Tuning journalists out

Posted: Nov 01, 2003 12:00 AM

Where does news come from?

 Journalists don’t make news, although we’re sometimes accused of doing just that. We simply report it. But how we decide what to report (what’s news) and what to ignore (what isn’t) is important, and difficult to define.

Maybe that’s because what’s news is so subjective: Journalists view news the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart viewed pornography -- we know it when we see it. What one journalist considers news, another may dismiss as meaningless.

That’s what makes much of the recent criticism of President Bush’s taste in news so silly. Last month, Bush told Brit Hume of Fox News that he prefers to get his news from trusted staffers, rather than journalists. Predictably, those who live inside a media cocoon became went into hysteria.

“To President Bush, the news is like a cigarette,” Michael Kinsley wrote in The Washington Post Oct. 17. “When he is on the receiving end, Bush prefers his news heavily filtered.”

Frank Rich of The New York Times piled on Oct. 26: “‘The best way to get the news is from objective sources,’ the president said, laying down his utopian curriculum for Journalism 101.”

And Paul Krugman, as usual, joined the Bush-bashing. “Mr. Bush’s ignorance may reflect his lack of curiosity,” he wrote in the Times on Oct. 28.

Journalists love this story, because it seems to prove one of their favorite storylines: Bush is a dummy. He must be, they assume, since he doesn’t want to read their work in the newspapers or watch it on the evening newscasts to find out what’s really going on in the world.

But that’s not what’s really happening here. If anything, Bush is showing his intelligence by skipping the middleman.

After all, here in Washington, the real answer to the question “where does news come from?” is, more often than not: Leakers.

For example, a story in the Oct. 6 The New York Times quoted “senior administration officials” saying a new Iraq stabilization group would be formed and run by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suspected he knew the source of the leak: National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. When asked what the shakeup might mean, Rumsfeld responded, “I think you have to ask Condi that question.”

In another example, an Oct. 24 front-page story in The Washington Post gave a preview of what it called “a blistering report on prewar intelligence on Iraq that is critical of CIA Director George J. Tenet and other intelligence officials.” Who says? “Congressional officials,” including both “Republican and Democratic sources.”

By the time a reporter gets a leaked copy of a congressional report, it’s probably safe to assume at least one of the president’s top advisers has seen it, too. If his cabinet members are squabbling for influence, it seems the president would know about that, too. So there’s no further need for him to read about all this in the papers.

In fact, about all the president misses by tuning out the news is the scandal update.
Consider the recent tempest over Ambassador Joseph Wilson. His wife, a CIA agent, was outed by columnist Robert Novak back in July. Novak said he got his information from a pair of “senior administration officials.” This may yet erupt into a full-fledged scandal, complete with an independent counsel and criminal charges. Or it may amount to nothing.

Journalists have pounded out thousands of words and spent countless man-hours trying to find out who Novak’s sources were. They’re free to do so, but they shouldn’t be surprised that President Bush doesn’t care to spend his time slogging through these “whodunit” and “what does it all mean” stories.

By tuning out the media, Bush isn’t showing his ignorance -- he’s showing confidence in his staff.

The best sources for a Washington-based reporter seem to be various presidential advisors, even though these sources often want to remain anonymous. So it stands to reason that those same people are the best possible sources for the president himself.