The White House Web Site, Tranquilized

Chatterbox’s worst fears about the Web transition (click here and here) have been realized. The White House Web site, which was timely and informative during the Clinton era–indeed, far more timely and informative than the White House’s flesh-and-blood inhabitants–has become lackadaisical and uninformative in the Bush era. For days, the only thing you could find on it was Dubya’s inaugural address. Now you can get the inaugural address, the education plan, a smattering of press releases, and a few statistics. What you can’t get anymore are transcripts of the White House daily press briefings, where reporters tend to ask rude questions. Wondering whether this omission was deliberate, Chatterbox queried Tucker Eskew, White House director of media affairs, who is on the team of Bush appointees overseeing the career White House employees who maintain the site.

“It is admittedly a bare bones site, and that is a reflection of the need to ramp up,” Eskew explained. “The site will be overhauled in the midterm,” and in the near term it will be “enhanced on a regular basis with additional content and revisions.” Eskew said that transcripts of the daily press briefings are being sent out to the media via e-mail, so they are “electronically available today.” But not everyone who wants to read the briefings is a reporter. Do they plan to put the briefing transcripts on the Web site as well? “I wouldn’t be surprised if we did that,” Eskew said, though he added that he hadn’t “discussed that particular item” with anyone.

From this exchange, Chatterbox concludes that the omission of the briefing transcripts probably wasn’t deliberate, but that neither is the Bush White House in a hurry to make them available. This strikes Chatterbox as a public relations error. Most obviously, it makes the White House seem inaccessible–accommodating reporters to the extent it must, but stonewalling all others. Less obviously, it robs the White House of an opportunity to publicize the pointlessly surly or otherwise childish questions that Ari Fleischer must often field from the White House press corps. Chatterbox tuned into one briefing earlier this week on C-SPAN and watched Fleischer being pummeled over Bush’s decision to cut off aid to international groups that fund abortions. Not because the policy was misguided–White House reporters are too circumspect to have opinions about that–but because the announcement interfered with the message of the day, which was Bush’s education reform plan. (If you have the patience to watch the video, click here and go to “Monday, Jan. 22.”). To wit:

Q: I still don’t understand the timing of this executive order and announcement on abortion. [Bush] wanted to make education the priority and focus for this week. I understand he campaigned on these issues related to abortion, but there was no real reason he had to issue the executive order today or even this week, as far as I know, and this is obviously going to make big headlines. Were there concerns from pro-lifers about, you know, Laura Bush’s statement [supporting Roe v. Wade] or Ashcroft saying he wouldn’t seek to–Fleischer: No, no.Q: So, why the timing? Why today, on his first day, a headline-making story on abortion?Fleischer: Because it’s something the president believes in.Q: Is that the nation’s biggest problem?Q: So it’s his top priority?Fleischer: No, I wouldn’t say that’s his–he’s done several things today. …

Why reporters should fret about loose gears in the White House propaganda machine is a mystery to Chatterbox, but they did. There’s sympathy for George W. Bush, and contempt for the press, to be mined here!