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Stateside With Rosalea: Thank You For Nothing

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

Thank You For Nothing

Thank you, Mr President was an event held at the National Press Club, Washington DC, on Monday, November 26, 2007. David Gregory (NBC), Dan Rather (HDNet), David Sanger (New York Times), and Helen Thomas (Hearst Newspapers) participated in discussion with Marvin Kalb about coverage of the White House. It was the second in a series funded by a grant from The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation looking at Democracy and the Press.

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An animated Helen Thomas holds the attention of moderator Marvin Kalb and panelists David Gregory and Dan Rather.

The program as it was aired is available as video, audio, or podcast at

This is a transcript of the audience questions and panelist answers after the program went off air. Most of the people who lined up to ask questions were students or from alternative media. They all identified themselves, but I’ve left that out as I didn’t hear all of them clearly and don’t wish to make a wrong attribution. I’ve also left out some of the banter.

::Audience Questions::

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The view of a live taping of The Kalb Report from the press gallery in the ballroom of the National Press Center. From L-R: David Gregory (NBC), Helen Thomas (Hearst Newspapers), Marvin Kalb (moderator) Dan Rather (HDNet), and David Sanger (NYT).

KALB: We have an opportunity now for you to ask questions and I see a microphone there, and is there one over here? Yes. So, all of you line up and just ask your question. By the way, identify yourself, and ask a brief question and if you begin to make a speech I’m going to go to the next person. Go ahead.

QN: How effective as a lie detector do you see yourself as being? Looking back at something you now know was a lie, did you have any discernment or suspicion about it at the time? Any president you think excelled above others as a liar? And have any of you been in touch with Scott McLellan in regards to his recent revelations about being…

KALB: All right, we got the point, we got the point.

QN: …lied to himself?

KALB: Dan Rather, speak to me. The question is, were you able to discern a lie as it was being uttered by a President. Were you, Dan?

RATHER: Sometimes. But the difficulty frequently was to separate an outright lie from sort of a sophisticated maneuver that walked along the borderlines of being a lie. There were times you’d say, “Either this President is lying or he is so uninformed or misinformed to [unclear]. Yes, there’ve been times, but most of the time the White House deals in sophistry. More often than lies, it’s sophistry. And that gets… it’s a very difficult area.

KALB: Helen? You’ve never heard a president lie. (laughter)

THOMAS: I’ve never heard him tell the truth. (laughter)

QN: I’ve just finished reading Howard Kurtz’s book on the state of television news, and he took a negative light towards the Communications Director at the White House, specifically, Mr. Bartlett. I was wondering if any of you, all of you, could elaborate on what role the Communications Director has in terms of shaping media.

KALB: It’s a very good question. Dan, when did this idea of the Communications Director come into play?

RATHER: Nixon. It was Klein. Herb Klein was the first Communications Director.

GREGORY: I think that, you know, Bartlett certainly functioned as somebody who was, first of all, connected, who was an insider with Bush, who had a lot of access to Bush. He was working on really framing and directing the message. He had a very deep and good knowledge of how the media operated, which was helpful to them internally. And again, in an operation that tried to keep the press at bay, I always had a good working relationship with him because I always knew he was somebody who was connected to Bush and was really in the room.

RATHER: David, was he a reporter at any time?


RATHER: David, and do not confuse the question with what you think might be the [unclear] the question, but did you consider him or any other Communications Director [unclear] what would be called in another country the Minister of Propaganda?

GREGORY: Oh, yeah, at times. Absolutely! A lot of times your interactions behind the scenes are not a whole lot different than they are before the cameras or publicly, and that’s what we deal with. Sometimes you have to get through that through a lot of time and circumstance of being there. You might be on a foreign trip and you might be at a 2-3 hour dinner and you may pick up some things from those same people. So sometimes being around and having those relationships can count for something. At the end of an Administration it may not be a lot, but it’s something because so much of your interaction is based on spin and this massive PR machine that they’re putting at you.

QN: A lot of headlines and coverage about the election that’s going on is just constant references to boxing: who’s punching who, who’s [unclear] who, gloves being on or off. Coverage of the debate has become ridiculous. How much is this kind of coverage and the framing of the discourse, perhaps, in this way a disservice to our future and the discussion we’re having in this country?

SANGER: There’s always going to be horse race coverage. It’s been true about political coverage in every presidential election back to Washington’s. The trick is to balance that with your coverage of real issues. Now, sometimes in a presidential campaign that can work, because you’ve got a big set of issues—and certainly we have more than a full plate right now—but frequently you have candidates who haven’t either developed deep positions on these issues, or if they have, they’re not going to discuss it as they’re going through the primary process. They wait till the general election.

Every election cycle we do these lengthy campaign biographies that tell you everything down to what this candidate had for breakfast as a seven-year-old growing up. I went through recently and read our 60-part series on George Bush—however many parts it was—and I have to tell you there was nothing in it that would predict what kind of president he would be or what issues he would face. I think you have to go into this with a little bit of humility that your ability to guess what kind of issues this next president is gonna face is pretty minimal.

RATHER: Can I just add one thing? Follow the money. If you know where the money comes from, you’re going to know where a great deal of his emphasis [unclear] is going to be.

SANGER: But I’m not sure if following the money, Dan, would have necessarily told you how he would have [unclear] to Iraq.

RATHER: No. I agree with that, but on many other things, and how he reacted to stuff…

SANGER: It might have helped on, say, the environmental.

RATHER: But [unclear] said, Well, if we have a national catastrophe or war we would like to get the contracts, I think [unclear].

QN: Dan Rather was talking about the growth of multinational corporations, the few that own all of the networks and all of the media outlets, and I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on the point of, in order to preclude our country from turning into a more fascist type of country, how might we get the press in a better situation to resolve the lack of support that the multinationals don’t give the journalists?

RATHER: The first thing, in my opinion, is to get back to a sense of news being a public trust, and that a news division or news department of a large company can certainly be expected to make money but perhaps not so much as some of the other areas of the company. The main thing is to see it in the public interest. I’ve worked in commercial television and radio my entire career. A company needs to make money, wants to make money, but until fairly recently there was this sense—it was more than a sense, it was a practice—of saying, with news we have to do some news in the public interest. We have to view it as in the public interest. View it as a public trust.

And there needs to be a wall, a firewall, between the corporate entity, which has all these other interests—everything from building aircraft engines to having billboards and music CDs—that we have to give it some airspace between the corporate entity and news. And the biggest thing is we need public support for the view that big government and these huge corporations are intruding too many times—not everywhere and not all the time—but too many times into newsrooms. We know that the red beating heart of a democracy is a free press, a free and independent press.

We don’t want to lose that, and—without identifying with some of the words that you put in your preface to the question—we can do it. I subscribe to the idea that the people who run these large corporations, they care as much about the country as I do, but in some instances they’ve lost sight of the public interest, of news as a public trust. We can get back to it, and I think we have to get back to it. I do think that the public is beginning to realize how far this has gone and what the danger of it is. I sure hope so.

GREGORY: There’s certainly an impact of corporations owning news divisions when it comes to the budget constraint, but let me just say—and I’ll sound like a corporate tool; I work for General Electric—but I have spent many a time with the CEO of General Electric who has looked us all dead in the eye and said, “You go out there and cover the stories that need to be covered. They need to be covered, and you cover politics, and you do what you need to do.” In my time with NBC, I have felt that. It’s a separate issue from some of the constraints we feel in terms of budget constraints.

But we’re also in the middle of a revolution in our business. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I grew up wishing for the days that Dan Rather and Marvin Kalb worked in this business, but a lot has changed. So I’m someone who’s dealing with a new reality in this business as well.

QN: Based on his level of formal education and station he’s achieved in life, I think it’s fair to say that President Bush is a highly educated man. I think it’s also fair to say he doesn’t always come across that way when speaking in public. I just wonder the extent to which, from the inside, you’ve seen this affect his presidency, in public or in other ways; why it hasn’t necessarily affected it more; and if you think that to an extent it’s because he tries to say so little or he tries to reveal so little. I guess the very last part of that would be, Do you see that trend becoming more and more [unclear] as the politicians saying less and less and less, just more soundbites?

GREGORY: I think it’s always useful when a politician is willing to think in your presence and not to be so cautious or fearful of consequence that they constrain themselves, because I think we would just benefit from all of that dialogue. I think that’s part of why I’ve always appreciated Tony Blair, for instance. In press conferences he’d be very expansive and would think in our presence. But the notion that George W. Bush is not a very smart man is one that I’ve always argued against. That’s not the case at all. I think he’s plenty smart.

QN: Mr. Rather, you said before that many reporters after 9/11 were afraid to ask important questions. My question to all of you is, If you had only one question to ask President Bush if it were before the Iraq war, what question would it be?

RATHER: Well, I didn’t have one question before the Iraq war; I didn’t know it was coming. I don’t have a prepared answer to that. Check with me tomorrow, I’ll have to think about it. The more important thing, it seems to me, with all respect, is what question now should be asked of him? We can’t go back and replay the moment [unclear] the war. We can analyze it and say what we learned from it. The important question, it seems to me, now is Where should [unclear]. What should we be asking? I don’t have a question in mind. But I think forward-looking questions rather than backward looking are crucial. David has this run every day, and he probably has a question right in his mind that would make history.

THOMAS: [unclear] … in the run-up to the war and during the war and you still have not given us an answer: Why should we still be there? Why aren’t we out yesterday? Take the troops out. Stop the killing.

QN: As the FCC considers raising the percentage of media outlets that can be owned by any single owner in a given market, to what extent do you feel that this consolidation of media outlets has contributed to the partisanship in the country and the polarization of the media?

RATHER: When I talked before about the large companies having legislative and regulatory needs in Washington, it’s this kind of thing—and I’ve singled that out—that comes into play. The question is whether the public is comfortable with having so many companies control so many of the news outlets.

I consider it something of great concern. It’s something the country should be concerned about. The public would determine whether THEY think they’re comfortable with the situation now. What I outlined before, it’s not just what the companies have in the way of and need legislative and regulatory help in Washington having to do with broadcast or cable or airwaves. They give a full range of things—all kinds of military contracts, all kinds of other things.

So it isn’t just in the area of FCC that the people who own the networks need legislative or regulatory help with Washington. It’s a whole range of other things, which is one reason that I think it’s very unhealthy for democracy that—in some cases—there’s a very unhealthy relationship, which has been beneath the regular space, not out in public view. It needs to be brought into the sunlight.

KALB: Dan, with your help we’re going to bring it. We really will. And once again, I want to thank this wonderful panel.




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