Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Exciting Insider Account of the Selection of Judge Roberts!

The White House, naturally, wants to get the best coverage possible regarding the President’s selection of Judge John G. Roberts for the Supreme Court. Not only do they want to get positive reviews of the nominee himself, but they want coverage that portrays the President as making his choice in a way that is thoughtful, sincere and above politics.

But how to get this kind of coverage? The President and his aides, of course, can tell the press that he considered only the moral and intellectual qualities of the nominee, and that he never considered politics. They can describe the extensive research and interviewing the President did before making his choice. But even if this produces press stories quoting these assertions, who in the cynical public will believe it? Of course they’re going to say that! And besides, a press corps that’s doing its job will also quote the President’s opponents asserting that his choice reflects political calculation, is ill-considered, etc.

The Bush White House has found a better way: throw reporters a few "insider" details on the selection process that they can pass on to their readers as if they were real insights into the President’s thinking. You might even be able to get reporters to build entire stories around these carefully-selected details, leaving out any opinions from non-White House Sources. Offer them "a rare peek into the president's decision-making and his first nomination to the Supreme Court," in the words of Edward Chen in the Los Angeles Times and on the Seattle Times website. Chen reports that this "rare peek" was provided in a briefing to reporters by senior aides counselor Dan Bartlett and press secretary Scott McClellan.

What do we learn in this rare peek? For one, we learn that Bush interrupted a lunch with Australian Prime Minister John Howard to call Roberts and offer him the job. He returned from his call to his lunch immediately after Bush made the offer to Roberts and Roberts accepted, Bush told his lunchtime guest "I just offered the job to a great, smart 50-year-old lawyer who agreed to sit on the bench."

Wow! This isn’t just spin! This is what Bush spontaneously offered up to his buddy the Prime Minister! And what Scott McClellan spoon fed to Chen.

But I shouldn’t pick on Chen, because he at least puts this anecdote near the end of his story. Elizabeth Bumiller, writing in the New York Times, actually leads with this nicely-packaged inanity. If Bumiller didn’t exist, the White House would have to invent her.

Both Chen and Bumiller also quote Barlett enthusing that Roberts’s "credentials just jumped off the page." Bumiller adds this lovely, spoon-fed detail:

By July 5, when Mr. Bush left for a trip to Denmark and an international summit in Scotland, he had with him a thick packet of information of 11 finalists, winnowed from what Mr. Bartlett called an extensive "evergreen" list of potential Supreme Court nominees that the administration has kept and revised since Mr. Bush's first days in the White House.
Our President sure is a hard worker, lugging that "thick packet" all around Europe. And thorough too. Why he studied up on no less than 11 choice finalists!

McClellan and Barlett spins Chen so well that he forgets to offer any opposing views in his 21-paragraph story. In her 18 paragraphs, Bumiller offers only a one sentence summary of the cynical Washington perspective on the timing of the nomination, which she then allows Bartlett to knock down.

Both Republicans and Democrats said that the speeded-up timing - administration officials had at one point told reporters to expect an announcement in the last week of July - would have the effect of pushing news of Karl Rove and the federal investigation into who leaked the name of a C.I.A. officer off the front pages, at least for a time. But in a briefing to reporters shortly before Mr. Bush's announcement, Mr. Bartlett insisted that the president's timing had nothing to do with Mr. Rove and everything to do with giving the Senate adequate time before its recess next week to meet Judge Roberts and deal with the enormous amount of paperwork and logistics such a nomination requires.

"This was driven by that time clock," Mr. Bartlett said.

One other thing that both Chen and Bumiller forget to include in their stories about the President’s selection process– the part where he’s supposed to seek the advice of the Senate. Given that these are stories about the selection process, and given that consultation (or the lack thereof) with the Senate on judicial nominees has been a huge issue of late, you would think that our intrepid reporters might have asked their White House briefers how the opinions of the various Senators Bush consulted with impacted his decision. They might have even called some of these Senators to ask what they thought of Bush’s choice. But why do reporting when you can just write down exciting insider details dictated to you by White House aides?