Snow Talks About Working with White House Press Corps

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New White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, once a commentator on Morning Edition, talks with Steve Inskeep about his job, and the role of the press.


The new press secretary for President Bush has made a strong impression. Tony Snow was a newspaper editorial writer and a program host for Fox News. Then he replaced Scott McClellan, who had come under increasing criticism from the press.


White House reporters praise Tony Snow for a different style. Some see early hints of greater openness. A central part of the job, though, remains a daily press briefing, which is a constant tug-of-war with reporters.

INSKEEP: Snow has proven himself adroit at deflecting inconvenient questions by challenging the questions themselves. On Tuesday he was asked about an FBI corruption investigation that led to the search of an office in Congress. And here's the way he responded.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): We are hoping that there's a way to balance the constitutional concerns of the House of Representatives with the law enforcement obligations of the executive branch.

Unidentified Reporter: Why were you not trying to strike that down before you raided the office?

Mr. SNOW: I did not raid the office. The Justice Department executed search warrants. I think using the term raid makes it sound a little like the Calvary storming into the halls of Congress.

INSKEEP: That's Tony Snow, the new White House Press Secretary parrying questions at a briefing on Tuesday. And now Tony Snow is with us from the White House. Mr. Snow, welcome to the program.

Mr. SNOW: Well, it's good to be here, thanks.

INSKEEP: And welcome back to NPR. You were a commentator here in the '90s.

Mr. SNOW: Way long ago, and it's good to be back.

INSKEEP: I have to say, I've read the entire transcript of that briefing from Tuesday. I found it entertaining, engaging, funny at times, and I learned very little about how the government actually works or what the government is doing. Is that what you intend?

Mr. SNOW: Well, that's a pretty broad statement. It strikes me as more of a snarky comment than informative. Let me parry it back to you this way. If you have a specific issue on which you thought maybe more information should have been forthcoming, please let me know. But my view is a press conference actually ought to be a place where we transmit as much information as we can and make news. And I understand that everybody out there as the same objective, which is to try to write news stories and get good information. Quite often the drama in the pressroom has to do with reporters knowing that there is a question that the press secretary cannot answer but asking it anyway.

INSKEEP: Which is a fair statement, that sometimes the questions are asked that cannot be answered. Is there something that is supposed to be different now about that process now that you've taken over?

Mr. SNOW: I don't really know, because not having worked in the press office, what I'm trying to do is to run the press office as best I can. So rather than drawing comparisons with the previous press secretary, with Scott McClellan, it's my preference to try to figure out how to do the job, which is really what I'm in the process of doing.

INSKEEP: Although there is one thing that I want to ask about there. David Gergen, former presidential advisor, spoke on PBS when Scott McClellan resigned. And one of the things that he said was this, the President sets the press policy and he gets the press secretaries he wants. He went on to say Scott McClellan was doing his master's bidding. He did it as well as he could under the circumstances. And unless the President really wants to change the way the press is treated, the next person is going to have the same problems down the road. Is that an accurate statement of the way it works?

Mr. SNOW: Well, again, you've addressed a whole series of generalities. I think I've tried to lay out what I'm trying to do. I'm not really dodging the question. It's not a question I can answer.

INSKEEP: Do you think that you are, and granted you're new on the job. Do you think that you are well informed about what the White House is doing?

Mr. SNOW: Yeah, but you do learn as press secretary, it's a reporting job. I've been granted all the access I want, but on the other hand, this is a big sprawling White House and a lot, a lot of times the specific expertise may be lodged in some office or department and you've got to hustle to make sure you get it.

INSKEEP: Are you confident that you're going to know enough to avoid misleading reporters?

Mr. SNOW: I better. But yes. I'm not going to be in the position...

INSKEEP: You know what I'm talking about. Past press secretaries have been in the position of effectively telling lies, perhaps without even knowing it.

Mr. SNOW: Well, if that happens, it's a real problem. I've made it clear that I'm not gonna lie to the press and I'm not gonna mislead the press. And I've received assurances that I'm not gonna be placed in that uncomfortable position.

INSKEEP: A couple of issues that are significant right now. One relates directly to the way that reporters are handled, I suppose. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was asked over the weekend on ABC News if he would be willing to prosecute reporters who were suspected of being involved in leaks of classified information. Gonzales did not answer directly but said that if people violate the law we're going to look very seriously at that.

Mr. SNOW: Yeah, he subsequently added they are interested in going after the leaker, not after reporters.

INSKEEP: But just so I understand where things stand, when Attorney General Gonzales indicated that there could be an investigation of the New York Times, that's not an operative statement, as they say.

Mr. SNOW: No, I mean if there was a breach of law on the part of reporters at the New York Times, that is something that they can investigate. Whether they prosecute or not, I don't know.

INSKEEP: Oh, so that is a possibility as far as you know?

Mr. SNOW: Yeah. But he's also said that he wanted to stress that the primary opportunity, the primary concern here is going after leakers. I mean I think what you're doing here is you're trying to split hairs and create a story where there is none.

INSKEEP: Do you get a little bit of that?

Mr. SNOW: From time to time.

INSKEEP: Well, sometimes maybe what we're doing is trying to make sure that what people are saying is really what they mean.

Mr. SNOW: No, I understand...

INSKEEP: On the NSA story that's an occasion where people have made artfully crafted statements that appear to say one thing. In reality what they're trying to do is technically tell the truth while really misleading.

Mr. SNOW: No. That's...

INSKEEP: Or maybe that's too strong a term?

Mr. SNOW: This is grossly argumentative.

INSKEEP: There is a reason sometimes, isn't there, to try to part the language the little bit and make sure that we're all on the same page?

Mr. SNOW: Of course. I think it works both ways. Just as I've tried to hold you accountable a couple of times for loading up questions, I think it's perfectly appropriate for members of the press to try to hold politicians accountable. They're gonna be times when I say things inartfully and people are gonna pounce all over it. And that is good, because if I use sloppy language to categorize something that goes on in the government and therefore lend a misleading impression about administration policy or behavior, you're gonna want somebody to parse those words so you get the story exactly right.

INSKEEP: In that case, that's a situation where past press secretaries have simply fallen back on repeating the same language they said before.

Mr. SNOW: Well, again, you keep trying to draw relationships about, I mean conclusions about past press secretaries...

INSKEEP: You're repeating the same thing you said before.

Mr. SNOW: Yeah. Well, you're also repeating the same question. It's - you're asking me to make comparisons. I have not conducted a close study of past press secretaries. I've never done this before.

INSKEEP: Well, let's leave it out of the, leave it out of the past. I mean, are you actually going to try to answer those follow-up questions or do you feel that there's...

Mr. SNOW: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...or when you got out is there a message on a particular topic and you just don't have authorization or knowledge to go beyond that message?

Mr. SNOW: There are going to be times you have very real constraints on what you can say. But when there are no such constraints, I'm doing everything in my power to answer questions. We have, for instance, every day on the gaggle what I call a bupkis list. And that is things about which I know bupkis. Since I'm new to the job, I mean I'm not omniscient. So there gonna be times when I don't have every single fact at my command, so it is then my job to go back and provide facts for reporters. The idea is not to put blinders on the press, it's to give information to the press.

INSKEEP: Tony Snow, White House Press Secretary, welcome to your job and welcome back to NPR. Thanks.

Mr. SNOW: Thanks. Good to be here.

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