White House

The President watches, and journalists smirk

As White House officials indicated a couple weeks ago, just before the last launch attempt was scrubbed, President Bush did indeed take a moment Tuesday morning to watch the launch of the shuttle Discovery. (Although, I have to ask: can’t the President get a bigger TV than that? Maybe a nice plasma HDTV set? Or at least one with a bit bigger screen.) The President also did release a brief statement wishing the crew of Discovery well and adding that “this flight is an essential step toward our goal of continuing to lead the world in space science, human space flight, and space exploration.”

Press Secretary Scott McClellan read the statement at the beginning of Tuesday afternoon’s press briefing and then got into an exchange with one reporter who kept asking if Bush still “supports a Mars mission” and how that “Mars program” was going, which included this back-and-forth:

Q And how is the Mars program going?

MR. McCLELLAN: NASA can probably update you on the effort. Again, this is a long-term program, and you can sit there and smirk about it, but the President felt it was important — (laughter) — the President felt it was important to outline a clearly defined mission for NASA. And we’re all excited about today’s launch and we wish the –

Q Will he be speaking about it –

MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on — we wish the crew all the best.

Q Will he be speaking about it –

MR. McCLELLAN: NASA is working on implementing it, John. Thanks for starting out the briefing on such — (laughter.)

36 comments to The President watches, and journalists smirk

  • Cecil Trotter

    Jeff you give those dolts too much credit by referring to them as “journalists”.

  • Mike Puckett

    Remember,

    The White House press gang types are journalists because it is about the only course of study easy enough for the atheletically challenged to major in.

  • Brad

    Who is the reporter? Who is “John”? I for one would like to know should John appear as the reporter of any news story I come across.

  • Jeff Gannon

    Hey, there is nothing doltish about being a “john”

  • It is quite the fashion these days in Washington to refer to a spade as a heart and two diamonds. An expansion of police powers is call a “Patriot Act”. A grab bag of federal intervention in local education is called “No Child Left Behind”. A grant effort of nation-building is called a “war on terrorism”. And a foot-dragging plan to retire the space shuttle and the space station, coupled with a nebulous lunar follow-on, is called “Moon, Mars, and Beyond”.

    So the reporter’s question is fair game. Bush said that the ultimate goal is Mars. What does the space shuttle have to do with it?

  • Reader

    I don’t see anything in the transcript that makes the reporter’s questions sound especially tendentious or sarcastic. Rand, did you draw on audio or video for your headline? Because absent that, the only evidence of a “smirk” is Scott McClellan’s characterization. .. and some of us find *his* credibility, and that of his principal, somewhat the worse for wear by now.

  • Reader

    Oops, make that “Jeff.” Sorry, fast surfing…

  • Cecil Trotter

    Kuperberg: “Bush said that the ultimate goal is Mars.”

    He said that once we get to Mars we’re done with exploring space? That would be the inference of “ultimate goal”; when did he say that?

    Kuperberg: “What does the space shuttle have to do with it?”

    What part of completing ISS don’t you understand?

  • What does completing ISS have to do with it?

    And I agree with Jeff’s take. It sounded like the laughter was at McClellan and the president about that pointless “Mars mission” (which, as we all know, is the sum total of the president’s space policy and if we’re don’t have astronauts on the way there right now, it’s a failure and a joke), not the idiotic questions from “John.”

  • William Berger

    There is a classic book from the early 1970s called “The Boys on the Bus” about reporters following the 1972 presidential campaign.

    One of the things that the book exposes–which has not changed in 30+ years or half a dozen presidents of both parties–is the peculiar lameness of the White House Press Corps. Every political reporter in Washington fights hard to reach this ultimate prestige position. After all, they get to hang out in the White House and be surrounded by powerful people. Lots of other reporters readily kiss their asses. It is considered a reward for outstanding journalism.

    The irony of it is that once these top reporters get there, they become totally ineffectual at their job. The only “news” that they can get at the White House is that which is dished out to them, usually in pointless press conferences. They don’t get to roam around the halls of the West Wing knocking on doors; everything is deliberately given to them. And if they write or report a story that the White House does not like, they find that their privileges get revoked–they get kicked off of Air Force One or called last at the press conferences or shuffled to a crummy cubicle in the overcrowded newsroom.

    The end result is that they develop a chummy relationship with the White House communications team and become totally co-opted. They ask irrelevant and softball questions and they get non-answers. They are in essence an extension of the White House communications office. Everybody in journalism knows it. And serious reporters and political observers know that they are irrelevant.

  • William Berger’s description has the ring of truth to it. At White House press briefings, the White House has every chance to make itself look good and make reporters look bad. All the more so when the federal government as a whole is controlled by one party.

    So it is all the more telling when the White House press secretary still can’t answer a simple question. This space shuttle launch is the only tangible achievement for the year for human spaceflight at NASA. But McClellan made no connection between it and the moon, or Mars, or the beyond. The vision goes in one direction, the reality goes in another.

  • Cecil Trotter

    Simberg: “What does completing ISS have to do with it?”

    Because the decision has been made, rightly or wrongly, that ISS will be completed before setting off in earnest on any new direction for NASA. And to do that, complete ISS, shuttle RTF is a necessity.

    I’m still wondering when Bush declared that Mars was NASA’s “ultimate goal”.

  • Cecil,

    It was in the VSE speech:

    With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.

    So, more precisely, it was not just Mars, but rather the moon, Mars, and the beyond. Which is why the Aldridge commission had that name.

    It doesn’t make any difference with regard to the space shuttle or the space station. You asked what part of “completing ISS” I don’t understand. I don’t understand the word “completing” in this context; in fact no one does. And ISS has nothing to do with the moon, Mars, or the beyond.

  • Jeff Foust

    I don’t see anything in the transcript that makes the reporter’s questions sound especially tendentious or sarcastic.

    I wasn’t claiming that the reporter was sounding “tendentious or sarcastic”. If you watch the video of the press conference (which, unfortunately, does not cut to the reporter during the question) you see, er, hear a reporter who is being a little persistent, but not necessarily overbearing, in trying to get his questions across to McClellan. We may never know if the reporter had a smirk on his face or not, but his fellow reporters sure thought it was funny. It was also a little surreal, too: given all the heated exchanges about Karl Rove, Judge Roberts, and the usual litany of other issues, starting a press conference talking about space policy is a little unusual.

    The other thing that caught my interest was the reporter’s repeated references to the “Mars program”. It’s fascinating that, in the minds of at least one White House reporter, and perhaps much of the WH press corps, the Vision for Space Exploration has been distilled down to the nebulous long-term goal of sending people to Mars. Unless, of course, the reporter was asking McClellan how the rovers on Mars are doing…

  • Dfens

    Most likely a mission to Mars will be assembled in LEO by space station astronauts. That was always the purpose of having a space station. At least, that was the purpose back before the shuttle program took on a life of its own (i.e, before we arbitrarily decided LEO was as far as we were ever going to go).

  • Regarding journalists, I agree with Greg and Reader, and William’s analysis is excellent.

    As a journalist myself, here is a dose of reality. Many or most journalists at your average small-town (and many not-so-small town) daily newspapers are dedicated, idealistic, way overworked, and inevitably underpaid — yet they must be an “expert” on _every_ subject. How many of us could be true experts on _every_ subject, even in our own field of spaceflight?

    The NYT retains a science writing staff of several individuals, one of whom traditionally focuses on space and astronomy. But, if you don’t have the resources of the NYT or The Economist (another general source of excellent science writing), it is a safe bet that any journalist is going to be self-taught on space issues and that those issues will be a tiny, tiny part of their job.

    Many journalists do the best job they can in an impossible situation. Rather than telling these people that they are idiots, I would recommend writing Op Ed pieces to set them right. Smaller papers are desperate for informed opinion. Usually, they even pay!

    (The rules: since space is at a premium, short pieces will always get published before long ones. Your entire complex argument should be around 500 words; who said journalism was easy? Use short, declarative, easy-to-read sentences. A piece that does not need to be extensively rewritten is less likely to get garbled during editing and, since it involves less work than a long rambling piece that will make little sense to Joe and Jane Six-pack, it is also more likely to get published.)

    In addition, most newspapers publish the E-mail address of an article’s author, and most writers will gladly accept (and often publish) well-meaning corrections. Be sure to cc the letters page, usually in the format, letters@newspapers_name.com.

    – Donald

  • Cecil Trotter

    Kuperberg: “So, more precisely, it was not just Mars, but rather the moon, Mars, and the beyond.”

    So Bush didn’t say that Mars was the ultimate goal, “beyond” is. And that covers a lot of territory, so realistically there is no ultimate goal or end. Which is a good thing, as no one should view space exploration as achieving some set goal and then stopping. Space exploration should be a continual thing, or as Bush said “a journey”.

    Kuperberg: “And ISS has nothing to do with the moon, Mars, or the beyond.”

    Yes it does. I’ll just quote what I wrote above since you obviously didn’t read it:

    “Because the decision has been made, rightly or wrongly, that ISS will be completed before setting off in earnest on any new direction for NASA. And to do that, complete ISS, shuttle RTF is a necessity.”

    If you think we shouldn’t complete ISS just say so (I would agree, if that course didn’t entail sticking it to the international partners) but the decision has been made to do so and completing that goal therefore must happen before the VSE/MMB can go forward in any realistic fashion.

  • Brad

    Pardon me if I trust Jeff Foust’s description of the press conference over the descriptions offered by professional Bush critics.

    The reporter “John” sounded like an ass. I understand Donald’s defense of the plight of non-expert news reporters, but reporters who bungle the news because of their ignorance only explains the bungle it doesn’t excuse it. Plus “John” sounded like he was taking his ignorance to the next step of malice. Sadly, exactly what I expect from the press corps.

  • Well, first of all this “professional Bush critic” is perfectly prepared to defend Mr. Bush in the areas where he is correct, e.g., the VSE, which I have repeatedly done in public to the dismay of many of my friends. Can you say the same about, say, Mr. Clinton?

    Secondly, what in the following makes this reporter “sound like an ass?”

    Q And how is the Mars program going?
    Q Will he be speaking about it –
    Q Will he be speaking about it –

    It seems to me that calling a program that Administration officials refer to as “Moon, Mars, and beyond” a “Mars program” is not wholely out of line for a non-space expert. Insisting on an answer is what “John” is paid to do. Likewise, I don’t see anything particularly offensive in Mr. Bush’s statement or in Mr. McClellan’s responses.

    It seems to me that this whole debate is rediculous and that you and the others who opened this thread are being overly sensitive. I would be at least as justified in calling you “Professional Bush defenders” as you are in calling me the reverse.

    – Donald

  • Brad

    Donald, I’m sorry you choose to take my comments personally. I did not even have you in mind when I wrote of “professional Bush critics”, but it’s interesting that you self-identify that way.

    I trust Jeff Foust, plus he has the added advantage of witnessing a video instead of relying on a dry transcript of the press conference. I see no reason to disbelieve Jeff’s description.

    It’s seems to me “John” thought he was scoring a cheap laugh by interrupting McClellan and harping on what “John” probably thought was the ludicrous idea of a mission to Mars. “John” is probably part of the same pack of ignorant jackals who constantly repeat the lie that a mission to Mars will cost a trillion dollars.

  • Brad

    More questions.

    Why do you suppose the press conference reporters were laughing? (It would be nice to know who the laughers were as well as who “John” is). How do you think “John” was reacting to the laughing?

  • That’s okay, Brad. It is true that, in general, I am critical of many of Mr. Bush’s policies. But I assure you that, while you may fairly disagree with them, my opinions are thought out.

    However, I do not read your analysis into the exchange at all. Nor do I think did Jeff, who said, “and then got into an exchange with one reporter who kept asking if Bush still “supports a Mars mission” and how that “Mars program” was going. . .” Maybe I missed Jeff’s meaning, but that does not strike me as particularly critical, nor even overly ironic.

    When you say, ” ‘John’ is probably part of the same pack of ignorant jackals who constantly repeat the lie that a mission to Mars will cost a trillion dollars,” you are engaging in exactly the kind of cheap shot you accuse the press of doing. Unless I missed it, “John” said no such thing and you have no idea what he believes.

    – Donald

  • Has it occured to you that they may have been laughing because the exchange was funny? Just because people are laughing does not mean thay are laughing at any particular individual. These people all know each other. . . .

    – Donald

  • Brad

    “However, I do not read your analysis into the exchange at all. Nor do I think did Jeff,…”

    Really? How do you explain Jeff’s headline, “The President watches and journalists smirk”?

    “…they [reporters] may have been laughing because the exchange was funny?”

    So why do you suppose they were laughing? Exactly what do you think they found so funny? Why was “John” smirking? What did “John” think was so funny?

    Your explanations for the ‘innocent’ behavior for the journalists is too tortured to be credible. Do you seriously claim the majority of the White House press corps don’t believe a manned mission to Mars is a joke? I think the obvious and simpler explanation for the laughter is more believable.

    What’s interesting about this whole episode is how the true attitude of the reporters underneath the superficial ‘objectivity’ they proclaim was briefly exposed to our view. The so-called mainstream press still suffers from the ‘giggle factor’ when it comes to deep space manned space exploration.

  • Dfens

    We haven’t been ABLE to go to the Moon for the last 30 years and you want to know what they were laughing at? I know what they were laughing at. They were laughing at me. They were laughing at my colleagues. They were laughing at a failed space program that masquerades as if it had clothes. There was a time when no one laughed at what our smart guys could do. Those days are gone.

  • Cecil Trotter

    Brad: “Do you seriously claim the majority of the White House press corps don’t believe a manned mission to Mars is a joke?….The so-called mainstream press still suffers from the ‘giggle factor’ when it comes to deep space manned space exploration.”

    Most liberals want to deny the fact that the mainstream press is by and large of a liberal bent who still believe that NASA money could be better spent on “LBJ’s war on poverty”.

  • Dfens

    Remember the good old days when it was only liberals who thought our space program was a joke?

  • Mike Puckett

    I suppose it is only turnabout as I see the White House press corps as a joke.

  • There is an incredible amount of moaning in this thread about noble government suffering at the hands of the private-sector press.

  • Mike Puckett

    Greg,

    Since you seem so fond of ‘strawmen’, why don’t you just marry one and be done with it?

  • Cecil Trotter

    Kuperberg: “There is an incredible amount of moaning in this thread about noble government suffering at the hands of the private-sector press.”

    Nonsense. All I want to see is a press that at least attempts to prevent personal bias from governing how they report the news. The reporter in question and those involved in the smirking/laughter shouldn’t even expect to be taken seriously as journalists.

  • Cecil: “the mainstream press is by and large of a liberal bent”

    If only that were true.

    “who still believe that NASA money could be better spent on “LBJ’s war on poverty”.”

    I don’t think even the NYT believes that any more.

    Have you forgotten the Wall Street Journal, whose circulation is comparable to that of the NYT? If the two largest serious papers in the land are relatively conservative and relatively liberal, respectively, that strikes me as “balance.” As I recall, the “liberal” press managed to caugh up a great deal of criticism of the Clinton Administration. And, let us not forget Fox Television.

    It seems to me, what you and other conservatives want is a monotonal press that toes your philosophy and refuses any critique of the Administration, however minor. That is not what I want even if were my philosophy in question. If that makes me “liberal,” so be it.

    – Donald

  • I like watching the circus, its better then “The West Wing.”

    On a serious note, its really tough to find anything without a bias. As an Independant, thats moderate on some issues, conservative on others, and liberal on the rest, it really makes it hard to find good sources.

  • Try The Economist.

    http://www.theeconomist.com

    They are conservative, especially on economic issues, but with a far more thoughtful bent than most conservative publications. They are very fact based, backing up much of what they say with actual numbers and detailed charts. They are truly global, including correspondents in most African and Asian countries. They are not afraid to take positions that are unpopular in mainstream conservative thought (e.g., pro gay rights) and they have a sense of humor.

    More orginally, rather than try to pretend they are unbiased, they have a “house ideology” (articles are unsigned) and they make no attempt to hide it. You can always interpret what they say from a “fixed point in thought.” They publish some of the best science writing out there (although, unfortunately, they do subscribe to the automated spaceflight is better than human spaceflight myth — but, again, the last thing I want is a journal I always agree with).

    They are by far the best written news publication. They give you a detailed history and analysis of a conflict and do it in ten column inches. The only problem is, it takes all week to read, so you’ll never read anything else!

    – Donald

  • Cecil Trotter

    Donald: “If only that were true.”

    So I take it that you want a media that is biased toward a liberal point of view, rather than a media that strives to present the truth be it of liberal or conservative bend.

    But the fact remains that the media is dominated by the liberal point of view, if you won’t acknowledge that I won’t try to convince you. I think most liberals already know it to be true, but are loath to admit it.

    Donald: “I don’t think even the NYT believes that any more.”

    Not by that old tired name, no of course not. But we have all heard the voices crying for spending more on the very programs that originated out of the WOP rather than on things like NASA or DOD. And those cries emanate almost exclusively from the liberal wing of the Democrat party.

    Donald: “Have you forgotten the Wall Street Journal, whose circulation is comparable to that of the NYT? If the two largest serious papers in the land are relatively conservative and relatively liberal, respectively, that strikes me as “balance.” As I recall, the “liberal” press managed to caugh up a great deal of criticism of the Clinton Administration. And, let us not forget Fox Television.”

    And have you forgotten that every major city in the US from Boston to Chicago to Atlanta to Los Angeles has a liberal newspaper? There are not enough “conservative” newspapers to balance them all out. And let us not forget ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC…. Of course Fox News balances all those I suppose??

    Donald: “It seems to me, what you and other conservatives want is a monotonal press that toes your philosophy”

    No that seems to be what you pined for with your reply of: “If only that were true.”

    I don’t want a liberal press or a conservative press, just an unbiased press.

  • “But the fact remains that the media is dominated by the liberal point of view, ”

    I don’t in fact acknowledge it, because it isn’t true. There is no shortage of slavish support for the Bush Administration in the press and broadcasts in this country, even here in San Francisco. Of course, all things are relative and your definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” might be a little different from mine. Which leads to,

    “I don’t want a liberal press or a conservative press, just an unbiased press”

    That just isn’t possible in the real world. Far better to have competition in the media — which, by encouraging “consolidation” under giant corporations, supposedly “competitive market” Republicans doing their best to thwart. (If Republicans don’t like the dominance of the current media empires, they have no one but themselves to blame.) I’m not going to defend most local media, which, increasingly being effective monopolies and catering to the lowest common denominator, are indeed appalling. (Write me off line and I’ll tell you the story of visiting my parents in suburban Sacramento and getting a thankfully rare exposure to local TV.) However, the WSJ is widely available anywhere in the country, as is the NYT. Pick your poison and I’ll pick mine — or better, pick both.

    – Donald