COMMENTS: What Happened Touted as Must Read

What Happened, the tell-all book by Scott McClellan, was Story of the Day. All three network newscasts bestowed generous publicity on McClellan's account of his time as George Bush's press secretary. He was the White House spokesman who defended the President's conduct of the occupation of Iraq, his response to Hurricane Katrina and the scheme to blow the cover of Valerie Plame, the CIA spy. Altogether 31% of the three network newshole (18 min out of 57) was devoted to this one story, including a four-minute interview on NBC with former anchor Tom Brokaw about McClellan's accusation that the mainstream news media were "complicit enablers" in the White House propaganda campaign to drum up support for an invasion of Iraq.

The judgment was unanimous that McClellan's disavowal of the President, his political patron, was newsworthy. This is how the anchors themselves characterized it: "an explosive new book…creating a huge firestorm"--CBS' Katie Couric; when McClellan accused Bush of "self-deception, a lack of candor" they were words "written not by a political opponent but by a man who for six years was one of the President's closest aides"--ABC's Charles Gibson; the book "raises profound questions about the character, leadership and management style of the President"--NBC's Brian Williams.

The Iraq War and the CIA leak case were the two prominent headlines that White House correspondents found in What Happened. On ABC, Martha Raddatz (embargoed link) described McClellan's portrait of a President and top advisors who "did not hesitate to spin, hide, shade and exaggerate the truth, waging a political propaganda campaign to sell the war." CBS' Jim Axelrod picked up on McClellan's claim that the invasion "was not necessary" and that "the White House was not open and forthright on Iraq." NBC's David Gregory focused on Plame, speculating that the case "played a huge role" in persuading McClellan to denounce his former allies. He quoted McClellan's charge that top White House officials--Karl Rove, Lewis Libby, possibly Dick Cheney--"allowed me, even encouraged me, to repeat a lie."

In its defense, the White House focused not on the substance of McClellan's criticism but on the contrast between his current condemnation and his onetime loyalty. McClellan's predecessor and former boss Ari Fleischer was interviewed by Couric on CBS: "I am looking forward to hearing from Scott why, what would have led him to change 180 degrees, so dramatically." McClellan's successor Dana Perino speculated that "disgruntled" may be the motive for his change of heart. ABC's Gibson reminded us that when McClellan was behind the podium, he himself had suggested that members of the administration who disagreed with its conduct in tell-all books should have resigned. "Why does that same question not apply to him?" he inquired of Raddatz. "Basically he says he was sincere at the time," she replied. "He has had time to think about it and has changed his mind." Commenting on McClellan's change of heart, NBC's Gregory quipped: "What a difference a memoir makes!" Yet whatever the motive, "it will not diminish the impact of a stinging rebuke of the President."

NBC's Williams invited Tom Brokaw, his predecessor, to answer McClellan's charge of dereliction by the mainstream news media in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. "Are you confident, taking the coverage in toto, that the right questions were asked, the right tone employed?"

Brokaw's answer meandered through caveats about weapons of mass destruction and lack of opposition in the US Senate and lack of links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda before zeroing in on hard truth: "This President was determined to go to war and it was more theology than it was anything else and that is pretty hard to deal with." He quoted McClellan's own assertion that the veracity of the CIA's claims about weapons of mass destruction was neither here nor there: "The real reason for it was an idealistic democratic Iraq in the post 9/11 world."


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