Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Is the press being hoodwinked by Bush again?

The New York Times
For Bush and Press, Informal Talks

President Bush has been holding informal off-the-record sessions with major news organizations over the last several days.

Starting Thursday, he began meeting with groups of about a half-dozen reporters from newspapers, television, news agencies and magazines. They have discussed a variety of issues including the war in Iraq, said a reporter who attended a session.

The meetings, which the journalists have agreed not to describe publicly, have been in the White House residence. They come as several news organizations have assigned new reporters, who had no relationship with Mr. Bush, to cover the White House.

David Bohrman, the Washington bureau chief for CNN, one of whose reporters attended a session, said they were a good idea.

"Most of the time, the environments that our reporters deal with the president in are very structured, very managed, and they rarely get to just kick back and have a conversation," he said. "I think there's a lot of value in it for both sides."

He also said he did not see the sessions as compromising. "If something pops up in there that someone wants to follow, they are free to follow up on it," he said.

The New York Times, which was invited to attend a session today, has declined to participate.

Philip Taubman, the Washington bureau chief for The Times, said in a statement last night: "The Times has declined this opportunity after weighing the potential benefits to our readers against the prospect of withholding information from them about the discussion with Mr. Bush. As a matter of policy and practice, we would prefer when possible to conduct on-the-record interviews with public officials."

Times editors and reporters have participated in such unreported sessions with several presidents, including Mr. Bush, over the years. These have involved both social situations and substantive discussions.

This appears to be the first time that the Bush administration has systematically brought in members of the White House press corps, although Mr. Bush holds an annual off-the-record barbecue with reporters during his summer vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.

One reporter who attended a recent session said Mr. Bush had appeared relaxed and seemed to enjoy showing the group around the residence. They met in the yellow oval room and were taken out on the Truman balcony. A few of Mr. Bush's aides were present as the reporters were served iced tea, water and soda and chatted for about an hour.

Mr. Bush does better in such informal sessions than in formal presentations, said Mr. Bohrman, who added that he would like to see more.