Covering new presidents: the media's double standard

In anticipation of the new administration, Beltway media insiders are busy laying the groundwork for how reporters and pundits will treat the new team on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In anticipation of the new administration, Beltway media insiders are busy laying the groundwork for how reporters and pundits will treat the new team on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Once a president takes office ... an adversarial relationship usually flourishes, at least with beat reporters,” wrote Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post. And former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, discussing the press corps on Fox News, agreed: “They are inevitably going to turn on him, as all -- this happened to every administration. I don't see why we should be surprised. It is the natural turn of events.”

The conventional wisdom is quite clear: The press always turns skeptical and becomes combative when new presidents come to town.

Except, of course, when the press does not.

In truth, the model being touted today by media insiders didn't apply to the previous two administrations. That model didn't apply to Bill Clinton in 1993 because the press wasn't simply skeptical about his administration, the press savaged it. And the model didn't apply to George W. Bush in 2001, because instead of turning combative toward him, the press rolled over for the Republican.

In terms of how the press has treated the last two new presidents, there's the Democratic model (i.e. overly hostile), and the Republican model (overly docile).

At the outset of the Bush presidency, when it became obvious that the press had adopted a softer standard for judging the new Republican president, author Jeffrey Toobin noted that “the high emotional temperature of the Clinton years left a lot of people, including journalists, kind of exhausted.” He added, “I think it will probably take a while to sort of gin that back up again.”

Over the course of eight years of covering Bush, I'm not sure the press ever recaptured the fever it displayed during the Clinton years. So it would be deeply suspicious if, in 2009, the press managed to turn up that emotional temperature just in time to cover another Democratic administration.

It would also be troubling for journalism if the press responded to conservative claims today that reporters had been too soft on the Democrat during the campaign by reacting the same way journalists did when those claims were lodged during the 1992 campaign: by trashing the victorious Democrat to prove the press corps wasn't “in the tank.”

That's what helped fuel the stark double standard in terms of early coverage of the past two administrations.

One quick example: On January 31, 1993, 12 days after Clinton had been sworn into office, Sam Donaldson appeared on ABC and made this jarring announcement: “Last week, we could talk about, 'Is the honeymoon over?' This week, we can talk about, 'Is the presidency over?' ” (At the time, Clinton's approval rating hovered around 65 percent.)

By contrast, on February 10, 2001, three weeks after Bush had been sworn into office, The New York Times' Frank Bruni penned a gentle, honeymoon-mode review about how authentic and at ease Bush seemed with his new role. “George W. Bush is establishing a no-fuss, no-sweat, 'look-Ma-no-hands' presidency, his exertions ever measured, his outlook always mirthful,” wrote Bruni. “The gilded robes of the presidency have not obscured Mr. Bush's innate goofiness -- or, for that matter, his insistent folksiness.”

Bruni's piece was a classic example of what in journalism is called a “beat-sweetener.” It's where a reporter assigned to a new beat ingratiates himself with key sources by writing flattering profiles. There were precious few White House beat-sweeteners published in 1993.

“Perhaps never in our nation's history -- certainly not in its recent history -- has a President so early in his term been subjected to a greater barrage of negative media coverage than Bill Clinton,” wrote the Los Angeles Times' late media critic David Shaw in 1993. (The headline to Shaw's piece: “Not Even Getting a 1st Chance; Early Coverage of the President Seemed More Like An Autopsy.”)

“The level of hostility in the [White House] pressroom, I think, was extraordinary,” Newsweek's Eleanor Clift told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. For example, days after the Waco siege between federal forces and Branch Davidians ended in a deadly fireball in April of that year, a USA Today poll showed 93 percent of Americans did not blame Clinton for the outcome. Clift said she thought to herself, “The other 7 percent are in the White House press room.”

And Washington Post editorial page editor Meg Greenfield conceded she'd never seen any administration “pronounced dead” so quickly by the press.

The conventional wisdom today is that it was a cacophony of missteps made by the new Clinton-led Democratic team that generated the bad press in 1993. That reporters and pundits simply responded to the bungled attempt at transition. What's been erased from that equation, though, is the acknowledgement that with or without the miscues, the press had already adopted an entirely new, contentious, and often disrespectful way of treating an incoming president.

What's also glossed over is the fact that eight years later, the press then radically adjusted its standards -- again -- for the new Republican president.

For lots of people, recalling Clinton's chronic battles with the press likely conjures up impeachment flashbacks featuring a cavalcade of conservative pundits chattering incessantly about the rule of law. Or maybe the Clinton battles remind them of reading mind-numbing Whitewater updates, which, even after four years of hype, never seemed as dire or spectacular as the press made them out to be.

If the past is prologue, it's important to remember two things as the new Democratic administration prepares to take up residence. First, the press in 1992 was tagged as being overly affectionate toward Clinton in the general election. By early 1993, there had been a sea change in how journalists treated the Democrat. And second, Clinton's bad press started years before impeachment and months before any kind of official scandal machinery was put in place inside the U.S. Capitol. The hostile and at times overbearing press coverage started during the transition period and before Clinton even had time to do much of anything wrong.

“Judging by today's press conference, the traditional media honeymoon seems already on the wane,” ABC News' Diane Sawyer announced on January 14, 1993, one week before Clinton was inaugurated.

Yes, there were several embarrassing tactical mistakes made early on by the inexperienced new administration that sparked bad press, including the withdrawal of Zoë Baird as Clinton's nominee to be attorney general because she had employed undocumented immigrants as her nanny and driver. And Clinton created controversy when he tried to keep his campaign promise to allow gays to serve openly in the military, an initiative the administration bungled, in part, by not doing enough preparation with allies on Capitol Hill or the Pentagon before the initiative was unveiled.

Looking back, though, the so-called scandals that the press claimed were derailing Clinton's entire presidency just days into his first term seem pretty tame. (The hullabaloo over Baird's domestic help seems positively quaint in retrospect.)

At the time though, it was pure doomsday, according to the press. Here was an utterly typical dispatch from Clinton's first weeks in office, courtesy of Time [emphasis added]:

No sooner had Clinton emerged from the embarrassing miscalculation about Zoe Baird than he found himself in an even stickier political quagmire. After promising in his Inaugural Address to end an era of “deadlock and drift,” Clinton was suddenly at war with the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as members of his own party in Congress. Worse yet, the spectacle of Clinton clinging so resolutely to his gay-rights pledge after breaking broader promises on taxes, the deficit and spending projects raised questions about his judgment.

Aside from the heavy-handed language, note how Time ridiculed Clinton for “clinging” to a long-forgotten campaign promise. The irony was that one of the key themes of the nasty coverage of Clinton's early presidency was that he was weak and excessively political (i.e. “Slick Willie”), that he gave in for political reasons, and that he refused to keep controversial campaign pledges. (“Clinton guaranteed himself a spate of bad press by backing off campaign promises,” The Washington Post explained two weeks after his inauguration.)

But when Clinton stood up on the campaign pledge regarding gays in the military, journalists not only were not impressed, they mocked him. (Perhaps they had different ideas about which of Clinton's campaign pledges were important and which ones were not.)

“My colleagues and I, like journalistic Dr. Strangeloves, are ready to nuke Mr. Clinton at the slightest provocation,” New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb conceded just one month after the Democrat became the 42nd president.

The press pile-on simply gained momentum through the weeks and months. In the spring, the Washington Post Style section featured the headlined, “Another Failed Presidency, Already? Sure, It's Early. But What's That Sound of No Hands Clapping?”

Around the same period, Time offered up this headline on its cover: “The Incredible Shrinking President.” (Weeks earlier, the doomsday Time headline on newsstands around the country asked, “Anguish Over Bosnia: Will it be Clinton's Vietnam?”)

By the following year, The New York Times Magazine casually announced, “In mainstream journalism ... President Clinton is routinely depicted in the most unflattering terms: a liar, a fraud, a chronically indecisive man who cannot be trusted to stand for anything -- or with anyone.”

Today, the evidence suggests the over-the-top press coverage of early 1993 sprang from a conscious decision the press made to lock and load on the Democratic White House -- just as it appeared the press chose to pull back when Bush's first term played out in 2001, the way a blanket of calm suddenly descended over newsrooms that had spent the previous eight years in nonstop scandal-and-high-dudgeon mode. (“Good for Washington in giving a new president a break at the start,” the hometown Washington Post cheered in the spring of 2001.)

The press not only treated Bush with loving hands, but also dialed back its White House coverage, which meant Bush did not have to battle the media's constant glare.

A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 41 percent fewer news stories were produced about Bush between January 21, 2001, and March 21, 2001, than there were produced about Clinton during the same two-month period eight years earlier. Newsweek, in particular, practically unplugged its Bush White House coverage, publishing 59 percent fewer stories about the new Bush vs. the new Clinton.

The news blackout came despite the fact that the newly elected President Bush came into office under the extraordinary circumstances of losing the popular vote and securing the office only after a divided Supreme Court ordered the vote-counting in Florida to cease.

And yes, Bush aides were quite content in 2001 with the reduced coverage of the new president. The White House's Mary Matalin told The Washington Post in April 2001 that Clinton talked too much --"[he] would just get out there and talk about anything, any time, any place" -- and that Bush would be more “efficient” in the way he made news.

What a coincidence. The White House wanted less coverage and scrutiny from the press in 2001 (when Bush often appeared unsure of himself in public settings), and the GOP White House got less coverage and scrutiny.

The double standard in how the press treated the incoming Democratic and Republican presidents remains glaringly obvious today. For instance, in 1993, journalists complained that the new Clinton communications team limited their access (by closing off portions of the White House to reporters), that aides didn't sufficiently schmooze reporters, and that the new president did not have enough formal press conferences. Also, they complained that the Clinton team was trying to “bypass” the mainstream media by embracing other outlets, like conducting waves of satellite-feed interviews with local television stations. That's why the Fourth Estate piled on the Democrats with hypercritical coverage. Because their feelings were hurt and their egos were bruised.

“They're dissing us,” David Lauter, Los Angeles Times White House reporter, complained to author Tom Rosenstiel in April 1993.

“A press corps that has been avoided and ignored and treated in a way that is Nixonian is not going to cut [the president] any breaks,” announced George Condon of the Copley News Service in 1993, while serving as president of the White House Correspondents Association. His point was that the Clintons had some of bad press coming to them.

Paul Richter, White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, agreed. He said the treatment of the media by a president and his staff “really does affect the coverage.”

Some journalists even admitted that that was the reason the press treated some relatively minor 1993 news stories, such as the firing of seven members of the White House travel office, with such ferocity. (A ferocity that, viewed from the distance of 15 years, seems absolutely perplexing.)

The travel office is a nonpartisan department within the White House staffed by aides who help make life easier for reporters traveling with the president by arranging meals and communications. Journalists get to know the office staffers and rely on them to help make life on the road less bumpy.

In May 1993, the White House fired all seven travel staffers for gross financial mismanagement and announced the FBI had been asked to investigate.

As Shaw at the Los Angeles Times noted, when hearing about the clumsy travel-office firings, the press corps erupted in outrage. “At one briefing, they asked 169 questions about the travel office firings. Neither Bosnia nor the President's deficit-reduction package, both major news stories at the time, received a fraction of that attention that day” [emphasis added].

In the days following the firings, the travel-office story (aka Travelgate) landed on Page One of The Washington Post six times, and four times on A1 of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. The press pitched the story as a blockbuster. In less than three weeks, the Post published nearly 20 news stories, editorials, and commentaries on the subject, even though its White House correspondents eventually conceded the firings were “relatively trivial.”

Newsweek summed up the media phenomenon at play with its Travelgate headline: “Don't Mess With the Media: The White House Press Corps Gets Its Revenge.”

Weeks later, when the media hyped the phony story that Clinton had held up traffic at Los Angeles International Airport while getting a $200 haircut as Air Force One idled on the tarmac, they enjoyed another round of payback. Suggesting the story revealed all sorts of deep character flaws embedded in Clinton (namely that he was a phony and a hypocrite), the press treated the haircut as an even bigger deal than Travelgate.

The so-called scandal was mentioned 50 times by The Washington Post alone, including nine times in front-page stories.

Six weeks later, though, when Newsday revealed that Federal Aviation Administration records showed no planes had been delayed while Clinton got a trim, virtually every news organization that initially hyped the story either downplayed (the Los Angeles Times) or completely ignored (The New York Times, ABC, CBS, NBC) the correction.

The Post was so unresponsive to the facts that the paper's ombudsman had to devote an entire column to the matter, slapping reporters' hands for doing the absolute minimum to clear up any confusion about nonexistent flight delays caused by Clinton.

And why the pile-on? Simple: The press was still angry with how their pals in the travel office had been treated. “There was a clear sense of retribution” in the media's haircut coverage, Newsweek's Mark Miller said at the time, because the media were “pissed off.”

Indeed, the resentment was growing, “whether it was conscious or subconscious,” said John King, then working as White House correspondent for The Associated Press. "[S]o when people had a legitimate reason to kick [Clinton] as a buffoon, they went overboard."

Try to recall, however, a single instance in early 2001 when the press went “overboard” and kicked Bush as a “buffoon” on the front pages for days on end regarding an essentially trivial process story. Cautious and respectful, the press did no such thing.

“The truth is, this new president [Bush] has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton,” The Washington Post's John Harris wrote in May 2001.

Harris continued:

Try to recall this major news story during Clinton's first 100 days: Under pressure from Western senators, the president capitulated on a minor part of his 1993 budget deal, grazing fees on ranchers using federal lands. A barrage of coverage had an unmistakable subtext: Clinton was weak and excessively political and caved to special interests. Bush has made numerous similar concessions on items far more central to the agenda he campaigned on, such as deemphasizing vouchers in his education plan and conceding that his tax cut will be some $350 billion smaller than he proposed. For the most part these repositionings are being cast as shrewd rather than servile.

But if the press went easy on Bush in early 2001, if it looked the other way when he flip-flopped on campaign promises, that must have been thanks to the way the White House pampered reporters, right? Because journalists were quite open in 1993 about being offended by the White House's treatment and how being slighted, or “dissed,” translated into tougher coverage. Recall that the press was angry about the way Democratic aides were uncommunicative and how few formal press conferences Clinton had held, and the way the Democrats were trying to go around the mainstream media.

In truth, of course, if the Clinton team was guilty of slighting the press in 1993, the Bush team absolutely humiliated it. The Bush White House openly advertised its disdain for the press (former chief of staff Andrew Card famously dismissed the press as just another D.C. special interest group desperately seeking access), aides quickly formed habits of not returning reporters' calls, and Bush immediately canceled formal press briefings with reporters. And even the informal ones he held were rare in the first term. In fact, Bush held just 17 press conferences compared with Clinton's 44. (Despite the media's early grumbling, Clinton actually set a new mark for the most press conferences by any first-term president in the modern era.)

Over time, it became clear to the entire country that the Bush White House did not respect the press, that it was dissing the press corps. The way the White House for years waved into press briefings a former $200-an-hour male escort with no journalism background and no serious press affiliation; the way the administration churned out misleading video news releases that crossed the legal line into "covert propaganda"; and the way the administration audaciously paid off pundits like Armstrong Williams to secretly hype White House initiatives.

The media, though, didn't punish the Republican president with bad press. Contrary to the edicts laid down in the 1990s, the early Bush coverage was not affected by how the president and his staff slighted and controlled the press. Instead, the press sheepishly fell in line, nervous about having its already limited access even further restricted.

The kowtowing was at times startling to watch. As Media Matters Senior Fellow Eric Alterman noted in 2003's What Liberal Media?:

[T]he Bush team plays a kind of hardball that the Clintonians were never able to master. When Houston Chronicle reporter Bennett Roth asked press spokesman Ari Fleischer about underage drinking by the president's daughters, Fleischer informed him, Don Corleone-style, that his question had been “noted in the building.” The implication was clear to all: More such unfriendly questions and Roth could be cut off, unable to do his job, and useless to his employers. The outcries of solidarity from Roth's colleagues in the press corps in the face of this public threat would not have disturbed the sleep of a napping newborn.

There were other dynamics at play, as well. For instance, as the first Clinton term unfolded, there were open discussions among journalists about how they were anxious not to be tagged as being “in the tank” for Clinton. How they didn't want to be called out by The New Republic's running “Clinton Suck-Up Watch,” which mocked journalists who the magazine saw as overly effusive in their praise of the new president. It was that professional anxiousness (i.e. that peer pressure) that led some to view the new Democratic administration through an unprecedented, hypercritical lens.

It was also a phenomenon fueled by right-wing critics such as Rush Limbaugh who accused the press of having a liberal bias. Naturally, one way for the media to disprove that theory was to be especially hard on the new Democratic administration.

“If you dared say anything complimentary [about Clinton] ... you were looked at like some sort of pathetic fool who was obviously in the tank,” said Newsweek's Miller during Clinton's first year in office.

At the time, observers suggested that get-tough approach toward Clinton simply reflected journalism's DNA. Brit Hume, then a White House correspondent for ABC News, insisted, “We live in a time when the worst thing that can be said about a journalist in Washington is that he or she is not 'tough.' ”

In 2001, however, very few journalists appeared concerned about being “in the tank” for Bush. In fact, the tank was quite crowded.

It turns out, that urge among Beltway journalists to bend over backward for incoming Republican administrations goes back many years. Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee explained the phenomenon to Mark Hertsgaard in his book about the press, On Bended Knee:

Stressing that it was “all totally subconscious,” Bradlee explained that when Ronald Reagan came to Washington in 1980, journalists at the Post sensed that “here comes a really true conservative. ... And we are known -- though I don't think justifiably -- as the great liberals. So, [we thought] we've got to really behave ourselves here. We've got to not be arrogant, make every effort to be informed, be mannerly, be fair. And we did this. I suspect in the process that this paper and probably a good deal of the press gave Reagan not a free ride but they didn't use the same standards on him that they used on Carter and on Nixon.”

Just like with Reagan, the D.C. press corps went out of its way to behave itself with Bush, to be “fair” to the new conservative president.

Looking ahead, that desire among journalists to be tough on Democrats in 2009 for fear of being tagged liberal or “in the tank” could certainly come into play when Obama is inaugurated. Because just as the press was derided by Republicans for going too easy on the Democratic baby boomer candidate in 1992 (“Liberal-Media Lynch Mob” buttons and T-shirts were seen at the GOP convention that year), reporters and pundits have been under constant attack in 2008 for going too soft on the Democratic baby boomer candidate.

So, in order to “prove” their independence, will journalists unleash an assault on the new Democratic White House the way they did in 1993?

And will the press pick seemingly random beefs to make its case against the Democratic president, the way it lashed out at Clinton for being overly interested and engrossed in the issues? And the way it said his transition team was too deliberative and close-mouthed when selecting the most senior members of his new administration? Believe it or not, in 1993, those were deemed to be serious strikes against Clinton.

In terms of the latter, restless reporters resented how, during the transition period in late 1992, Democrats didn't dole out enough information about key appointments. “The transition ruined any good feeling that there might have been,” Jeffrey Birnbaum, then a Wall Street Journal reporter, said in 1993. “The dark days of Little Rock after the election, I think, are what soured the press relations with the Clintons.”

The National Journal concurred in a report that year:

The amity suffered, however, as the campaign continued -- as the crowd of reporters grew and Clinton's accessibility dwindled. It deteriorated more during the transition. Reporters ensconced in Little Rock, Ark., and in pursuit of a story each day focused on Clinton's leisurely pace in making appointments and on the campaign promises he'd forsaken. By Clinton's last press conference before moving north toward his new home, the tone of the questioning had grown nasty.

Note that when Clinton's team didn't leak enough transition-team information, the press got mad and said that's when the relationship began to sour. But eight years later, when the Bush team didn't leak transition-team information in late 2000, the press praised the new White House for its discipline and message control, an obvious double standard.

Meanwhile, one of the deepest ironies of examining the hostile/docile press models for the two previously inaugurated presidents is that one of the personal traits that the press relentlessly mocked in Clinton during his first months in office was his high intellectual metabolism, how he wanted to debate every subject and engage around the clock and hear all kinds of opinions about the day's most important topics. The press saw that as a very troubling sign because sometimes it forced Clinton to delay his final decisions.

“This has led to a perception of weakness and indecisiveness,” NBC's Andrea Mitchell announced at the time. (Bush's lack of intellectual curiosity eight years later did not seem to worry the press.)

From the media's perspective, Clinton was too engaged in the pressing topics of the day.

Let's hope the press doesn't foolishly hold that against the next hands-on, issues-oriented president.