Inside the White House Briefings

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This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," March 8, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

Watch "Special Report With Brit Hume" weeknights at 6 p.m. ET


HELEN THOMAS, HEARST NEWSPAPERS: Why is a family grudge included in the official paper that states our position on war and peace?

ARI FLEISCHER, THEN WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: Helen, if you are referring to an attempt to assassinate a former United States president, which Iraq tried to do when former President Bush went to Kuwait...

THOMAS: That justifies killing thousands of people in Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Helen, I think it's also why former President Clinton responded to that assassination attempt with four days of cruise missile strikes against Iraq.

THOMAS: People are acting like this is a conversion to democracy by the sword. How can — I mean, are you going to kill all these people to get democracy?


BRIT HUME, HOST: That is what daily press briefings were like in the first years of the Bush administration. And that's pretty much what they're like today. The briefers come and go, but the press and some of its prominent members seem to be forever. Why is this?

Well, who better to ask than the man who, as you just saw, endured the slings and arrows for most of President Bush's first term? His former press secretary Ari Fleischer (search), author of "Taking Heat," a new book about his experiences on the job.

Ari, welcome.

FLEISCHER: Thank you, Brit.

HUME: So what causes in your judgment the atmosphere that intensely adversarial, which has existed for some time in the White House briefing room?

FLEISCHER: Part of it is the healthy way every democracy should be carried out, the press holding a government accountable and asking the tough questions. But I also happen to think that in the modern media era, particularly with live TV coverage, it's almost now become a performance in that briefing room, half by reporters, half by the press secretary. It's just a new era.

HUME: The briefing — daily briefing wasn't always on camera.

FLEISCHER: It wasn't. When it wasn't on camera, even as recently as when Marlon Fitzwater (search) was the secretary, I think there was a lot more serious conveyance of information, the questions were answerable, and the answers could be given and were given more often.

Now, it's often the sense of the press secretary on defense, the press on the offense. And it's almost like a standoff between the two.

HUME: Well, why not go back to the days when you didn't broadcast? Didn't allow them for live coverage? You could have made that choice, couldn't you?

FLEISCHER: It's an intriguing question. And Mike McCurry, who made the decision to help the growing cables in the '90s, by allowing the briefings to be covered and covered live, Mike believes that we should go back to that era. He said that to me.

HUME: What do you think?

FLEISCHER: I'm not sure, Brit. Because on the one hand, I think it would lower the tone and the result in a more serious briefing. On the other hand, after September 11, millions of Americans wanted to tune in to watch what their government was doing. And the government should be responsive to that, as well. So it's a very hard call.

HUME: I have got to ask you about Helen. I sat next to Helen Thomas (search) when I was a White House correspondent for eight years. She was indefatigable, dedicated, but as the questions we just showed from her to you indicated, often highly tendentious in her questioning.


HUME: She was given and has been given to making speeches. But in those days she was the senior wire service reporter. Worked for UPI, senior wire service reporter and had therefore some standing to sit on the front row and to get the first question at each news conference and so on. Nowadays, she is not that. And she stopped being that while you were there, if I'm not mistaken.


HUME: She now is a columnist for the Hearst newspapers.

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

HUME: Why did you permit her to keep that front row seat? Which was almost all those front row seats were reserved for people who were there every day, covering the places, the beat for big news organizations.

FLEISCHER: And Hearst does have another seat in the room for its regular reporter. Helen is unique. And I think it's because, Brit, and certainly the way I did it, because of everything she has accomplished in her career.

I wrote in the book that I think Helen is a legend. And therefore, I think she should be, and is entitled to that front row seat. That's the way I treated her at my press briefing.

Now, I disagree with her politics vociferously. And she disagrees with mine vociferously. And we would clash in the briefing room, as you showed. So what? That's the way it works. She gave her opinions. I gave mine. And I never minded hearing her opinions.

HUME: Well, let me ask you about that. Did you do that just to honor her? Or did do you that because her behavior, which many reporters would regard as out of bounds, expression of opinions, making them statements, speeches. Argumentation with the briefer is unprofessional. It wasn't a problem for you?

FLEISCHER: It wasn't a problem. Take for example Helen's position on the Middle East. Helen was very much, would refer to Israeli occupation, brutal occupation of the Middle East, of the West Bank by Israel. And President Bush had a very different opinion. So I never minded the opportunity to state what the president's opinion was after Helen stated hers. That was my job. But Helen, again, is entitled to state her opinion. I think every reporter in that room knows that Helen is very opinionated and she's different from all the other reporters who ask questions. She's earned it at this point in her career.

HUME: Would it be too much for me to say that she was in her opinionated ways, in effect, useful to you?

FLEISCHER: Well, I like to think that every time I got a question I tried to answer in a way that was useful to what the president was thinking. And I would try to answer the questions that way. But Helen is special. She's a different case. And I happen to like her personally. Disagree with her entirely politically.

HUME: And what about this current controversy over access to the briefing room? What do you make of all that? I should note, by the way, for viewers who are not familiar with it, that there is a guy Jeff Gannon, real name Jim Guckert, who works for a very pro-conservative — there is a picture of him now posing a question.

He got a famous question to the president. He's had a somewhat checkered background. Wasn't always a journalist, some argue he's not now. Yet he was able to gain access by a series of day passes to that briefing room. What about that controversy?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the whole thing is rather odd and also unique. And by that, I mean I think the White House has had a long tradition of a relatively open process for who is defined as a reporter. Much more open than the House and Senate. As a result, you have had a history of colorful characters left and right in that room.

And in his instance, as long as he does not work for the political party, and it turned out he did not work for the Republican Party, even though his newsletter, his computer, his Web page is called "GOP USA," he asked conservative questions...

HUME: Later called Talon News. Yes.


HUME: It's owned by — or run by GOP USA.

FLEISCHER: But the problem I've got is once the White House press secretary, a government employee, starts defining who is and who is not a journalist, where do you draw the line in that room?

There are several liberal reporters in that room who work for talk radio, for other outlets, Helen as we talked about. She largely just gives her opinions these days and doesn't really ask many questions. There are a couple of identifiable conservatives. Should you be able to kick them out because they're ideological?

Now, I don't think that's healthy for government or for journalism. That is why I say I think this is unique. I think this was a special case with something very odd, and certainly in terms of people's private lives. It's up to organizations, media organizations. If they don't like the private lives of their employees, they should deal with it. The government shouldn't be in the business of looking into the private lives of what reporters in that room.

HUME: Last question. How is the book doing?

FLEISCHER: Well, apparently doing great. That's what my publisher tells me. And really, Brit, it's a look inside the White House that lets people know what President Bush is like in private and behind the scenes in the West Wing.

It's also a real examination of the media, the question of are they biased, and what is it like to be the press secretary standing at that podium as a human piñata every day.

HUME: Ari Fleischer, pleasure to have you. Good luck with the book.

FLEISCHER: Thank you.

HUME: Congratulations.

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