May 31, 2002

Is the press in awe of Ari Fleischer?…

Jonathan Chait has written a cogent critique for The New Republic of presidential press secretary Ari Fleisher’s method for answering, or not answering, reporters’ questions in press conferences. He demonstrates that Fleischer manipulates reporters in several “audacious” ways: 1) lying by denying facts or past statements, 2) telling “process non sequiturs,” and 3) refusing to answer based on a shifting set of rules. Chait differentiates between spin–putting the best face on facts–and the “fairly blunt propaganda” Fleischer hands the press (also see the entry for propaganda in the Rhetorica Critical Meter). As Chait writes:

[W]hat Fleischer does, for the most part, is not really spin. It’s a system of disinformation–blunter, more aggressive, and, in its own way, more impressive than spin. Much of the time Fleischer does not engage with the logic of a question at all. He simply denies its premises–or refuses to answer it on the grounds that it conflicts with a Byzantine set of rules governing what questions he deems appropriate. Fleischer has broken new ground in the dark art of flackdom: Rather than respond tendentiously to questions, he negates them altogether.

While I’m largely in agreement with Chait’s critical stance (i.e. what features of Fleisher’s discourse he highlights and why he highlights them), I’m amazed that he implies Fleischer’s tactics are something he inflicts on hapless reporters. In several places in this article, Chait characterizes Fleischer as a “breathtakingly” audacious man who “radiates boundless certainty” that cows reporters into submission. I would suggest that any reporter who cannot prepare well enough to question a press secretary, or who cannot properly deflect flack or follow-up on “fibs” has no business covering the White House.

Far more interesting, I think, is the article as news itself. If Fleischer is lying, then why is the press not reporting it regularly in the way Chait does here? I think the answer is that the press does not see Fleischer’s performance as news in itself. Instead, it is only fodder for analysis after the damage is done. They attend the press conferences seeking information and forget that the process may be the most news worthy item of the day. For that to happen, however, reporters will have to stop being awed by Ari Fleischer and start holding him more accountable for the things he says.

For more on Fleischer, see the Chatterbox column on Slate

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