Brit Hume interviewed Ari Fleischer on Special Report March 8, 2005. I have just finished transcribing it.
Helen Thomas: Why then is a family grudge included in official papers States Acquisition on war and peace?
Ari Fleischer: Helen, if you’re referring to, form, an attempt to assassinate a former United States President which Iraq tried to do when former President Bush went to Kuwait.
Helen Thomas: that’s why we’re killing thousands of people in Iraq?
Ari Fleischer: Helen I also think it’s why former President Clinton responded to that assassination attempt with four days of cruise missile strikes against Iraq.
Helen Thomas: People are acting like this is a conversion to democracy by the sword. How can you, I mean, are you going to kill all these people to get democracy?
Brit Hume: That is what daily press briefings were like in the first years of the Bush Administration and that’s pretty much what they’re like today. Briefers come and go, but the press, and some of its prominent members seem to be forever. Why is this? Well who better to ask than the man who, as you just saw endured the slings and arrows for most of President Bush’s first term, his former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, author of Taking Heat the new book about his experiences on the job. Ari, welcome.
Ari Fleischer: Thank you Brit.
Brit Hume: So what causes, in your judgment, the atmosphere, that intensely adversarial atmosphere which has existed for some time in the White House briefing room?
Ari Fleischer: Well part of it is the healthy way every democracy should be carried out with press holding the government accountable and asking the tough questions. But I also happen to think that in the modern media, particularly live TV coverage, it’s almost now become a performance in that briefing room, half by reporters, half by the press secretary, it’s just a new era.
Brit Hume: The briefing, the daily briefing wasn’t always on camera…
Ari Fleischer: And when it wasn’t on camera, even as recently as when Marlon Fitzwater was the press secretary, I think there was a serious conveyance of information, the questions were a little more answerable, and the answers could be given and were given more often. Now it’s often a sense of the press secretary on defense, the press on offense and its almost like there’s a standoff between the two.
Brit Hume: Why not go back to the days when you didn’t broadcast?
Ari Fleischer: That’s a…
Brit Hume: and didn’t allow them for live coverage. You could have made that choice couldn’t you?
Ari Fleischer: That’s an intriguing question. And Mike McCurry who made the decision to help the rolling cables in the nineties by allowing briefings to be covered and covered live. Mike believes that we shouldn’t go back to that era, he said that to me.
Brit Hume: What do you think?
Ari Fleischer: I’m not sure Brit, because on the one hand I think it would lower the tone and result in a more serious briefing. On the other hand, after September 11th millions of Americans want to tune in to watch what their government is doing and the government should be responsive to that as well. It’s a very hard call.
Brit Hume: I’ve got to ask you about Helen. I sat next to Helen Thomas when I was a White House correspondent for eight years. She was indefatigable, dedicated, but as the questions we just showed from her to you indicated often highly tendentious in her questioning. She was given and has been given to making speeches. But in those days she was the senior wire service reporter for UPI, senior wire service reporter, and had, therefore, some standing to sit on the front row and get the first question in these news conferences and so on. Nowadays she’s not that. And she stopped being that while you were there if I’m not mistaken. She now is a columnist for the Hearst Newspapers.
Ari Fleischer: That’s correct.
Brit Hume: Why did you permit her to keep that front row seat which was almost always front row seats were reserved for people who were there every day, covering the place as a beat for big news organizations.
Ari Fleischer: And Hearst does have another seat in the room for its regular reporter. But Helen is unique, and I think it’s because, Brit, and certainly the way I did it, is because of everything she’s accomplished in her career. I wrote in the book that I think Helen is a legend. And therefore I think she should be and is entitled to that front row seat. That’s the way I treated her at my press briefings. I disagree with her politics vociferously. She disagrees with mine vociferously. And we would clash in that briefing room as you showed. So what. That’s the way it works. She gave her opinions, I gave mine and I never minded hearing her opinion.
Brit Hume: Well, let me ask you about that. Did you do that just to honor her, or did you do that because her behavior which many reporters would regard as out of bounds, expression of opinions, making statements, speeches, argumentation with the briefer as unprofessional. It wasn’t a problem for you?
Ari Fleischer: It wasn’t a problem. Take for example Helen’s position on the Middle East. Helen was very much, she would refer to Israeli occupation, a brutal occupation of the Middle East, of the West Bank by Israel. And President Bush had a very different opinion. So I never minded to state what the President’s opinion was after Helen stated hers. That was my job. But Helen again, she’s entitled to state her opinion and I think every reporter in that room knows that Helen is very opinionated and she’s different from all the other reporters who ask questions. She’s earned it at this point in her career.
Brit Hume: Would it be too much for me to say that she was, that her opinionated ways were in effect useful to you?
Ari Fleischer: I’d like to think that every time I got a question I tried to answer in a way that was useful to what the President was thinking and I would try to answer the questions that way, but Helen’s, Helen’s special. She’s a different case and I happen to like her personally, disagree with her entirely politically.
Brit Hume: What about this current controversy over access to the briefing room? What do you make of all that? I should note by the way for viewers who are not familiar with it, there’s this guy Jeff Gannon, real name Jeff [James] Guckert who works for a very pro conservative, there’s a picture of him now posing a question, in a briefing he got a famous question of the President. He’s had a somewhat checkered background it seems. Wasn’t always a journalist, some argue he’s not now. Yet he was able to gain access by a series of day passes to that briefing room. What about that?
Ari Fleischer: Well, I think the whole thing was rather odd and also unique. And by that I mean I think that the White House has had a long tradition of having a relatively open process for who is defined as a reporter. Much more open than the House and Senate and as a result you’ve had a history of colorful characters left and right in that room. And in his instance, as long as he didn’t work for the political party and it turned out he did not work for the Republican party even though his newsletter, his web page was called GOP USA.
Brit Hume: It’s called Talon News but run by GOP USA.
Ari Fleischer: But the problem I’ve got, is once the White House press secretary, a government employee, starts defining who is and is not a journalist, where do you draw the line in that room. There are several liberal reporters in that room who work for talk radio, for other outlets. Helen, as we just talked about, she largely just gives her opinion these days and none really ask questions anymore. There are a couple identifiable conservatives. Should the White House press secretary have the right to kick them out because they’re ideological. I don’t think that’s healthy for government or for journalism. That’s why I say I think this is unique. I think this is a special case, with someone very odd. And certainly in terms of people’s private lives, it’s up to organizations, media organizations, if they don’t like the private lives of their employees, they should deal with it. The government shouldn’t be in the business of looking into the private lives of reporters in that room.
Brit Hume: Last question. How’s the book doing?
Ari Fleischer: Well apparently it’s doing great. That’s what my publisher tells me and it’s really, it’s a look inside the White House to let people know what President Bush is like, in private, behind the scenes in the West Wing. It’s also a real examination of the media, question of are they biased. What’s it like to be the press secretary standing at that podium as a human piñata every day.
Brit Hume: Ari Fleischer, pleasure to have you. Good luck with the book. Congratulations.
Ari Fleischer: Thank you.
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