Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Gentleman's agreement
PhotoDude has made some entertaining observations regarding the wall-to-wall television coverage of the President's speech Monday night -- or, more precisely, the lack of it.

Those who question the need for war with Iraq call for more debate, a slower approach, more talk, and for the President to do a better job making his case.
So tonight at 8 the President was to give a 25 minute or so speech on just that topic.
...None of the Big Three Networks carried the speech.
...I can't really understand why the White House failed to make the request [that the networks carry his speech], nor can I understand why network executives feel they must only act on the directions of the White House, and not use their own brains to figure out that since our nation may soon be at war, covering the President's speech might be A Good Thing.

Oh, Linda Ellerbee spilled these beans years ago in her book, And So It Goes. I'll pick up her narrative as she is in the White House press room in the early eighties:

I covered a briefing by Jody Powell. My assignment editor wanted to know about plans for President Carter's trip to Poland. Powell began the briefing by giving us that very information. I took it down, then listened as he went on to tell is ut was National Sweet Potato Week and later the president would be in the Rose Garden with Miss Sweet Potato and some farmers if anybody wanted to take advantage of the "photo op".
...I didn't think we had all that much interest in sweet potatoes, so I left the briefing before Powell finished, called the assignment editor and told him the plans for the Poland trip.
"How long did Jody talk today?"
"Hard to say. He's still talking."
"What? You left before the briefing was over? That's completely against the rules. Go back immediately."
It seems all those news organizations that took out ads telling you how competitive they are had gotten together and agreed no one would ever leave the briefing before it was over. That way nobody would scoop anybody. Cozy.
In that case, I told him, we were in real luck. I'd already left. The damage was done. Now we could scoop everybody on the sweet-potato story.
Some people don't recognize a gift when it's handed them.
...[After the briefing] a voice over the public addres system interrupted me.
"The lunch lid is on. I repeat. The lunch lid is on."
Now that was the sort of announcement guaranteed to send a reporter back for further instructions, especially one who'd already messed up as a White House correspondent. Another call to the assignment editor.
"Hi. It's me. At the White House. Thought you'd want to know the lunch lid is on. I don't know what that means but it sounds important. Maybe we ought to tell Nightly News right away, in case they want to change tonight's show. Meanwhile, what should I do?"
He said I should go to lunch. The announcement meant reporters could go to restaurants with their sources, or each other, and not have to worry about war being declared while they were away from the press room. No news would happen until after three o'clock. Well, fancy that. Not only did competing news organizations make sure no one would be competitive on the briefing, but the White House joined in the game when it came to the important stuff, like lunch.

I've seen nothing to make me think the prevailing attitudes in Washington -- or anyplace else where reporters are dependent on handout news releases from politicians, which is everywhere -- have changed.

I'd like to think some network might have carried the presidential speech had it been opposite mere reruns, but of course they still would have had to eat some commercials to do it, so it would have been a difficult decision. After all, the president hadn't asked for the time, so it must not be very important. If he were actually going to say anything, he would have told us first.

The lunch lid, after all, was on. (The prime-time dinner lid?)

Or perhaps, in the news directors' open, unbaised judgement, since obviously there could be no justification for war against Iraq (they settled that over lunch, before moving on to split up the check), there was no need to embarrass and confuse the nation by allowing the president to demonstrate his failure to grasp that "fact" on national television. Or am I reading too much into this?

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