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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July, 2003, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
How Bush shuns the media
By Rachel Clarke
BBC News Online in Washington

Americans can see their president on television almost every day. From policy speeches to White House meetings to photo opportunities on the road with selected groups, the sight of George W Bush is anything but a rarity.

US President George W Bush
Mr Bush holds far fewer briefings than his predecessors
But opportunities for the nation's press to question the leader are far less common.

He will make comments before or after events - such as paying tribute to the late comedian Bob Hope - and he takes two questions after meeting visiting foreign leaders like Israel's Ariel Sharon.

Yet the White House can let months go by without giving the press any extended opportunity to ask questions of the president.

Mr Bush's last news conference was on 6 March this year, 11 days before he issued Saddam Hussein with an ultimatum to leave Iraq or face invasion.

Since then, there has been the war itself, growing concern about difficulties still being faced by US troops in Iraq and a row over the intelligence used to justify the attack.

Media frustration

Other issues have also come up - Mr Bush's controversial tax cut, violence in Liberia, renewed criticism of the intelligence services who failed to stop the 11 September attacks and, most recently, allegations that the White House is trying to protect Saudi Arabia with its refusal to declassify a congressional report on those attacks.

News conferences offer an important mechanism for the American people to see their president answer questions on the panoply of issues facing the country
Washington Post
Reporters lob questions at White House spokesmen, but elements of the media have become increasingly frustrated at the lack of opportunity to hear directly from the president.

On Tuesday, the influential Washington Post newspaper ran an editorial calling on Mr Bush to "Meet the Press".

While not calling for the kind of monthly televised news conferences introduced by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, the paper said even four appearances a year would be an improvement.

It noted that Mr Bush had held just eight solo news conferences in his two-and-a-half years in power. At the same stage of their terms, Bill Clinton had held 33 such events and the first President Bush 61.

"News conferences aren't a panacea. The questions can be silly or preening or off-point," the Post noted.

"But news conferences offer an important mechanism for the American people to see their president answer questions on the panoply of issues facing the country. And they give the president, as he prepares for the grilling, a useful refresher course on the workings of his administration."

Style defended

Maybe someone in the administration heeded the Post's words, but few expect a dramatic shift in media policy from the White House.

I think some people have come to the conclusion that these grand news conferences of the past are designed for a little more theatre than they are for information
Ari Fleischer,
then White House spokesman
Mr Bush makes a point of learning journalists' names and some personal details about them, such as whether they have children. This allows him to have a seemingly easy rapport when he does take questions.

But sometimes he also appears to become irked when reporters fail to return the bonhomie and pepper him with demands.

He deflects issues he does not want to address - as any other leading politician would - but there seem to be no plans to allow more sparring with the press.

At his final briefing earlier this month, former presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer defended Mr Bush's way of giving brief comments to reporters several times a week on the issue of the day.

"I think some people have come to the conclusion that these grand news conferences of the past are designed for a little more theatre than they are for information. So that's the president's style," he said.




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