Bush Seeks to Bypass News 'Filter' on Iraq

Oct. 25, 2003 -- — To the Nixon administration, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was the problem. So was his counterpart over at NBC, John Chancellor. And the White House didn't much care for ABCNEWS anchorman Frank Reynolds, either.

Officials didn't like the way that the networks were covering the war in Vietnam, and so they invited local anchors from around the country to come to Washington for a series of one-on-one interviews with the president, bypassing the national media.

Now, as President Bush's approval ratings sag, partly under the weight of negative Iraq reconstruction news, his administration may be taking a page out of the past presidential playbook. Facing reelection next year, Bush has been relentlessly touting positive news from Iraq, and giving interviews to reporters from local television and newspaper groups.

"There's a sense that the people in America aren't getting the truth," Bush said recently. "I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels. And sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people. And that's what we will continue to do."

But though most agree Iraq is no Vietnam, critics say the current campaign seems like another case of blaming the messenger.

"If the politicians are arguing about the press coverage, it usually is a sign that there's something wrong with the policy," said Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "They're doing whatever they can to try and change the nature of the coverage because the facts aren't going their way."

Sympathetic Ears?

Some presume the White House believes local reporters will give them and their positive Iraq spin an easier time than the more seasoned national press corps — though Bush officials, such as Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, say they're simply "following the [news] market."

"The American people, themselves, get their news, oftentimes, from their local network anchor or through their local newspaper," Bartlett told ABCNEWS' Ted Koppel. "And we think it's important that they have an opportunity to hear from the president or from the administration, just as much as the national media does."

The tactic of bypassing the national media may have worked for Nixon, who was re-elected in 1972 by a wide margin. But critics point out it didn't seem to change the situation on the ground in Vietnam. The bad news had been mostly accurate, and redirecting the news flow didn't change that.

Bad News

News from Iraq, though far less harsh than reports from Vietnam, has been full of attacks on U.S. soldiers, suicide bombings, power problems and anti-American protests.

The White House isn't saying reporters are making up the news on Iraq, or even that it's not important. But Bush wants more coverage of the things that are working — the police being trained, the schools being rebuilt, the new currency, and the fact that people are back to a lot of the normal routines of daily life.

"We're making good progress in Iraq," Bush said. "Sometimes it's hard to tell it, when you listen to the filter."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it more bluntly, when he said, "The part of the picture that's negative is being emphasized, and the part of the picture that's positive is not."

ABCNEWS and the other national media do, in fact, cover the good news from time to time, though sometimes it gets eclipsed.

"There's a lot of good news stories here that we are trying to get out," said Neal Karlinsky, an ABCNEWS' correspondent in Baghdad. "Quite frankly, news events sometimes get in the way of that. It's hard to work on a feature story about life in Baghdad getting back to normal when there is suddenly a car bombing that kills a half dozen people nearby."

Bid to Refocus

Bush and his team appear to be trying to change the focus to have the good news eclipse the bad.

Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, who recently traveled to Iraq, said, "This is not the dismal, frightened area that I expected to see, having watched the news coverage in the United States over the last six months."

"Water and electricity are being returned to the Iraqi people," Bush said recently.

"We are rebuilding more than 1,000 schools," Vice President Dick Cheney said.

"Step by step, normal life in Iraq is being reborn," said Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser.

Their Own Fault?

Some have argued the Bush administration's trouble with the media and public on Iraq has a lot to do with the way it steered the issue earlier.

It was Bush who flew out to an aircraft carrier to declare victory in Iraq before the end of U.S. casualties there. It was Bush's staff that predicted how Iraqis would receive U.S. troops.

"My belief is we will in fact be greeted as liberators," Cheney said.

And staff members insisted that the dollar cost could be kept relatively low.

"We're dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Despite the sound bites, Bartlett, the White House communications director, said the administration did not speculate in advance whether or not reconstruction in Iraq would be easy.

"I disagree with the [assertion] that the administration was telling the American people or the Congress or the media one thing, while we completely knew something different," Bartlett said. "I believe that in several occasions, countless occasions, Secretary Rumsfeld and others said we're not going to know the total cost until we get there."

Although the projected cost now is well into the tens of billions of dollars and rising, Bartlett maintained the overall picture from Iraq is good.

"We all know that in Iraq, that violence makes news," Bartlett said. "But violence has been with Iraq for more than 30 years. What is new to Iraq is freedom."

ABCNEWS' John Donvan in Washington contributed to this report.