NPR Turns Down Bush Interview on Race

National Public Radio turned down an offer by President Bush to sit down with correspondent Juan Williams to talk about race issues, saying they would not allow him to pick the interviewer.

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?

via Memeorandum

UPDATE: For some perspective, see these stories about how GQ pulled a critical story on Hillary Clinton after being blackmailed by Bill Clinton.

Clintons persuade GQ to pull critical article

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.

Clinton campaign kills negative story

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael says:

    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.

    See, it’s that one little word that makes all the difference. This wasn’t about the President granting an interview with Williams, this is about the President asking NPR to broadcast an interview he wanted to have, with a reported her wanted to have it with. How different is that from saying “Hey NPR, here’s a tape of me talking about my message, in my frame, with my facts, how about you endorse it and broadcast it for me for free?”

  2. James Joyner says:

    How different is that from saying “Hey NPR, here’s a tape of me talking about my message, in my frame, with my facts, how about you endorse it and broadcast it for me for free?”

    How is it similar?

    The president was offering to have an open interview with one of NPR’s top reporters on an important subject that NPR was planning on covering in great depth.

  3. Michael says:

    How is it similar?

    The president was offering to have an open interview with one of NPR’s top reporters on an important subject that NPR was planning on covering in great depth.

    It’s similar because the President chose a reporter he already knew either agreed with his specific policies regarding African American issues, or was at least sympathetic towards his goals. The interview would have been “President Bush discusses African American issues with a real live African American on liberal NPR, and the reporter agreed with all this policies, Bush really does understand the African American community” when, in fact, he doesn’t. This was the radio equivalent of a photo-op.

  4. Michael says:

    The president was offering to have an open interview with one of NPR’s top reporters on an important subject that NPR was planning on covering in great depth.

    Oh, and according to the article the President was offered to have an open interview with _another_ one of NPR’s top reporters on an important subject that NPR was planning on covering in great depth, and the White House declined it, so obviously the White House’s has at least one additional requirement for the interviewer to have, any guesses what that might be?

  5. Anderson says:

    Juan Williams is “left of center”?

    I have heard him a fair number of times on NPR, and he *always* skims lightly over whatever the Republicans are doing so he can start criticizing the Democrats.

    Other than NPR, I’m not familiar with him, so maybe he has a secret left-of-center identity.

  6. Andy says:

    Juan Williams is “left of center”?

    Juan Williams is left of center because the right wing says that he is. What he actually thinks is completely irrelevant, of course.

  7. James, many of your commenters are deeply delusional and dreadfully lacking in goodwill. To the extent I may have contributed to that I humbly apologize and take my leave.

  8. Michael says:

    James, many of your commenters are deeply delusional and dreadfully lacking in goodwill. To the extent I may have contributed to that I humbly apologize and take my leave.

    Of all the comments in all the threads on this site, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Kind of anti-climactic, don’t you think?

  9. James Joyner says:

    I have heard him a fair number of times on NPR, and he *always* skims lightly over whatever the Republicans are doing so he can start criticizing the Democrats.

    Other than NPR, I’m not familiar with him, so maybe he has a secret left-of-center identity.

    Interesting. He and Mort Kondracke are longtime center-left teevee pundits. Since their association with Fox News, though, they’ve become viewed as conservatives by many on the left. I don’t know if I’m still colored by their 1980s personae or their views have changed or the definition of liberal and conservative have changed, or what.

  10. Anderson says:

    JJ obviously knows Mr. Williams’ track record better than I do, but JW may (now?) belong to that species of soi-disant “left” folk whose principal goal in life is to criticize those on the left.

    Has JW written anything for The New Republic?

  11. Anderson says:

    (Oh, and I was completely ignorant of JW’s appearances on Fox, so that didn’t bias my listening to him on NPR.)

  12. Charles says:

    The analogy with Bill Clinton and Larry King is quite a stretch. Perino/Bush was asking for NPR to present, and thus endorse, a no-hard-questions-guaranteed interview with a right-of-center African American pundit. I agree with the comment that this was little more than an attempt to grab some free PR for the prez–who never ever ventures onto turf where an interviewer might ask him some tough questions, much less hold his feet to the fire. Good for NPR. Bush has lied too often for me to want to know what he “thinks” any more, thank you.

  13. Derrick says:

    I have a pretty unhealthy attachment to watching Sunday Fox News, and I wouldn’t describe Juan with the word left. He’s pretty moderate on most issues, but skews right-ward especially on interests of race. And if anything I’d say that he’s more of a Fox hack so his ideology doesn’t much matter, evidenced by his very Fox-like attack on CNN and MSNBC over O’Reilly’s at best ignorant comment.

    I hate to make this obvious point, but the mere fact that Bush (a man not know for choosing uncomfortable venues) asked for him, probably tells you all that you need to know.

  14. Tano says:

    “I don’t know if I’m still colored by their 1980s personae or their views have changed or the definition of liberal and conservative have changed, or what.”

    Perhaps it is more the definition of the center that changes. There are two operative defintions – one the center as a part of the liberal-conservative spectrum, halfway inbetween the extremes, by definition.

    The other definition of “center” refers to the “center of gravity” of a particular political environment.

    Kondracke, for example, was somewhat left of center in the second sense, when the center of political gravity, especially from Republican eyes, was wherever the Reagan administration was planting its flag.

    The notion that anyone could see Kondracke as left of center in the first sense, on the liberal-conservative spectrum, is quite the head-scratch.

  15. Tlaloc says:

    I think another important aspect is that Bush simply has no “benefit of the doubt” anymore. Few are willing to take his overtures as genuine, and with good reason.

  16. Juan Williams? We’re talking Juan Williams? Juan Williams is Left of something; he’s a Liberal. This is all upside down.

  17. floyd says:

    Nobody tunes in to NPR unless Garrison Keillor in on anyway.