years ago, that, Look, when I was a reporter, I hid my opinions — which is arguable — but now that I'm a columnist, I wake up every morning and say, Who do I hate? And of course, the answer in her case, oftentimes, is President Bush.

BURNS: Wait a minute. Is that what she said?


BURNS: Would that work for all of us? I mean, is that a good way — what would — what would Dr. Phil say if everybody woke up in the morning and said, Well, who do I hate tonight?

NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Not a bad journalistic rule, though.

BURNS: Jim, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cut you off.

PINKERTON: Well, I was just going to say that they both play to their base. I mean, President Bush lit up the conservative talk show media with — by mixing — but while being respectful and sending out signals like, You're a lifelong journalist, Helen — which, of course, is red meat in terms of dislike. And she, of course, will be playing college campuses now along with (INAUDIBLE) David Gregory for as long as she lives.

CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Increasingly these news conferences are less about actually getting information from government officials than posturing by certain media people. I'm glad we did the split screen; that was important. Because as you saw the president answering the question, you saw Helen Thomas grimacing and screwing up her face in a way like — in a way that was dismissive.

That's not the role for a journalist. If you're there to get information, you're not there to give your own opinion, either verbally or facially.

BURNS: But Neal, the thing is, you're never - you tell me if I'm right.


BURNS: My suggestion is that you go along with it. It seems to me you're.

GABLER: Must I agree?

BURNS: You don't have to. But that you're never going to get information that a president doesn't want to give. A president, a vice president, a senator, is a savvy politician.

GABLER: Yes. Well.

BURNS: You don't trick them. You don't trap them in public settings into saying something that they don't want to tell you to begin with.

GABLER: Well, sometimes they track themselves. When they say how long the troops are going to be in Iraq, as this president did at this - at this news conference.

But, you know, you talk about posturing. I mean, you know, politicians posture as well.

But look it, Helen Thomas has asked some pretty dumb questions in her time. But this is the $64,000 question.


GABLER: Because this is the question that historians are going to be asking. They want to know, why were you so eager to go to war against Iraq?

BURNS: But why does that make it dumb for her to ask it?

GABLER: Oh, I didn't say this is not dumb for her to ask.

BURNS: Oh, I'm sorry.

GABLER: She has asked dumb questions. This is not one of them. This is an intelligent question.

GABLER: Why did he go into Iraq? Everybody wants to know the answer to that. Everyone wants to know the answer to that.

PINKERTON: This is a question that makes Helen Thomas a hero to the left. She will be lionized for this.


BURNS: But, Jim, isn't it such a fair question that it doesn't make you a hero to the right or left or anybody? It's just fair.

PINKERTON: But even Jane says that it wasn't a fair question.

HALL: Well, no.

BURNS: Even Jane?

HALL: Wait a minute. I think both things are true. I think she is raising the question that the American people are wondering about - and support for this war is waning, and that's why he wanted to have her ask the question, because he wanted to hit it out of the park.

I think what's interesting is, this press conference did make news. Now whether he wanted to say this or not, as Neal said, he said it's going to be the next president — it's going to be 2008 before we know whether there are going to be troops pulled out of there. And that was the headline. And as long as we're talking about Helen Thomas, we're not talking about the war in Iraq.


GABLER: Yes. Exactly.

THOMAS: Look, the president has said on many occasions, in news conferences and other forums, it's going to be a long war. It's going to be a generational struggle. So for the media to pick up on the line that, Well, my predecessor, or predecessors, will decide, really, when the last troops come out, is really not inconsistent with what he's said before.


HALL: He also acknowledged that he is spending capital he said he had in 2004. To my mind, there was news in this press conference.

GABLER: And I love the idea that because there's a doddy old woman there, everybody is going to forget about the war.

But look, the real story here was, we saw the extra strategy. The extra strategy is: blame the media. That's the exit strategy in Iraq.

PINKERTON: Doddy old woman?

GABLER: Yes. That's how she's being portrayed by the right-wing press. That is how the right-wing press is portraying her.

PINKERTON: Oh, I thought you said that. I thought you said that.

GABLER: No, I'm saying that's her portrayal.

BURNS: Which is nice because sometimes we wonder if we'll get e-mail. We don't wonder this week.

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