I wasn't surprised that Jon Stewart conducted a total softball interview with Ari Fleischer last night. Whether interviewing Democrats like John Kerry or Republicans, Stewart has shown he's easily flummoxed by people who are quicker and savvier than him, in which he case he retreats into mild humor ("Ari fleischer was candid with me.") When he is critical, like the time he told a Republican Congressman that accusations Kerry was the most liberal Senator came from National Journal for one year, he seems to just have one point in mind and hammer away on it.
What really interested me in Fleischer wasn't the way he so casually charmed Stewart (though I did enjoy when Stewart asked if "this White House [is] more restrictive with information than others have been" and Ari just said "yes." No better way to deflect a critical question than to be shockingly honest without actually admitting anything controversial).
I was fascinated by the contemtous attitude toward the press and the effort to make it look like what the Bush Administration has done is nothing special. He admitted that the President sees the press only in part as a group with a special trust in the public and that he sees it in part as just a special interest group. Of course I suspect that most presidents at least part of the time have felt the press was just another group out to get them. But have we really reached the point where an expert spinner doesn't even feel the need to pretend that the president respects the role of the media in a free society?
When Stewart asked him about the "dance" the media plays with a flack like Fleischer, his response was amazing to me. While feigning respect for the press, he painted a victory for the press in that conflict as reporting a presidential decision "12 hours before he announces it." Fundementally, Fleischer apparently sees covering the White House as reporting on what the President does, whether it's a few hours ahead of time or after he does it. But how about news that isn't essentially transcription (or pre-transcription) of what the Presiden tsays. How about investigative reports that tells us when the President is being dishonest, or is doing something that he doesn't want the public to know about and never plans to announce? Like when the press pointed out that there really weren't as many viable embryonic stem cells available for research as Bush claimed in August of 2001? Or the biggest story of the past decade (at least) missed by American political reporters: the con job George W. Bush pulled in convincing the American people Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. That's real journalism and that's where the real conflict between the press corps and the White House should come. (not that we still don't need some of the transcription)
Perhaps not surprisingly, Fleischer engaged in a little bit of dishonesty, or at least trickery, to draw a false comparison. When Stewart asked him about Bush's tendency to hold public events where every question is pre-screened and the whole thing is staged, Fleischer reminded him that "everyone does that," Republicans and Democrats. Well, sort of. Yes, Bill Clinton and many other Democrats have held highly stage managed events. But there was a key difference in the public events John Kerry held in the last campaign and the ones W. held. At most of Kerry's events, anybody could go. At Bush's events, all attendees were pre-screened to make sure they were Bush supporters. No trouble-makers from that half of the voting population who didn't like Bush allowed.
I never expected Stewart to be able to match up against the dark lord of spin. But given how often he points out dishonesty by Bush in the first act of his show, he might have at least asked a follow-up question once.