NPR Turns Down Bush Interview on Race
The White House reached out to National Public Radio over the weekend, offering analyst Juan Williams a presidential interview to mark yesterday’s 50th anniversary of school desegregation in Little Rock. But NPR turned down the interview, and Williams’s talk with Bush wound up in a very different media venue: Fox News.
Williams said yesterday he was “stunned” by NPR’s decision. “It makes no sense to me. President Bush has never given an interview in which he focused on race. . . . I was stunned by the decision to turn their backs on him and to turn their backs on me.”
Ellen Weiss, NPR’s vice president for news, said she “felt strongly” that “the White House shouldn’t be selecting the person.” She said NPR told Bush’s press secretary, Dana Perino, that “we’re grateful for the opportunity to talk to the president but we wanted to determine who did the interview.” When the White House said the offer could not be transferred to one of NPR’s program hosts, Weiss took a pass.
Perino said she called Williams with the offer Saturday because of the Little Rock anniversary and the racial controversy over charges of excessive prosecution in Jena, La. “We thought this would be a good opportunity for the president to sit down with someone and have a broader conversation about race relations,” Perino said. “The president has talked with Juan before and we know him well. He’s active in trying to keep good relations with us. . . . We could have done a print interview, but I felt I wanted people to hear the president’s voice.”
While it’s true that this president seems to have an especial penchant for choosing only venues within his comfort zone, presidents chose their hosts all the time. Bill Clinton, probably the best on his feet communicator of any president in my lifetime, granted exclusive interviews to the likes of Larry King, knowing he’d get softer treatment than with other hosts.
And, despite his association with Fox News, Williams is hardly a conservative shill. He’s a highly regarded left-of-center moderate with decades of experience.
Williams is a one-time Washington Post reporter and editorial writer who has written such books as “Eyes on the Prize,” about the civil rights movement. In a Post op-ed column on Little Rock yesterday, he criticized a recent Supreme Court decision striking down two voluntary school integration plans as contributing to the isolation of poor and minority students.
Williams, who is sometimes criticized by liberal groups, dismissed the notion that he was picked as a sympathetic interviewer, saying he often challenges the administration on “Fox News Sunday.”
“I had worked at NPR’s direction to develop a relationship with the White House,” he said. “I have an expertise on race relations. . . . I thought the listeners of NPR lost a tremendous opportunity to hear the president in a rare interview on a very important subject.”
It’s especially the case in light of the recent controversy over Republican presidential candidates ducking debates on race relations. Does NPR really think one of their other hosts would have asked more insightful questions on the topic than Williams?
UPDATE: For some perspective, see these stories about how GQ pulled a critical story on Hillary Clinton after being blackmailed by Bill Clinton.
The planned article included details of in-fighting within her tightly-controlled campaign and internal criticism of her campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle.
When Mr Green discussed the article with a senior Clinton press aide, the campaign moved swiftly. Clinton advisers told GQ that if the Green article was published they would withdraw cooperation over a piece by George Saunders, a novelist and GQ writer, who travelled with Mr Clinton to Africa in July. Mr Saunders is seen as more favourably disposed to the Clinton camp. This year, he told a New York newspaper that he had twice voted for Mr Clinton and that “everybody likes him and knows him, so he can get people in a room and make things happen”.
Mr Clinton is expected to appear on the cover of the December issue of GQ with the Saunders article inside. The magazine usually names a Man of the Year in that issue and Mr Clinton is understood to be in the running.
Despite internal protests, GQ editor Jim Nelson met the Clinton campaign’s demands, which had been delivered by Bill Clinton’s spokesman, Jay Carson, several sources familiar with the conversations said. GQ writer George Saunders traveled with Clinton to Africa in July, and Clinton is slated to appear on the cover of GQ’s December issue, in which it traditionally names a “Man of the Year,” according magazine industry sources. And the offending article by Atlantic Monthly staff writer Josh Green got the spike.
The spiked GQ story also shows how the Clinton campaign has been able to use its access to the most important commodity in media — celebrity, and in fact two bona fide celebrities — to shape not just what gets written about the candidate, but also what doesn’t.
There’s nothing unusual about providing extra access to candidates to reporters seen as sympathetic, and cutting off those seen as hostile to a campaign. The 2004 Bush campaign banned a New York Times reporter from Vice President Dick Cheney’s jet, and Sen. Barack Obama threatened to bar Fox News reporters from campaign travel. But a retreat of the sort GQ is alleged to have made is unusual, particularly as part of what sources described as a barely veiled transaction of editorial leverage for access.
The Clinton campaign is unique in its ability to provide cash value to the media, and particularly the celebrity-driven precincts of television and magazines. Bill Clinton is a favorite cover figure, because his face is viewed within the magazine industry as one that can move product. (Indeed, Green’s own magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, ran as its October cover story “Bill Clinton’s campaign to save the world.”)
It’s a fact that gives the Clintons’ press aides a leverage more familiar to Hollywood publicists than even to her political rivals — less Mitt Romney and more Tom Cruise, whose publicists once required interviewers to sign a statement pledging not to write anything “derogatory” about the star.
The Clinton campaign has more sway with television networks than any rival. At the time Clinton launched her campaign, the networks’ hunger for interviews had her all over the morning and evening news broadcasts of every network — after her aides negotiated agreements limiting producers’ abilities to edit the interviews.
Now, NPR isn’t GQ or the Big 3 television networks. But the idea that it’s somehow unusual for a sitting president to set terms and conditions for his interviews — and have them granted — is rather silly.