EDITORIAL: Fleischer should retract comment

Normally adept at not becoming the news, White House press

secretary Ari Fleischer has found himself on oped pages all over the

country after making an unusually ill-advised comment about comedian

Bill Maher, the host of Politically Incorrect, and failing to clarify

his position.



On September 26, Fleischer was asked for President Bush's reaction to

Maher's statement that Americans, not terrorists, "have been the

cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away." Maher went on

to acknowledge the terrorist's "courage" for carrying out their suicide

mission. Fleischer responded that he had not spoken to the president

about the comments, but nevertheless scolded: "All Americans ... need to

watch what they say, and watch what they do. This is not a time for

remarks like that; there never is."



Journalists and free speech advocates, who are peculiarly sensitive to

any perceived restrictions of the freedom of speech right now, pounced

on this comment from Fleischer, suggesting that he was using patriotism

to force everyone to tow his line. One scathing article in Cleveland's

The Plain Dealer suggested, "the deranged hijackers who killed thousands

would be pleased to know they had also killed free speech." Equally

cutting, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times commented, "Patriotism, it

seems, is the last refuge of spinners." Ouch!



Presumably Fleischer realized his error, since the White House

transcripts of his speech were released without the phrase "need to

watch what they say." This omission was initially explained by deputy

press secretary Anne Womack as a transcribing error, but a week later

the "error" has still not been corrected.



Of course, few would disagree with the sentiment behind Fleischer's

comments - that we all have to be especially sensitive to other's

feelings in the present climate. But it was ill-judged in that it seemed

to go further than simply reminding us to be sensitive. And it is not

Fleischer's place to make such comments given that his words carry the

weight of the president and are therefore tantamount to a federal

decree.



Arguably, however, Fleischer's biggest error in public relations terms

was not his initial statement. After all, even the president's press

secretary can misjudge a remark from time to time, especially when he's

under such extreme pressure. His biggest mistake was failing to clarify

the White House's position after the act. Omitting the phrase from the

transcript does not clarify the situation, it further confuses it.



Fleischer should have revoked his remarks, made it clear that he had

spoken out of turn, and explained the president's position. No

professional communicator enjoys having to take such steps, but

sometimes they are necessary. Certainly they are in this case.



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