White House steers reporters back to Bush message
By Major Garrett
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Every White House tries to drive news coverage. Few ever admit it.
But the Bush White House is defending the practice of limiting access to President Bush this week so it can keep the press corps focused on the president's budget priorities.
On consecutive days, the White House has suspended pool coverage of presidential events that typically yield answers from Bush on a range of issues. The pool is a small group of reporters selected on a daily basis to cover most presidential events. Pool reporters have often been given wide access to the president when he convenes his cabinet or meets with top lawmakers.
That practice ended this week.
On Wednesday, the White House canceled coverage of Bush's first meeting with the bipartisan congressional leadership of the new year. It also canceled coverage of the president's first meeting with his cabinet to discuss the State of the Union and the upcoming budget.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Thursday admitted overtly trying to craft news coverage, conceding questions to the president might interfere with the White House push to publicize the president's doubling of spending on homeland security in this year's budget.
"It's part of the rollout of the budget with a focus on the president's initiatives and priorities," Fleischer said. "He welcomes your questions, he loves your questions. He enjoys the interaction. Just not today."
Wednesday, Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan said pool access to Bush's meeting with congressional leaders had been canceled to make sure the president's proposed $48 billion boost in defense spending dominated the day's coverage. That was the news of the day, McClellan said, and reporters would not be given a chance to create a competing story by asking Bush any questions.
Fleischer said Thursday the president will continue to make himself available for questions in the future. He did not indicate when, however.
More broadly, several White House aides conceded it has become harder for the president to dominate news coverage as he did in the months after the terrorist attacks on September 11.
White House aides said the president appeared to be the central feature of 24-hour cable news channels and the nightly news broadcasts until roughly the end of 2001. But with the new year has come more media interest in other stories.
It's a trend White House aides have taken careful note of, and it has become a factor in their approach to dealing with presidential initiatives and how they are covered by the White House press corps.
"We don't have the stage like we used to," one aide said. "Different stories are emerging, competing with us for news. It's a new environment."
Several top aides noted Thursday that the president's announcement of boosting spending on homeland security -- from $19.5 billion this year to $37.7 billion next year -- was interrupted on all three cable news networks by coverage of the family of American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh proclaiming his innocence and love for the United States.
Two months ago, White House aides said, it would have been very unusual for the cable networks to break away from the president's remarks on homeland security.
The aides were not critical of the decision. They readily conceded the news value of seeing Walker Lindh's parents and hearing from them for the first time. Even so, they said the episode illustrated the new difficulties the White House will encounter shaping and pressing the president's message on the war on terror and his domestic agenda.
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