Past and present White House correspondents discussed the media’s role in the current presidency before a packed house at the National Press Club for Monday night’s edition of the Kalb Report.
Former CBS anchor Dan Rather, NBC News White House correspondent David Gregory, David Sanger of The New York Times and Helen Thomas of Hearst Newspapers joined Marvin Kalb for “Thank-You Mr. President,” the second installment of the Kalb Report this fall.
Rather, host of Dan Rather Reports on HDNet, said Sept. 11 has had a major impact on how the White House Press Corps has covered the Bush White House.
“In the wake of 9/11 if you tried to ask tough questions, you were seen as unpatriotic, which led to fear in every newsroom in the country,” Rather said.
He added, “We didn’t measure up to the highest standards of American journalism.We didn’t follow up. It is an understandable fear.”
When asked, Rather was not eager to discuss his departure from CBS. He did say he believes part of the reason for the network’s lack of support for the anchor after questions arose about his reporting on President George W. Bush’s military service was due to CBS’s interests in other industries.
Sanger, a 24-year veteran of The Times, said he is concerned about the heightened level of secrecy in the White House.
“Something the public should think about is how deep the secrecy goes (in the White House) and how tight the secrecy is,” he said.
Thomas, a mainstay of the Washington press corps, reinforced this idea when she was asked to compare this administration with the Kennedy administration, the first presidency she covered.
“You could walk down the street with (former President John F.) Kennedy,” Thomas said. “You didn’t have the sense of sincere secrecy that you have now.”
Gregory agreed with Thomas on this point, but butted heads with the 87-year old throughout the night on the press corps’ performance in the run-up to the Iraq War.
“I disagree with the idea that it is somehow our job to stand up as a policy gathering forum and say, ‘Hey America’ this may not be right,” he said.
But Gregory said the dynamic of this White House is very tight-lipped.
“The access has been restricted in this White House,” Gregory said. “You can’t see the comings and the goings the way that you used to.”
He added, “This president decided early on that the press was a model to be kept at bay … and this reduces influence and access.”
Sanger said that restrictions make it impossible to get all of the facts.
“We only know a small percentage of what’s going on in the White House, and you can dig but you still won’t get it all,” he said.
During the forum, the panelists addressed the media’s role in the Bush administration’s policy decisions.
“There is so much more polarization within the press and dividing politics that people try to divide or assign our motives even in the course of a briefing,” Gregory said.
Senior Amanda Temple said that with the media’s polarization, it is important for the public to get their news from a variety of sources.
Temple, an intern for “Hardball” on MSNBC said, “Liberals should watch Fox News and conservatives should watch MSNBC.”