July 19, 2005 Talk nation Interview with Jay Rosen on what he calls, “Roll Back” of the Press
Jay Rosen is a journalist and author of the book, What Are Journalists For?
“This White House doesn’t settle for managing the news–what used to be called ‘feeding the Beast’–because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country.” Jay Rosen
Smith: Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. He has been on the faculty there since 1986, and from 1999 to 2005 he served as chair of the department of journalism. Jay Rosen your blog is full of information about the case of Karl Rove and all of what bloggers have been saying and updates on the McClellan press conference. Talk a little bit about “rollback” and what you do at your blog. And tell people how they can locate it.
Jay Rosen: Well they can locate it by going to pressthink and “rollback” as I have discussed it at my blog is the attempt by the Bush White House to push the press to the margins and eliminate national journalism as a check on executive power and generally side line and down grade the press. And it’s something that’s been going on since long before this current crisis. It’s part of the governing philosophy of the Bush Administration, and I’ve been following it for several years. But now it seems particularly relevant with all of the emphasis on Karl Rove and the White House political operation.
Smith: The press conference where Scott McClellan was challenged to break through and talk about the reality of the Karl Rove circumstance. Others have said on the program; Steve Schlesinger of the World Policy Institute, for example, felt what is happening is that finally the press has caught on. They’ve caught one of the leading members of the Bush Administration in a dirty trick. Now, he’s hopeful, that this will mean that other news will be breaking and that reporters will keep this momentum going and challenge the Bush White House more effectively. Would you agree that that’s a possibility?
Jay Rosen: Well, it’s a possibility because in the minds of Washington reporters this is a brewing scandal and scandal calls out behaviors in the press where it becomes more acceptable within the fraternity to focus on one thing, to team up with several reporters in one organization. To dig, dig, dig, because they sense that there is something there. So certainly it’s possible that further revelations will come from all of the reporters who are currently working on this, and they are. But I don’t think that the press conference itself was a sign of this renewed vigor. It was simply the result of the fact that McClellan was caught in what appeared to be an outright untruth. And anytime that happens the press pounces because it feels on firm ground in doing so. And by the way, the television reporters, the three network reporters have been the most aggressive, in part because when you see the defensiveness of the press secretary it makes for better television and that’s what they are after.
Smith: But we really have been through several years of war, Bush administration policies, changes ranging from the Homeland Security Act to the Patriot Act and yet the press has not done what they did in that Monday press conference that you describe on your blog.
Jay Rosen: Right. They haven’t.
Smith: So do you think it’s possible that the weight of failure in the policy on Iraq is what is partly driving this new challenge to the Bush Administration and Karl Rove?
Jay Rosen: Well I think what’s ultimately driving it is the ultimate cause, and the ultimate cause is the phony case for war presented by the Bush Administration in 2002 and 2003.
The stretching of the truth. The putting together of a case for weapons that weren’t there. And the rush to war which I believe was a pre-determined end. The idea of the policy before the facts or the verdict before the trial was very much a part of what happened then, and I think that we are seeing the results of that, several years later, of that period between 2002 and 2003 where ?reason giving? took a back seat to action and ultimately the Bush White House’s reasons for war were not put together with respect for democratic institutions, with respect for factuality and truth, or with any respect for the intelligence of the American people. –And whatever was necessary to be done at that time, was done, and we are seeing the results of that now.
Smith: CNN has done some reporting today on Chatham House and their report that says that the war in Iraq has helped Al Quida. Chatham House being a highly respected think tank in London, not exactly what you would call one of your run of the mill left wing organizations that has been challenging the Blair Government. And we have seen too the release of the Downing Street memos. People have been talking about them extensively around the world during the past month or two and just wondering to what extent has the force of information about what has happened in Iraq prompted people to push against Karl Rove and possibly help in the ending of his career in the White House?
Jay Rosen: That would be a factor if you saw Republican members of the Bush coalition starting to doubt Rove and starting to doubt the truth telling capacity of the White House. And we haven’t seen that yet. We’ve seen energized opponents but the opponents were energized during the election campaign and in the anti war movement and before.
The striking thing to me about the Bush White House is that it more or less is able to ignore 45% of the country and until elements in the Republican coalition become restive and start criticizing either Rove or Bush or the White House political operation I don’t think we’ve crossed that line.
Smith: To what extent do you think that the progressive media, the alternative press, can continue to fill in the blanks until that happens? Until the Americans that don’t yet know what’s going on start to realize that perhaps the Progressives in media have had a lot to tell them along, since this war began?
Jay Rosen: I’m not sure that will ever happen. I think we are more and more moving to a world where people do live in their own information grooves. I’m not sure the progressive media has the attention of the rest of the country although it can be affective at digging up facts and documents and putting together a case that others can use. But in the current circumstances which are usual in my adult life with the White House and the Congress and the courts so heavily influenced by one party, it’s extremely difficult for the opposition to make any headway at all. And I think we are stuck in that position. But the truth has a force of its own, so if forces in the press or in the media can bring more of it out that might help. –But there are a lot of problems on the progressive side as well, with exaggeration and propaganda and jumping to conclusions and attacking people personally, and glossing over inconvenient facts. I think one of the most powerful effects of the Bush White House’s scorched earth policy when it comes to facts and truth is to cause people on the left to say we have to do the same thing. And I think that’s a very worrisome thing.
Smith: If and when Karl Rove should leave the White House, and George W. Bush has announced that if anyone on his staff has violated the law then they will be leaving the White House. If that should happen we would still have a lot of people to carry on the tradition of let’s say staging the news? Is that a fair description; Putting forth talking points, only information that has been very carefully cultivated and presented to every possible media outlet that will cooperate. Will the Rove legacy just continue on if he is not there?
Jay Rosen: Oh I don’t think anything will be different, not a single thing. First of all so many of his people are in place in the Bush Administration that they know what to do. Dan Bartlett for example, who was White House communications director, is a Rove protâ€šgâ€š so is Ken Melhman, head of the Republican Party. And there are many others, including Scott McClellan. So, I don’t think that will have that much affect.
I do quarrel a little bit with your term, “staging the news”. My view is that that is the old model. “Staging the news.” “Managing the news.” “Spin.” That whole language which we still use, doesn’t capture what the Bush White House’s approach is really about. They believe they can withdraw completely from any relationship with the press and sort of go on no matter what is reported and what they are interested in is not their own spin on the facts but their own facts. And that is a very daring and in my view innovative political strategy. That really makes this White House different than previous White House’s in news management.
Smith: Now, do you think that Mehlman and others might be damaged by what they said during the Rove investigation? Because it does seem that they’ve been caught sort of holding what they’ve said before in their hands helplessly as news has come forth. Because one would think that there has been plenty of time to prepare and yet we continue to get very strange comments as if there were no federal investigation that information would be coming from?
Jay Rosen: Well it’s possible because they are dealing with something they haven’t dealt with before, which is the power of a prosecutor to compel testimony, to get documents that otherwise wouldn’t come to light. To search the government and force the truth out and if they are operating under the rules that they have established, where you seek not only your own spin but your own facts then they might get in trouble, but not because of what the press is doing or even public reaction but simply because of the force of the prosecutor. So that is a little bit hot. On the other hand when we say, as journalists tend to do and others, that they have no credibility, I think that we aren’t thinking very carefully or imaginatively about that. Credibility isn’t a thing; it’s not really as solid as we say.
It to some degree exists in the minds of people. It’s a perception. It’s an opinion. And the idea that you sort of have to give up when your credibility is shot simply doesn’t describe the world as it is today. And the Bush Administration can go along quite fine without credibility. And I think it’s proven that. And that’s you know, a more serious thing in a way and I think that’s what we are grappling with.
Smith: As we’ve watched the information come out about what Patrick Fitzgerald does know, and it’s come out in small amounts doled out over the past week in various news interviews. There was one over the weekend with Matthew Cooper telling us that the comment originally attributed to Karl Rove “I heard that too” –and this apparently was originally the lawyer to Karl Rove, Robert Luskin told a journalist that that’s what Rove said to Matthew Cooper. Now we come to learn that that actually is what was said by Scooter Libby in the Vice President’s office to Matthew Cooper. –Just talk about that collision of facts a little bit.
Jay Rosen: Well my own sense as a guess is that Rove was obtaining the silence of the people that he helped out by giving them a waiver. So he kind of created a deal and I think he has this deal with Novak where he tells the prosecutor; “It’s OK, they can testify, I give my release from any agreement to keep my name confidential,” –but in return the journalist says, agrees not to talk about that publicly.
And for whatever reasons Cooper had that agreement. So we are starting to see things come out that perhaps the lawyer didn’t think would. I don’t know what Rove’s lawyer is doing. It seems to me he’s creating more problems for his client. But again, the Bush Administration hasn’t been in a single situation that I can think of where it faces any penalty for factual misstatement. But a prosecution like this is one.
Smith: Looking at it in terms of the prosecution, the White House has as you say escaped criticism, scrutiny in the past, but where we are talking about violations of national security laws things are on a very different level. And that’s why when the President has said what he has about violations of the law would lead to firing, we have to conclude that this will come down to the finer points of language and what was said and how it can be articulated as to whether or not violations of the law will be proven?
Jay Rosen: No I don’t think so. I think it will be, if Fitzgerald indicts Rove then he will be fired So, the indictment will serve as proof that the laws were violated. And that’s what he means. But he would probably have been fired if indicted whether Bush said that or not. It’s very difficult to keep somebody on who’s under criminal indictment in a White House.
Smith: Do you think that he can survive this in the White House?
Jay Rosen: Absolutely. You see when we say that the White House is facing a credibility crisis I think we are being a little bit naive. It can survive any degree of criticism from 45% or 48% of the country that is off the Bush reservation as it were. And it can survive all kinds of contradictions between what it has said and the factual record.
I mean we already have hundreds of examples of that and I don’t think it’s true that criticism slows them down. I don’t think it’s true that a credibility crisis interferes with what they are doing. But again, an indictment would be a different situation. So I think what Bush said isn’t really news worthy at all, it just means if he is indicted I’ll get rid of him. And even then he will still continue to influence things the way Karen Hughes did when she went back to Texas.
Smith: Now you say on your Press Think blog that, “the bigger picture” for you “starts with George Bush, Karen Hughes, Andrew Card, Dan Bartlet, John Ashcroft.” Let’s sort of take them one at a time and really John Ashcroft first because didn’t he recuse himself from a case involving Karl Rove in the past?
Jay Rosen: Well he was the one who ultimately had to decide that there should be a special prosecutor in this case. The reason I mentioned him in my blog is that he was one of the most aggressive cabinet members in marginalizing and downgrading and decertifying as I say the National Press, and kind of led the way on that when he was attorney general, including holding press conferences where he used the secret service to ban print reporters from questioning him.
So on his tour to renew the Patriot Act where he was going from city to city speaking in favor of the highly controversial Patriot Act, in favor of its renewal, he would routinely meet with local TV reporters, who of course are less informed, more malleable, more likely to be flattered by the interview, and they would ban from these press briefings the national political press who were traveling with them. And I thought that was extraordinary and I wrote about it at the time, but I didn’t realize that it was a part of this larger thing that I’m calling “rollback”.
Smith: What if anything do you think that that might have had to do with Karl Rove or any other strategy that’s larger than just John Ashcroft?
Jay Rosen: I don’t know whether the policy that I call “rollback” has been exclusively discussed or whether it’s simply understood by the team but I think what they have done, Dan Bartlet is key to this, is tell McClellan that they basically want to determine in their morning meeting what the line of the day is, what the White House is saying today, and they want him to add nothing to that. They want him to stiff the press. They want him to refuse to add a single thing to what is determined in their own counsels and morning meetings at the White House. So what in effect that they are doing is making the press irrelevant to any further elaboration or questioning. They don’t accept the press as an intralocular. They believe in shutting off the tap, which is represented by the press room and the White House itself. And one of the effects of doing that is to put a larger premium on anything leaked because you can’t get any information at all from normal channels. They won’t return your phone calls. They won’t answer your questions. They just don’t care. And so if you can talk to somebody on background that’s even more compelling in a way to a journalist because all of the other sources are cut off.
Smith: Now that really makes it very important that you be able to use anonymous sources doesn’t it?
Jay Rosen: Well that’s what journalists would say but what I would say is that makes you even more open to manipulation.
Smith: And so talk about manipulation in the case of Valerie Plame because we heard originally from people who knew Rove and were aware of his tactics, that he was the one who did it and we are going back now to 2003. Some of the first discussions had Karl Rove’s name at the top of them. So people guessed right, and yet there were just plentiful lies about that and denials.
Jay Rosen: Well the whole thing was littered with lies from the very beginning. Some of them are quite telling. The idea that a mid level person like Valerie Plame could authorize a trip like this was wild to begin with. I mean anybody that knows the CIA knows that that’s extremely unlikely. The other thing that I found extraordinary was the Walter Pincus from the Washington Post reported that around this time he was having a conversation with another official about Iraq, weapons and Iraq, and the official interrupted the conversation to explain to him why the White House didn’t take Joseph Wilson’s charges seriously. –And explained that he was sent to Niger as a boondoggle that his wife cooked up, and others, anonymously or openly have described the Wilson trip as a “junket”.
Now this is extraordinary. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is one of the hottest and driest countries in the world. It is totally third world. There are no attractions to it whatsoever. And the idea that this would be comparable to politicians going to a Polynesian Island in some phony fact gathering trip in order to enjoy the sunshine, which is what a “junket” is, is like so bizarre that it raises all sorts of questions of who was saying that, because it doesn’t sound to me like an experienced political operative. Pincus didn’t do anything with this information because he didn’t believe it and those are just two examples of untruths that have been part of this story from when it first started. You know, we are in a situation in this country where it isn’t clear at all that the truth has the force that we want to think it does. Maybe it still does, but maybe it doesn’t, and that’s where I am on this.
Smith: Bill Israel who taught with Karl Rove at the University of Texas Austin, pointed out that in this case it’s not a traditional First Amendment argument because that would defend giving up a confidential source, but in this case he said he believed Karl (Rove) used the journalist involved to protect the perpetration of a fraud and that he was happy that this would be a First Amendment discussion of whether or not Miller, Cooper, would give up his name or anyone else’s as, you know, a First Amendment challenge because that way he didn’t have to discuss the larger question of the story of his manipulation of journalists in what we suspect now probably was an intentional leak.
Jay Rosen: I think that there is a story that is sort of lying beneath the surface even today of what the Press is discussing and that is the whole shadow world of anonymous sources in journalism is something that journalists don’t really want to shine a light on because they are involved in all kinds of things that would really look terrible in the light of day. And this is one of them because the whole leak was about punishing a whistleblower and the protections that this press seeks for confidential sources in this case. Journalists keep telling us how amazing and bizarre it is that Judy Miller was prosecuted when she didn’t even write a story. I’ve already heard that like 300 times. But they don’t speak as often about how bizarre it is that she went to jail to protect people who were trying to destroy a whistleblower and said that she was taking this action to protect the journalist’s right to hear from whistleblowers.
And I think that it isn’t true that journalists owe loyalty to everybody who ever spoke to them confidentially. If the person turned out to lie or have engaged in something nefarious then you don’t owe that person anything. But, of course, that means that journalists have to make tough judgments about that. They would rather not have to make those judgments and so they say things like, “well we can’t pick and chose who we protect.” Or they say, “When you are leaked stuff people leak for all sorts of reasons.” Or, they say, “Some leakers are good guys and some are bad guys but we talk to all of them.” And none of that really gets at the issue of why should journalists of all people lend themselves to the silencing of a whistleblower? We still don’t know the answer to that. Very few people in the press will address it. There is a lot unexplained about Miller’s stance in this case and the New York Times support for her and how the events that sent her to jail played out. One of the unanswered questions, for example, is whether she received an offer of the same kind of waver that other reporters, not just Cooper, but other reporters like Walter Pincus and Tim Russert at NBC did. And, if she declined the arrangements that they accepted. Because, if she did then we have a different issue here. We have journalists making two different kinds of judgments about protecting confidential sources. Not Judy Miller heroically going to jail to protect hers.
Smith: Let’s talk about this as it relates to others now like Andrew Card. Why did you mention his name in your blog?
Jay Rosen: In January of 2004 Ken Auletta of the New Yorker published his long piece, it was about Bush and the press, and it was based on the reporting that he had done. And he talked to a lot of people in the White House. And Andrew Card was the one who said “we don’t believe in the Fourth Estate theory of the Press. We don’t think there is a check and balance function to journalism. We see the press as just a special interest that really doesn’t represent anybody except itself. No different in principle from the trucking association. And it’s that thinking announced out loud that I find so extraordinary.
Smith: The message, clear message from the White House was that reporters and others should be careful about what they might say because we wouldn’t want to help our quote unquote “enemies in the war on terror.” The Press could get America into trouble. Talk about that just a little bit as it relates to what you are saying.
Jay Rosen: Well I think, and I don’t have the information to prove this, it’s more intuition or speculation on my part, but I think that part of the reason for “rollback” of the Press is this notion that the United States is at a disadvantage in battling against Islamic fundamentalism and other enemies around the world because it is an open society and the media will focus on the negative or expose any shortcoming and in this way start to damage America in the eyes of the world. And I believe there are people in the White House who have said we can’t afford this anymore. We have to do something about this. We can’t operate at this kind of disadvantage. And that is part of the reason they feel justified in doing what would in other times simply be seen as a way to escape political responsibility. –Escape questions. Escape critics. So this idea that the Press contributes to national weakness because it exposes the errors and excesses and missteps and contradictions or just the sensational gossip of the administration, I think is behind some of the White House’s treatment of the Press.
Smith: Karl Rove is supposed to be someone who thinks of the world in terms of Richard Nixon’s era.
Jay Rosen: Well I think the Nixon connection is that hard core Republicans with institutional memory as it were came to the conclusion that the Press was the “enemy of the party” after Watergate. And there had been that argument out there since Goldwater, which is really part of the cultural climate of American conservatism. And we see the fruits of that today in the culture war of attacks on the Press. But among Party insiders, I think Watergate convinced them that if the Press were sidelined, marginalized, destroyed, if it’s credibility was ruined in the eyes of the public, it would be much more of a loss for the Democrats than the Republicans because basically the Press is against us. And, I think there are some for whom the present moment is a moment of payback for that happening in 1973 and 1974.
Smith: Just talk a little bit about what the Rove investigation right now has shown you about George W. Bush?
Jay Rosen: Well I think these are things I already knew but perhaps just reinforced. He’s completely oblivious to criticism. He’s in my view a very bold, imaginative, and visionary political leader. I disagree with many on the Left. I think he’s extremely intelligent and knows a lot about politics and in my view the story of the Bush White House has been for a long time political innovation. They are innovators. They don’t believe in doing things the way that others have done them. Certainly, the way somebody like Clinton did them, but also earlier Republican Administrations.
I wrote about David Gergen who had been a media advisor to Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and I don’t even think he would get an interview in the Bush White House. They wouldn’t even want to talk to him because their thinking is so different. So, I see Bush as an innovator. As somebody who sees American power and executive power as being reborn after September 11th. And he and his team are going about the business of rebuilding White House power. And their perception is that it had been watered down or lost to other actors and has recovered. And I think this had been the story for four years in the Bush White House and it’s still the story. He doesn’t give any ground. He is totally untroubled by contradictions between what he says and the factual record, and as I said in my web log, that extraordinary statement Ronald Reagan made in 1987 where he said, “My heart tells me I didn’t trade arms for hostages but the facts tell me I did.” I don’t think Bush is capable of that. I don’t think he is willing to ever make a statement like that. And that’s what’s so different about this group.
Smith: Do you think that they knew going into the White House in the year 2000 that they might throw out the democratic baby with the bathwater if they proceeded with their policies?
Jay Rosen: No not necessarily they just had a lot of resentment and they had a lot of confidence and felt that they were going to change things. They didn’t know what kind of opportunities they would have to do that. But I think after September 11th all restraint was gone.
Smith: When more comes out about Downing Street and now the new Chatham House report on the Iraq war, strengthening Al-Qaida. As more people look at the failure in Iraq. How will the Bush White House maintain the sort of “rollback” that you have been discussing?
Jay Rosen: Well it’s pretty simple really. They just deny it. If the Chatham House report says, “Al Qaida is stronger than ever”. Rumsfeld just says the opposite, and really what is going to stop him? You see I think what this reveals is that there was always something in administration officials prior to this administration that might have amounted to character or guilt or some inner nature that told them not to go too far. And I think whatever that is it’s gone. So it doesn’t really matter. I think you could have twenty five organizations as independent minded and as sober as Chatham House come to the same conclusion and it wouldn’t change a thing. But what it would do is activate the culture warriors in the Republican Party to go in and attack those institutions. And that’s how you do it. As Dan Frumpkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for the Washington Post, said, the extraordinary thing about Karl Rove is that when he is criticized he goes on the attack. He doesn’t reply to the criticism he attacks the critic on some new grounds that’s usually unrelated to the criticism. And whether Rove continues to do that or not the Bush political machine knows how to do that and they will continue to do it.
Smith: Jay Rosen, what kind of advice do you give to your students about what directions they might go in when they want to be investigative reporters covering Washington?
Jay Rosen: Well they have to do it because of some inner discipline or inner drive, not necessarily because they expect a result or a payoff right away. It’s become a matter of character. If you have the character to be a journalist then you should. But it’s very confusing for students. They don’t really know what direction to go in.
Jay Rosen is author of Press Think that’s a web log where you can find his articles and his analysis of the Rove investigation and other very important news. And we thank you so much for joining us to talk about this.
Jay Rosen: My pleasure.
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