COMMENTS: Mormon Parents Steal McClellan’s Thunder

Scott McClellan was all lined up for a second day of maximum publicity for What Happened, his tell-all memoir of his days as White House press secretary, when late breaking news knocked him out of the headlines. All three network newscasts kicked off from Dallas as the fundamentalist Mormon parents of the Yearning for Zion ranch prevailed in the Supreme Court of Texas. The court found no grounds for child welfare authorities to have taken all their children away. McClellan's book tour still claimed Story of the Day status, however, including an interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric.

Both ABC and NBC assigned their White House correspondents to cover the McClellan story, the very people he had been stonewalled in his previous job. ABC's Martha Raddatz sat down with McClellan for a q-&-a; NBC's David Gregory reported on McClellan's earlier appearance on his own network's Today. Gregory picked up on the official White House line against What Happened, namely that its criticisms of George Bush were insincere because they were not voiced by him at the time he held the job: "If the knock on McClellan is Why did he not speak up sooner? it should sound familiar," Gregory pointed out, replaying McClellan's own soundbite of identical criticism of onetime aide Richard Clarke for his earlier post-White-House tell-all book.

The disconcerting task of reporting on an erstwhile sparring partner appeared to discombobulate NBC's Gregory. He lapsed into that irritating reporter's fault of characterizing someone's position in the set-up to a soundbite only to have it contradicted by the quote itself. In this instance Gregory told us that Condoleezza Rice "brushed aside McClellan's claim" that the Iraq War was "unnecessary" and then quoted the Secretary of State as countenancing such a claim instead: "…you can agree or disagree about the decision to liberate Iraq in 2003…" Then Gregory concluded his package with another irritating quirk, the false choice. He posed a "fundamental question"--"Is a memoir like this important for history or is it an unforgivable act of betrayal?"--as if the answer was either history or treachery when it could in fact be both…or neither.

ABC's Raddatz disposed of the official criticism of McClellan--that his book must be insincere since he never voiced its sentiments at the time--with straightforward reporting: "McClellan says his change of heart came after only a lot of soul searching and truth seeking." She then zeroed in on the key flaw in McClellan's job performance that his own book exposed. Who does the press secretary work for? "It was my job to be the advocate and spokesman for the President of the United States." "But don't you serve the public?" "Yes, absolutely. You serve the public…I think I fell short at times. We got caught up in this whole mentality of selling the war to the American people and yes, in itself, it becomes a game played on spin."

CBS anchor Couric picked on McClellan's criticism of the very press corps whose tough questions he was deflecting. "Is that not the height of hypocrisy?" "There could have been more done to ask the tough questions. What happened is that the press becomes complicit enablers in this permanent campaign culture by focusing on the march to war rather than the necessity of war." When McClellan repeated his talking point about his job being an "advocate for the President," unRaddatzlike Couric chose not to challenge that claim.

Raddatz' is the most interesting question concerning the dual loyalties of the White House press secretary. What are the ethics of simultaneously being a Presidential advocate and ensuring that the people are fully, accurately and fairly informed about the policies being pursued by that President in their name? Jay Rosen at PressThink has thought long and hard about the role of the press secretary in George Bush's White House. Check it out.


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