Saturday, May 28, 2005
The free Afghan press (updated)
[audio at about 2:45] ... one sign of a free society, Mr. Bush has often said, is a free press. In Afghanistan there are dozens of news organizations that have cropped up since the Taliban government was overthrown. But in the East Room today a seating section reserved for Afghan journalists was nearly empty. White House officials rushed to fill the chairs with American reporters, and the two presidents seemed surprised when they turned to see if any foreign journalists had questions.Bush: Somebody from the Afghan press?
Karzai: Anybody from the Afghan press? Do we have an Afghan press? Oh, here he is.
Only one reporter from the newspaper had traveled to Washington with Karzai. Nine other reporters were supposed to make the trip, according to a spokesman for the Afghan president. But the Karzai government decided in the end to prohibit them from traveling.
The spokesman Khalid Ahmad said they were worried the journalists might try to flee once they arrived in the United States. This, Ahmad said, could reflect poorly on his boss. Ahmad added that the group of journalists would be traveling to the United States in two weeks when there would be less risk of them tarnishing the image of Afghanistan's leader. [my transcription]
The White House calls it a "press availability."
If that's the case, then why did so few members of the White House press corps show up for yesterday's question-and-answer session in the East Room with President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai?
So few reporters were on hand, in fact, that the White House hurried to have White House interns fill the empty seats. "That way it wouldn't look bad for the cameras," says one White House insider.
A member of the press corps we spoke to yesterday equated reporters at such staged White House functions with "props." He explained that because the president only takes four questions at each press availability -- two from U.S. wire service reporters and two from foreign scribes -- many in the press corps don't bother to show up.
"Since we can't ask questions, why schlep over there?" he reasons. "The White House this morning actually called reporters beforehand, saying: 'Are you going to be here?' Later, after they eyeballed the room and found it to be empty, they brought in White House interns.
"So you had all these fresh young faces -- pretty blonde girls, and guys who haven't shaved -- nodding their approval as the president speaks."
They really miss Guckert/Gannon, don't they?