In Control  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2005

In Control   

The Bush administration has perfected the art of tightly controlling information. And it has paid no price for its disciplined, on-message, my-way-or-the-highway approach. The press might want to get used to it--this may be the template for future presidencies.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


On election night Ron Hutcheson, a Knight Ridder White House correspondent, had to give himself a big pep talk. He left President Bush's celebration at the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington at about 4 a.m., and as he searched for a cab in the empty streets, he knew what the outcome of campaign 2004 would be. "Treat this as a new president," Hutcheson told himself. Four years of a very disciplined, on-message, tightly controlled administration had exacted a toll on Washington reporters. He needed to keep his energy level up. "Because when you make calls and they're not returned, you stop making them," he says. "There were times I quit trying."

Edwin Chen, who has covered the White House for six years for the Los Angeles Times, realized what he was up against early in Bush's first term, when he pitched "the ultimate softball," as he puts it, to the White House press office and was told, sorry, can't help you. In late spring 2001, Bush was preparing to decide whether to allow federal funding for stem cell research using human embryos. Chen noticed the president was talking with a number of ethicists and medical experts at the White House, an interesting occurrence given the president's reputation was not one of immersing himself in the details of an issue. Chen gathered anecdotes from some of Bush's visitors and then asked White House counselors Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett for some additional color, a few more examples of what the president was doing. The answer: "'We decided we would not talk about this until after the president has spoken,'" Chen recalls being told. "It just took my breath away."

"They are so disciplined and so fixed on a course that once they decide on it, they just won't budge," he says.

The press has been butting up against this brick wall of White House communication policy, and complaining about it, for long enough that stories about on-message, no leaks, no dissent, et cetera, et cetera are becoming a bit clich? Some people are tired of hearing about it.

"Stop whining, all you nattering nabobs," says Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution and a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "Put yourself in the president's shoes and say, 'What's wrong with the way he did it?'.. That doesn't mean future presidents will do it."

Problem is, future presidents may very well do it. Many interviewed for this story suspect--and fear--that this administration's strategy will be a template for subsequent commanders in chief. An emphasis on tighter news management has been building as each successive administration learns from the previous one. A rigid approach to staying on message and a clampdown on access for reporters and the public have been increasingly used by the executive branch, a trend that began to take shape during the Reagan administration, if not earlier. The current Bush administration has shown that the method can be perfected, with little to no downside for the White House.

"The Bush administration is where it is today because it has built on previous administrations' growing sophistication in this area," says Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, who has studied news management practices. "It isn't just the federal government or one party," he points out. The corporate, legal, education and military worlds have become more adroit in dealing with the press as well. "It just so happens the federal government is a major source of information and that information has so much to do with the functioning of democracy as well as the functioning of government that news management there is of such consequence."

Reporters and open-government advocates speak, often passionately, about why less and less access to the executive branch hurts the public's right to know. But from an administration's point of view, what's the incentive to talk more with the media? Better press coverage? That's not likely.

There's "no doubt in my mind, the next administration"--whether it's Democratic or Republican--"will build on what the Bush administration has been able to do," says McMasters.

Stop whining? Might as well. The press might want to get used to it.

Despite the frustrations, reporters admit they can't help but be impressed by the Bush administration's communications success. CBS News' Bill Plante, who's been on the White House beat since 1981, minus a three-year hiatus when he covered the State Department, says he has been "fascinated by how well they've been able to manage it," exhibiting a "tighter rein than I've ever seen anybody successfully do."

It's not easy to keep the executive branch--no small business to be sure--and to some extent the legislative branch humming the same tune. If the Bush administration's news management is to be a model, it may be a challenge to replicate.

Past presidents certainly wanted to control the message--and to varying extents they did. Besides, not everyone accepts the premise that the Bush administration has done something new or different in this arena. "Administrations always do a pretty good job of keeping everybody on the same message, that's what they do," says Mark Tapscott, director of the center for media and public policy at the Heritage Foundation, who notes he heard the same no-one-will-talk complaints from White House reporters 15 years ago when he was national editor at the Washington Times.

But veterans of the White House beat, and even former press secretaries, say today we are witnessing a more disciplined media relations machine than in the past. Sheila Tate was 1988 campaign press secretary for President George H.W. Bush and served as Nancy Reagan's press secretary when she was the First Lady. Under Reagan, she says, "we never knew from day to day what was going to be in the paper half the time, because people were talking off-line and sending messages via the media instead of dealing with issues internally... This White House seems better at keeping its people on the same page."

Dealing with issues inside, rather than in newsprint and on air, is of course preferable for a press office. "As long as there are people with competing agendas and concerns who feel that they can't get the president's attention, there will be leaks," says Tate, vice chairman of Powell Tate, a Washington public relations agency. "So the better run the White House is, the fewer leaks there are."

The White House did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In a January 2004 piece in The New Yorker, then-White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, among others, said the president saw the press as favoring the sensational or the provocative over taking a sober look at the big picture. Most reporters, of course, would disagree. But while journalists say government officials have some obligation as public servants to reveal information to the press--and, therefore, the public--the White House doesn't see it that way. "Chatting with the media" isn't a part of most job descriptions. "The vast majority of people in this building--the press doesn't believe this--don't want to talk to the press," the magazine quotes Bartlett, now counselor to the president, saying. "They want to do their job."

In a January 10 article in the New York Times, the White House's new communications director, Nicolle Devenish, suggested she had an engaging style in dealing with the press, and she disagreed with characterizations of the president's attitude toward the media. "I don't think the president keeps the press at arm's length, and I think the president has a healthy respect for the press that covers him," Devenish told the Times.

But reporters detect more than a hint of attitude. No matter, though: Being friendly isn't a contributor to the Bush administration's success.

First and foremost, a White House reflects the president, says Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University in Maryland, who is writing a book on White House communications policies. "That's always going to be true... So what he is interested in and puts his attention to, the White House will, too."

Says Plante: "The main reason it works is that this president is hands-on, pays attention and doesn't like it when people go off script." Both Plante and Carl P. Leubsdorf, Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, point to Bush's hiring of staffers from Texas or from the first campaign who aren't looking to further their careers in Washington--what Leubsdorf calls "loyalists"--as opposed to "hired hands," who are concerned about their own futures in D.C.

Bush wants loyalty, says Plante, and "because he actively demands it, because he has a staff that has no real stake in not doing it, they tend to give it to him."

Kumar says Republican administrations tend to be better at managing the message, taking a more corporate approach to press relations and being more suspicious of reporters than Democrats. Mike McCurry, President Clinton's press secretary from 1995 through late fall in 1998, agrees. But he's not impressed. "Democrats tend to be much more open and accessible," he says. "I think that makes for a more transparent government and, in the long run, I think that's better for the American people." The problem with being buttoned up, he says, is that you have to be perfect. Administrations "have to be on the money all the time. If you get into hot water, the press will kill you."

It hasn't been perfect--Kumar says there have been "a lot of leaks that have been really frustrating to the White House." Most notable were the leaks from CIA and intelligence officials in the fall regarding Iraq, including a classified National Intelligence Council report that estimated a short-term outcome for Iraq that ranged from tenuous stability to civil war. That estimate garnered plenty of press coverage

But besides the pre-election intelligence squabbles, the message management has been pretty close to flawless. The administration has been aided by outside factors, such as a Republican-controlled Congress less likely to speak ill of the White House and, at least in the patriotic days post-9/11, Kumar says, a docile Democratic opposition.

Ever-present security concerns further hamper access. "The trend line is to fewer press conferences, smaller press pools, fewer opportunities for the reporters to eyeball the president," says Howard Fineman, Newsweek's chief political correspondent for 20 years. At the same time, there's "more security, more distance, more assertiveness by the Secret Service..more isolation." Fineman sees that trend continuing. "The logic of security knows no limits."

But the evolving press-president relationship isn't all about government's desire to clam up. Kumar and Tate say a White House has to get its message out--clearly and amid a cacophony of competing voices. The press has not been merely an innocent bystander to the current state of affairs.

While an adversarial relationship between the media and government is somewhat healthy, Leon Panetta, a White House chief of staff for Clinton, says that relationship has suffered "a very gradual deterioration."

The trend toward greater message discipline is "kind of a reaction to the aggressiveness of the press in going after their own stories, as well as going after the administrations', " says Panetta, now director of the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy in California. The White House's first reaction, he says, is to abide by the rule: "The best defense is a good offense."

Panetta continues: "I understand why this happens... But at some point, we can't continue this kind of trend, and it requires change on both sides." On the media side, "instead of always looking for the angle or the scandal or the bad news, at some point the press has to develop greater objectivity in the way they approach their stories," he says. "If they do that, I think White Houses have to respond by giving them greater access."

The vast media landscape has not helped the press' cause either. If anything, it's enabled administrations to tailor and target their messages more effectively. Leverage is not an asset many news organizations possess today. When there were just three big networks, says Douglas Brinkley, a historian and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, an administration had to cooperate with them. "Today, you don't have to deal with them," he says. The White House can say, "'Screw you, we'll give the exclusive to Fox..or to NBC. We'll ignore your paper completely for a few months.'" Says Brinkley, "The proliferation of the media has allowed them to be selective in terms of who they embrace."

The media have come out on the losing end of an arrangement that, theoretically, is supposed to have both sides working toward a common goal: keeping the American public informed. The "us versus them" antagonism has been heightened.

The administration's news management has taken many forms, including banning New York Times reporters from Vice President Dick Cheney's campaign plane, cutting short press conferences held jointly with more loquacious foreign leaders, and holding a mere 17 solo press conferences as of December 20, far fewer than the 44 or 84 that Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, respectively, held at a comparable point during their administrations. One-on-one interviews are doled out selectively: Chen says the Los Angeles Times is one of the last major newspapers in the world that has not had an interview with President Bush. It's not personal; it's strategic. "This White House doesn't need California, has no use for California politically," says Chen, "so we carry no clout."

Knight Ridder's Ron Hutcheson says "a very small number of people..are authorized to be helpful," and aspects of press relations that should be easy are difficult. For instance, the press will sometimes learn from foreign governments that Bush is going to visit their countries, but the White House won't always confirm that information, he says.

When Cheney went to a Washington, D.C., hospital in November complaining of shortness of breath, Hutcheson called the White House press office and was told he would have to talk to Mary Matalin, a former top aide to the vice president. He called her twice and had to leave messages. Hutcheson later saw a Fox News report that cited Matalin as a source, and as his deadline neared, he called the White House and Cheney's office again. "Sorry, can't help you," was the response.

"I found it completely outrageous," he says. "Questions about Dick Cheney's health should not be outsourced" to a Republican consultant.

Under Clinton, says Bob Kemper, who covered the Bush White House for the Chicago Tribune until April 2004, if reporters called with a nuts-and-bolts policy question, "they'd put some wonk on the phone that you couldn't get off for two hours." With the Bush administration, no matter whom you call, you get the same three talking points, he says. Kemper, now a Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, once called an agency for basic policy information and got a call back from the White House.

Indeed, some reporters see the stonewall approach creeping into other agencies in the federal government. "What's distressing to me is to see it spread elsewhere to what I had thought of as a nonpolitical place, like the military," says David Wood, Newhouse News Service's national security correspondent, who has been on the beat since 1981. "I had always operated under the understanding that they were doing the people's business, and if the people asked about it, they had a right to know. That's pretty much gone, and it seems to me that the operative assumption at the Pentagon is, we will talk to you if it fits our specific narrow purpose and not if it doesn't."

Wood recalls an instance late last year when he asked for "fairly prosaic unclassified information" and was asked, "What's your lead?" "And the organization I was dealing with declined to cooperate, which totally shocked me."

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News' chief foreign affairs correspondent, has covered national politics and the federal government since 1976. Mitchell says internal feuding in the foreign policy field did lead to some leaks during Bush's first term, but she has been surprised "how shut down the State Department has been for the most part, given the fact that most of us know the principals... The White House really kept the State Department in check."

Mitchell argues that leaks, particularly of dissenting views, can be helpful to good government. "There are policies that need to be exposed," she says. "There are times when the administration ought to know that there are things happening in this administration that are not good policy."

The White House's lead in tightly controlling information sends a message throughout the federal government about how officials should deal with the press, says Caesar Andrews, editor of Gannett News Service. "I think it sets a tone for agencies that we deal with," he says. "I think it colors all of Washington. And I think it creates an environment where there's certainly a strong sense that the currency is information, and they're going to deny us as much currency as they can."

Beyond the Beltway, the partisan divide of the country doesn't give any additional clout to the mainstream press. Especially under a Republican administration, it's known as the "liberal media" to many. A press-versus-the-president tussle translates into a left-versus-right battle for the right-leaning public. "They only have to get the message out if they're trying to win over the nonbelievers," says Hutcheson of this administration. The other half of the country, he says, doesn't believe what we write.

Mike McCurry struggles to explain what incentive there would be for future White Houses to be more open with the media. "You're hard-pressed to make the case that transparency, regular press conferences, more access by the press to the president and senior staff, you're hard-pressed to make the case that that benefits your boss," he says.

McCurry, now a Washington-based consultant, describes his approach as press secretary as "kill them with kindness." But there's "absolutely no evidence that works in getting better coverage," he says. "You could not say that Bill Clinton had any more generous or favorable treatment by the press corps."

So, is there any incentive? Says McCurry: "At the end of the day, the more information you can get out of the door and in front of the American people, the more likely it will be that people will understand what you're doing."

Others cite potential downsides to a closed shop that are almost all intangible and hypothetical. There's the idea that building up goodwill with the press will help a president weather a crisis. There's concern for government accountability and the public trust.

Says Panetta: "I've been a believer that the more access you have between a president and the press..that ultimately that gives you a better opportunity to not only get your message across, but more importantly to create a sense that a democratic government truly is an open society and an open presidency." The problem Panetta sees is that Americans have become increasingly cynical. "That impacts on trust, and I think when you start undermining trust in a democracy, that weakens our basic system of government as opposed to strengthening it."

Newsweek's Fineman says the executive branch should open up the lines of communication because a president needs good coverage of his government to make sure he knows what's going on--sometimes the guy at the top is the last one to know what's bubbling up among the staff. "Another thing is that you want the press looking at what your government is doing, because you want the press to help keep the bureaucracy honest."

Those are noble reasons, but awfully wispy and idealistic. More tangible to a press office are news reports that are less reliable or filled with opposition opinions, as reporters are forced to seek comment further and further outside the White House. "I think that you want full and accurate coverage of what it is the president is doing, what policies he's considering, what the alternatives are," says Kumar. "And if the White House isn't giving them, then one needs to get them from elsewhere." That's one danger, she says, of running things too tightly. Reporters will "get it from elsewhere, just go to interest groups, the think tanks, that have a different view."

Kumar, like Hess, says there are many places to go for information in a city as porous as Washington, and if this is the communications strategy that works best for this president, well, then, the press just has to work harder.

"The problem is, for that argument to hold water, those other sources would have to have the information," says Ken Fireman, who covered the White House for Newsday for about seven years until mid-December, when he switched to the congressional beat. He doesn't think the administration is telling other people any more than it's telling the press. Many times, says Fireman, he's heard complaints "and not just from Democrats, [that] the Hill is left out of the loop." (In September, Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and frequent critic of the Bush administration, catalogued such complaints in a lengthy report titled "Secrecy in the Bush Administration," which examines the implementation of open records laws and congressional access to information.)

Chen echoes Fireman's comments, saying that the press tries to go to interest groups and others who may be talking to the White House, but "that's almost as hard as getting information out of the White House..because these people who talk to the White House, they are scared as hell of being identified as leakers."

Beyond any fear of being seen as disloyal, some government employees face possible jail time for revealing even unclassified information. Last year the Department of Homeland Security began requiring employees to sign a nondisclosure agreement that stipulates they will not reveal "sensitive but unclassified" information, which includes anything that if lost or misused could "adversely affect the national interest or the conduct of Federal programs" or the privacy of individuals. Those who break the agreement could face "administrative, disciplinary, civil, or criminal action." An interpreter who worked for the government for 18 years quit his job in November when he was asked to sign a new contract with the State Department, requiring that he not reveal "'any information' that he learned in the course of his government interpreting work to unauthorized outsiders," according to the Washington Post. And in 2003, a Drug Enforcement Administration analyst, Jonathan Randel, was sentenced to a year in prison for giving a British reporter sensitive but unclassified information. The First Amendment Center's McMasters says it was the first time a federal employee was imprisoned for giving out such information.

Despite these legal requirements and a tight-lipped policy, reporters say they do find ways to unearth information. And while the president's second-term appointments from inside the White House indicate his Cabinet will remain loyally quiet, the press has found some fissures.

"This is Washington, after all. You can always get a sampling of other opinion by going to the Hill" or talking to career staffers in the agencies who have a stake in the system, says CBS' Plante. "So you're never totally frozen out... This town is too big for that and too diverse."

Tom Bowman, a military affairs correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, says the more the top brass control the message or crack down on dissent, the more sources pop up. "That's what I've found," he says, "particularly among the officer corps." Officers are more likely to talk if they are angry about the handling of the post-war situation in Iraq and as they see how senior officers who express dissenting views--such as former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki and Army Lt. Gen. John Riggs--are treated, says Bowman. Riggs told Bowman in early 2004 that he thought the Army needed at least 10,000 more soldiers in Iraq. "They pretty much slammed him after that," the reporter says, "and pushed him into retirement... So when people see things like that happening..they tend to be more willing to talk."

New York Times White House correspondent David E. Sanger also disputes the notion that information is so tightly held. Sanger believes that the administration's control began to unravel in the summer of 2003, when disputes became public about the "16 words" in the president's State of the Union speech alleging that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa. That fall David Kay, then the chief U.S. weapons inspector, said he had found no evidence to back up the claim. "Suddenly, we heard open differences about who got the president of the United States to utter what was clearly an incorrect piece of intelligence," Sanger says. That was followed by former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke's dissenting views on the run-up to war and the 9/11 commission report. Sanger and others see more divisions in the Republican Party, such as questions about Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's performance and schisms on contentious issues like Social Security. "I think you will see more of that now that you don't have the discipline of an oncoming election to keep everybody together," Sanger says.

The administration has been much better at controlling information about domestic issues, he continues. "As much as they would like to freeze out newspapers," Sanger says, "in the foreign policy arena, it's harder to do." Papers like the Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are read by foreign leaders, so it's "more difficult for them to say we're simply not going to talk about it."

The Sun's Bowman doesn't think the press has been completely shut out or that the administration can continue to control the news. "I think the administration's fooling itself in thinking they can manage a message to the American people," he says, "because again, we always find ways to do our job, we always find people to talk with."

Complaints of phone calls not returned and having to jump through hoops to get information do begin to sound whiny--and the pool of sympathy for the media is pretty shallow. But when journalists talk about the ramifications of tight information control, they speak in often flowery rhetoric about democracy, and a free flow of information, and the public's right to know.

The one downside Sheila Tate sees to controlling the message tightly is if an administration doesn't release information that the public interest dictates it should. However, while the press may complain, the public wants a clear message, she says. "There are a lot of things that bother the press"--the number of press conferences, for example--"that don't really bother the public."

Many say that if the press wants greater access, it'll need an outraged public to get it. And the media have done a lackluster job of explaining to people why a more open government or fewer hassles over Freedom of Information Act requests personally affects them.

"It's really a question that is placed before the American public," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "What kind of society do we want? And the answer is unclear. It may be that most of us want a society that values security above all else, and if that's the case, then we will see more of the same... I have a haunting suspicion that we have not educated ourselves and our children about the value of openness and the strength that flows from freewheeling debate."

Gannett's Andrews agrees. "What's the impact on citizens? If we don't have an articulate way of answering that in ways that are relevant to the public, then we keep the fight going, but I think the outcome remains the same."

At the Washington bureau of Cox Newspapers, reporter Rebecca Carr's duties include coverage of government secrecy. Bureau Chief Andy Alexander says she approaches the beat from a public standpoint, not a media standpoint. "When we write about how communities suffer because they couldn't find out about a suspected chemical leak down the road," he explains, those stories "really resonate with the public."

Alexander, as chair of the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Freedom of Information Committee, has been involved in a larger effort to call attention to the public's right to know. ASNE, the Radio-Television News Directors Association and a number of other journalism organizations are launching a nationwide "Sunshine Week," set for March 13. The Sunshine Week Web site (www.sunshineweek.org) will provide op-eds for use by the media, story ideas, video news packages and information for libraries, which will sponsor local FOI programs. The emphasis is on how access, or the lack thereof, has adversely affected the public.

Tom Curley, president and CEO of the Associated Press and a member of the effort's steering committee, said in a conference call to announce the initiative that secrecy "seems to be growing at an epidemic rate." And it "behooves us in the media to become more aggressive... We ourselves need to be out there fighting for access."

Over the past few years, says Alexander, a number of media organizations have become increasingly alarmed by secrecy, which worsened after 9/11. The issue came to the fore when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft released a memo in October 2001 that reversed the basic concept of FOI. Pre-Ashcroft memo, the government had to provide a compelling reason why it would not release information to the public. Post-memo, the government didn't have such a responsibility: It would only release documents if the public could show why they shouldn't be kept secret. Beyond that memo, open government advocates and news organizations have noted with dismay a number of limitations to FOIA. (See "The Information Squeeze," September 2002.)

Alexander's reporters were surprised that Cox had to file an FOI request with the Justice Department when it wanted to obtain a national database of illegal immigrants who had served prison time for felonies. The request was denied on the grounds that it was not a matter in which the public had substantial interest, he says, and because revealing the names of convicted felons would be "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Says Alexander: "I can't imagine what's more in the public interest than to know if a convicted child molester" was deported or released in the United States. "We're in court with them to try to get this."

Freedom of information issues are somewhat separate from an administration's communications strategy, but both are factors that contribute to the openness of the press-president relationship. Alexander says the media are partly to blame for increasingly tight control. "One of the reasons is that we have allowed ourselves in this town to get to a point where the national security adviser can have a background briefing with 50 reporters and not have herself revealed."

After covering the White House for 57 years for United Press International, Helen Thomas, now a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, has harsh words for the Bush administration and also for the press, which she believes should push harder for more press conferences and ask tougher questions. "We are adversarial. We are supposed to be; that's our job," Thomas says. "I think they've just been too docile, supine, willing to go along."

What's happened in this press-president relationship, though, is a lessening in importance of the traditional mainstream media, says Mark Tapscott of the Heritage Foundation. Blogs, online journalism, talk radio are the new media. Tapscott says he suspects people in the White House would say talk radio and the blogosphere are more important priorities for them. "They see that as the future of the news business."

But such shifts in press importance could mean more information coming out of the government, not less. Tapscott predicts that online-based, grassroots media--discussed in Dan Gillmor's book "We the Media"--will develop into primary sources of news, and when that happens, "the people in government will have to adjust the way they deal with them." There'll be no more ignoring a phone call until a deadline has passed. "With 24/7 news," Tapscott says, "you can't do that."

Mike McCurry suggests that the press could make some changes as well. When there's such a premium on discipline and message control, he says, it "cries out for some new reporting techniques to break the barrier."

For example, reporters could put more effort into covering the other government agencies. "They've got literally hundreds of senior government officers with information and news at all other levels of the federal bureaucracy that never get a call," he says.

The lack of solidarity in the press corps is another thing that amazes McCurry. If a reporter is thrown off the vice president's plane, he asks, why doesn't the entire press corps say, fine, then none of us travels with you. "You don't ever see any kind of collective action like that."

Even the kill-'em-with-kindness press secretary once told Deborah Orin of the New York Post that he wasn't going to check out an allegation in former FBI agent Gary Aldrich's book "Unlimited Access" when Orin broached the subject in a press conference. After a testy exchange in which McCurry said the book was "filled with lies" and criticized the New York Post for reprinting portions of it, he asked if any other news organization wanted to ask the question. He looked around the room. No one took the bait.

Knight Ridder's Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspondents' Association, says the press would have some leverage if news organizations all took a stand together. But he's not confident anyone can get journalists, with often competitive interests, to organize.

Before one of the president's foreign trips, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was supposed to give reporters an on-the-record briefing, he recalls. Instead, someone else gave it but said it would be off the record. Hutcheson pressed the official to give a reason why. The response: "'This is the way we do it. If you don't like it, you can leave,'" he says.

Hutcheson walked out. But no one followed.

As the president starts thinking about his legacy, reporters say, he may not want it to be one of a closeted government. At the same time, journalists have very little to lose in this second term--certainly not access. The next four years could bring some changes to the disciplined information control, or they could demonstrate that administrations suffer little by keeping the press at bay.

Aftergood and many others talk about what a clampdown on information means for the public good. But beyond reporters and some members of Congress, he says, "to many other people, it sounds like an abstraction, or it's a selfish concern for reporters, that oh, our job is becoming harder.

"But, in fact, all of us are dependent, whether we know it or not, on the workings of a vibrant press. Literally, our lives may depend on it, so somehow we have to find a way to communicate that."

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