MEDIA BRANDS: Without any fear of repercussions, Bush can continue to malign the national news outlets

Back in October, as criticism of his handling of Iraq mounted, President Bush complained of "the filter through which some news travels" as a justification for his plans to circumvent the national media and use local and regional reporters as a way to burnish his image and that of the war.

Back in October, as criticism of his handling of Iraq mounted, President Bush complained of "the filter through which some news travels" as a justification for his plans to circumvent the national media and use local and regional reporters as a way to burnish his image and that of the war.

Based on this, as well as numerous other affronts to traditional relationship between the national press corps and the White House, Ken Auletta's recent depiction of the Bush administration's communications philosophy, which looks more like a corporate plan than one appropriate for the highest level of US government, should come with little surprise. The most stunning realization from the January 19 New Yorker article was not the description of the seamless, always on-message attitude of the Bush spokesmen, nor was it the nearly unbelievable notion of a White House that never leaks. By now, this is well known. What's truly amazing is the savvy and audacity behind the administration's well-publicized disdain for the media. People such as chief of staff Andrew Card and communications director Dan Bartlett know they can abuse the media and suffer few, if any, repercussions because its reputation is so far gone. Auletta observes, "The White House has to come see reporters as special pleaders - pleaders for more access and better headlines - as if the press were simply another interest group and, moreover, an interest group that's not nearly as powerful as it once was." Though the media has no spokesman to make this argument, a reasonable challenge to Bush's dismissal of the news media as a "filter" would be to ask the President for some actual evidence of bias that prevents the whole truth from being known about Iraq. An actual tally of front-page newspaper coverage during the 31 weeks between Bush's May declaration of the end of major combat and his surprise Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad puts the accusation in some perspective. The analysis, performed by the media-research firm CARMA, found that the coverage of Iraq was consistently more negative than positive, but not by a large margin. Fifty-five percent of headlines and lead paragraphs on Iraq in the ten top newspapers were deemed negative, as they covered events like the terrorist attacks, American casualties, and the coalition's failure in its search for weapons of mass destruction. The remaining 45% dealt with military victories, new freedoms for Iraqis, and other bright spots for the Bush administration. By any stretch of the imagination, these numbers provide little evidence for the existence of an overwhelming avalanche of bad news coming out of Iraq and make Bush's complaint seems like an exercise in ducking the real questions about what was happening in Iraq during a particularly dark time for US forces. They also demonstrate just how badly a reputation problem can be exploited. -matthew.creamer@prweek.com

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