The Networks, Newsless if Not Speechless
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2003; Page C01
By the time the dust cleared last week, the networks were mad at the White House, the White House was mad at CBS, and the only person who wasn't griping about the coverage of Iraq, at least publicly, was Saddam Hussein.
ABC, CBS and NBC broke into regular programming to carry President Bush's speech on the Middle East Wednesday evening after White House spokesman Ari Fleischer made off-the-record calls to their Washington bureau chiefs. But when Bush's address to the American Enterprise Institute, also aired by the cable news networks, dealt only generally with the future of a post-Saddam Middle East, some network bigwigs felt they'd been had.
The White House had been "lobbying" for live coverage of Bush's remarks, ABC's Ted Koppel said on "Nightline," but "in one form or another, he has said all of these things before."
Fleischer says no formal request was made and that his calls had "nothing" to do with the fact that Hussein was getting an hour of airtime that night in Dan Rather's "60 Minutes II" interview.
"It wasn't sold one way or another," Fleischer says. "I read them paragraphs from the president's speech, a very factual read-through. They made their own decision. . . . None of them on the phone suggested to me that it doesn't sound newsworthy."
Says one network executive: "The White House was incredibly heavy-handed with the request. At a time when we're leading up to war, they said it was going to make news." An executive at another network allows that "they didn't bully us. . . . They don't quite ask for time, but they say it's going to be quite important."
In a second backstage battle, Fleischer failed to persuade CBS to allow him or another administration official to appear on "60 Minutes II" to "counter the propaganda," as he puts it, of the Hussein interview.
A White House official recalls "60 Minutes II" executive producer Jeff Fager responding: "Anyone other than the president is not going to do us any good." CBS executives dispute that account, saying Fager merely made an offhand comment that he'd be happy to have Bush. CBS News President Andrew Heyward discussed the contretemps with Fleischer, and the network later sent word that it would take Vice President Cheney or Secretary of State Colin Powell. Privately, administration officials disparaged Rather's questioning of Hussein as too soft.
"This was not the Iraqi State of the Union," says CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. "This was a sit-down interview with a key world figure conducted by one of the most experienced journalists in the world. The White House's position on key issues was included. The White House presents their views to the American public every day."