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President Bush, the media's forgotten man

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BEN FELLER
July 28, 2008
— They want you, they need you, they lose interest, they leave you for someone else.

So goes the media's approach toward the president. It is always a relationship destined to end.


President Bush remember him? He has long ceased to be a hot story. Across all forms of mainstream media, news coverage of the president has fallen significantly this year.


The drop-off has big implications for Bush, whose ability to influence the public debate is weakened by less exposure, and for the country, which ends up with lighter scrutiny of the nation's highest office.


And while the trend is not unusual for a lame-duck leader Bill Clinton was plenty overshadowed in his final months the declining attention still seems pronounced given the forces working against Bush.


The nation is tired, worn down by wars and a weak economy. Much of the country seems ready to move on, even though Bush remains relevant thanks mainly to his veto power and his command over the military.


News organizations, making an editorial judgment influenced by tighter budgets, see less point in covering an unpopular president with waning clout and diminishing news value. The presidential beat is expensive; the airfare alone for one of Bush's foreign trips easily can run more than $20,000.


For the reporters still following Bush, the big stories still happen, but far less often. TV correspondents find it harder to get on the air, photographers doubt whether their pictures will get any play, and writers often see their work buried in the back of the newspaper.


On top of it all, Bush is not part of the story getting all the buzz: the race for his job.


Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain make news every time they speak, a luxury of attention once afforded to Bush. He used it to his advantage as a candidate in 2000 and an incumbent in 2004.


Now he watches as Obama's trip to the Middle East and Europe gets coverage that seems, well, presidential. Many of the people who long have covered Bush have abandoned the White House post for the presidential campaign. When it's over, they may return, when the White House beat is deemed juicy again.


"The press follows power," said Bob Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. "I'm sure this goes through the mind of network producers (about Bush) he's not popular, he's not influential with Congress, he's not very powerful. So why cover him?"


Over the first four months of the year, Bush got about half as much coverage on nightly network broadcasts as he did in 2007, according to an analysis by Lichter's center. Bush's coverage on major network news is running more than 60 percent below what he got during his first seven years in office.


More broadly, Bush has faded in the primary places people get their news: major newspapers, TV networks, cable TV news, radio and online sites. The nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism, which conducts an ongoing analysis of those media, found the presidential campaign is consistently dominating coverage.


Looked at another way, Obama was a lead newsmaker in 690 stories in June, the same research organization found. McCain was the dominant news figure in 263 stories. The tally for Bush? 113.


The White House professes no objection.


"It's only natural that the campaign for the next president is getting the lion's share of the media attention, but that's as it should be," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "It's a good, robust debate about who the next president is going to be. We're very comfortable with that."


While McCain and Obama run for president, Bush actually is president. He is still making or influencing decisions of enormous consequence.


His administration is aggressively trying to settle conflicts with Iran and North Korea. Largely on his terms, Bush got legislation to extend spying on suspected terrorists and to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will be in charge for almost six more months, media attention or not.


"What is the goal?" Perino said. "It is to achieve the president's agenda, not just to get in the news."


The White House points out that some of Bush's events make a big splash in local media even if national reporters see no news in them.


The national media, though, is the prize to a White House keenly aware of public perception.


The president's advisers have taken some creative steps to try to keep him in the news.


On Bush's trip to Africa, the anti-poverty activist Bob Geldof got a rare interview on Air Force One. Geldof, a rocker who starred in the movie version of "Pink Floyd The Wall," described his experience with Bush as "gigging on a whole other level" in a magazine piece about Bush's commitment to Africa.


When Bush got back home, he narrated a slideshow about his trip. The event was unusual enough to draw coverage. Bush had even done practice run-throughs of his 111-slide presentation in the White House Family Theater, a level of attention normally reserved for major speeches to the nation.


Bush this year also did his first interview exclusively for an online audience. The White House has allowed reporters to attend more of Bush's round-table meetings with visitors, access that typically ensures a story. And Bush still makes news with every press conference or interview.


Yet for reporters who want fresh news and like to look ahead, a president on his way out has limits.


So daily briefings are more lightly attended. Coveted press seats on Air Force One often go empty.


The White House has had perhaps only two days this year when the place was really buzzing with excitement among the press corps.


One was when McCain came by to be endorsed by Bush. The other was when Pope Benedict XVI visited.


In both cases, the story was not about Bush.


One downside of this diminished coverage is less watchdog reporting in a major hall of power.


Already, to save money, major newspapers are slashing staffing and trimming the amount of national and international news they run. So even when Bush makes news, he might not make the cut.


Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute journalism center, said one other factor might be coming back to bite Bush: his administration's reputation for controlling the media's access.


"I don't think we should underestimate the extent to which, by doing that, they've paid a long-term price on how the press is going to respond to them," he said.


Even Bush's coverage overseas is thinning on his foreign trips. But he can still cause a stir.


In Africa, he got a rousing welcome in Dar es Salaam, a port city in Tanzania.


The next day's local headline: "Bush fever rocks Dar."


Perhaps not surprisingly, Bush calls the Africa trip the best one of his presidency.



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