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Jewish World Review April 19, 2001 / 26 Nissan, 5761

Martin Schram

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Spinning the top reporters -- NO sooner had America's 24 brave air surveillance crew members been released by China than Washington's cognoscenti began its ritual pondering of how the new, inexperienced president had performed in his first international high-pressure test.

And naturally, to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on President George W. Bush's performance, the capital cognoscenti turned first to those who are considered the tops of American journalism.

"Bush had peppered (Army Brig. Gen. Neal) Sealock with questions..." reported The Washington Post. "...He grilled (national security adviser Condoleezza) Rice on the degree of regret the United States would express..."

"From the first moment, Mr. Bush was constantly peppering his closest aides," reported The New York Times.

Do you begin to feel we were listening to the sound of one White House spinner spinning? (Or a choir of Bush spinners reading from the same libretto?)

The fact is that President Bush worked his way through his first could-be crisis in admirable fashion. (Yes, he began with an initial false step - demanding China release the crew, which only hardened the Chinese position, as Beijing began to treat the issue as a matter of national pride in which it could not yield, as its own pilot was apparently downed and dead. Yet Bush quickly and wisely treated it as a two-staged affair: First, a conciliatory strategy to get the 24 Americans home; second, a firmer strategy to tell the facts of how China's pilot caused the mid-air collision in international airspace.)

But America's new inexperienced president was not well served by his new and inexperienced presidential spinners. For in their zeal to make their man look super they wound up portraying him in an exaggerated way that came across as cartoonish, almost comical. And that made their own account seem hard to believe.

Especially in the first account that was published on April 12 in The Washington Post. It ran on page one under a label that said "analysis" - but read as if it should have been labeled "satire." It began with those bits about "peppered Sealock" and "grilled Rice," which conjured images of a president who is a cross between the Lone Ranger of Foreign Policy (as Henry Kissinger once famously referred to himself) and the Galloping Gourmet. Then the Post presented examples - that read like a cross between scripts from West Wing and Saturday Night Live: "In one conversation with Sealock, Bush's questions were numerous, and detailed.

'How's their health?' the president asked of the crew.

'Are they staying in the equivalent of officers' quarters?' 'Are they getting any exercise?'"

Such detailed questions were of course also being asked in the parlors from Peoria to Pensacola. It is incongruous, if not absurd, to depict such normal questions as detailed and presidential. And it demeans the president - who, with his advisers, handled this test quite well; because it seems to say we expected him to be such a lightweight that any ordinary thing that he said merits huzzahs.

The New York Times waited one more day before running its own page one analysis - and came up with a proper analytical theme: Bush had "suppressed his initial instincts" to make hawkish demands and adopted a more "conciliatory approach" that got the troops home.

The Times piece also noted - but only in passing - that Bush called leaders of Britain, France, Brazil and Canada "to encourage them to quietly press Chinese leaders." No one in the media has properly explored the obvious question of why an international forum was not, and hasn't been, sought to mobilize international support for rights of aircraft in international airspace to be free from buzzing and harassing tactics. Chinese pilots apparently used those tactics for months against these U.S. planes, which are not secret spy planes, but overt surveillance planes. Indeed, the Navy EP-3E Aires II intelligence planes are slow-flying hippos that might as well be flashing neon signs to announce their presence and their mission.

Meanwhile, there is one more factor that readers deserved to be told. Namely: The first months of Bush's presidency have been marked by a firm clamp-down on access to officials by journalists - so tight, in fact, that even the capital's most conservative journalists complain privately about being shut out. This, naturally but wrongly, might induce some journalists to try to curry favor with sources by writing gushing pieces.

Which makes it all the more imperative that journalists who are indeed the tops of their profession not permit themselves to be tops that are easily spun.

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© 2001, SHNS