Heightened presidential secrecy


It's not a pretty picture. In fact, it's a more obscured one. The media are increasingly distanced from this president and his administration, at a time when the media microscope is more desperately needed than ever.

The Washington Post reported this weekend that President Bush is becoming the least covered president in modern times. "On one of the scariest days yet in the five-year battle with terrorists, President Bush prepared to make a speech to reassure the American people. But the White House press corps was 1,000 miles away in Texas."

Because of a combination of stunningly expensive tabs for media outlets whose White House correspondents travel with the president regularly and an administration that has from the start felt uncomfortable with the media, President Bush is less thoroughly covered than his recent predecessors. The Bush administration also changed coverage rules so that reporters are excluded from fundraisers he attends at supporters' homes. President Clinton, by contrast, allowed one "pool" reporter into such events.

Bush is decidedly less comfortable with journalists than other recent presidents. Clinton was so affable toward media types that it repeatedly got him into trouble. I remember front-page coverage of telephone remarks to neo-con Ben Wattenberg, when the president told Wattenberg he agreed with conservative criticisms of his administration. Clinton thought he was calling a friend and Wattenberg turned around and leaked the conversation, which became front-page news.

A reporter I knew long ago covered the Johnson White House. He told stories of the president rushing unexpectedly into the press room and ripping the paper out of reporters' typewriters (yes, they used typewriters in the '60s) saying, "I want to see what y'all are writing about me." I myself covered several Reagan White House trips and got some unexpected down time with the president and the press pool.

But now, reporters often cover remote White House and even political campaign events from hundreds of miles away, using electronic feeds of politicians' speeches. It's just not the same as being there. Being there is more important with an administration that repeatedly flies (or attempts to fly) beneath the media radar. I can think of several instances in which this White House has changed (or tried to change) federal rules without media scrutiny. They include attempts to weaken enforcement of Title IX and Labor Department data collection on women in the workplace. And then there's the president's record on WMD...

Point is, we need more coverage of this administration at a time when we're getting less. Something's wrong with this picture.