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Dan Rather was Right

06/05/02 12:00AM By Bill Seamans

(Host) Commentator Bill Seamans is concerned with recent press coverage of the administration - and he's not alone.

(Seamans) Dan Rather was right. He accuses the news media of not being aggressive enough to penetrate the fog of vagueness obscuring the information coming from the White House. Rather argues that the reluctance of the White House press corps to fight for substantive answers from the Bush administration has, in effect, turned some of the country's top reporters into mere stenographers repeating Bushite spin.

I cannot help but agree with Rather after watching briefings by Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who is the regular source of administration non-information. Any reporter who tries to illuminate the White House briefings is literally disinformed by Fleischer's sometimes arrogant evasions and they don't fight back. How I wish the very combative Dan Rather and Sam Donaldson were back in the White House press room.

A basic technique of incisive journalism is the tradition of the follow-up question. Helen Thomas, the venerable dean of the White House press corps has repeatedly tried to penetrate the fog of vagueness by asking tough follow-up questions to dig substantive news out of the grossly generalized Fleischer rhetoric. At a recent briefing, Fleischer tried to put Thomas down by virtually ridiculing her follow-up question which was insulting not only for Thomas but for the press corps veterans who share a profound fondness and respect for her.

So I think that it's about time someone like Dan Rather charged that the White House press corps, with some noble exceptions like Helen Thomas, has in effect been turned into a pack of journalistic lapdogs. As for Fleischer's function as White House press secretary, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls him "opaque" and progressive commentator Michael Kinsley says Fleischer is "a great evasive bore." President Bush defends his man saying , "Ari Fleischer understands the fine line between the need to know and the need to say."

The source of this intimidation has been the very undemocratic declarations by Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft who said that criticism of the administration in a time of war is unpatriotic. But I think that even Cheney and Ashcroft might agree that government control of news that does not compromise covert operations or the safety of our servicepersons is counterproductive because we, the people, quickly learn to distrust both the news and the government.

As long as journalists like Dan Rather are out there blowtorching the White House press corps to rise to the professional reporting they are paid to do then perhaps they soon, I hope, will blow away that fog of vagueness. After all, it was Mr. Bush, himself, who said, "The one thing about the press corps is they know a lot of stuff."

This is Bill Seamans.

Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East.
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