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Deflecting and Disarming: The 'Old Master's' Relations with the Press - 2002-04-19


Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld makes no apologies for keeping a tight rein on the Pentagon's disclosure of information on the war on terrorism. Despite this, journalists who might normally be disturbed often seem more amused.

Ferreting out the inside military details of what has been going on in the war on terrorism has proven difficult and frustrating for many reporters, especially those assigned to the Pentagon.

But even many of these same reporters acknowledge they have been outmaneuvered by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, especially during his regular televised news briefings.

Mr. Rumsfeld's performances have been so skillful and entertaining that he has been described by one newspaper editor as "an old master still good at his sport" and by one paper as "the silver-haired smoothie."

But those are just some of the more conventional descriptions. Listen to some of the others mentioned by veteran television correspondent Marvin Kalb in the following exchange in which Mr. Rumsfeld also demonstrated his talent for quick and humorous rebuttal.

Kalb: Rumsfeld press briefings 'Americans relax and swoon.' CNN described you as a rock star. Fox described you as 'a babe...'

Rumsfeld: What you see is what you get. No rock star.

Kalb: 'A babe magnet for the - 70-year-old set.'

Rumsfeld: Listen, with your gray hair, I wouldn't knock the 70-year-old set.

The Rumsfeld-Kalb duel occurred during a recent gathering of newspaper editors at a Washington Hotel. It was, for the defense secretary, a vintage performance and a clear demonstration of how he has disarmed the news media while deflecting their more probing questions.

When asked why he appears to spend so much time with reporters, Mr. Rumsfeld challenged the premise.

Rumsfeld: Well, first of all, let's get the facts right. It is...

Kalb: Okay, you spend no time with the press.

Rumsfeld: I mean, it is not a big piece of my day.

When Mr. Kalb suggested there has been a rebellion among Pentagon reporters over limits on coverage of the war on terrorism, Mr. Rumsfeld first questioned the use of the word "rebellion," then conceded there might be dissatisfaction. But he finally explained it was nothing unexpected given the role of the press.

"My impression is from the press that there's almost no level to which you can feed them that they will not want more. And therefore I expect a certain amount of unhappiness and unease, because, I mean, what's their goal? Their goal is to get into the paper and to get on the television and to see that that information out of the institution they happen to be covering gets out there. And some days it's a dry well, and some days I just smile and say, I don't know the answers, or, we don't - We're not going to talk about that. And that's not a happy day for the press," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Part of the coverage problem facing reporters is that many sources in the defense establishment have grown silent. Mr. Rumsfeld has repeatedly warned officials against so-called "leaks" to the news media, saying these could potentially compromise military operations and jeopardize lives.

Mr. Kalb raised the warning and an unapologetic Mr. Rumsfeld replied tersely but humorously it might be time for another one.

Kalb: A number of the reporters who cover the Pentagon have told me in preparation for this that there was in fact a chilling impact that your comments had on the building, and only now in the recent month or so have people in the building who normally would talk to a reporter begun again to talk to reporters.

Rumsfeld: I better go back down there.

But amongst all the banter and humor, Mr. Rumsfeld stressed one critical point: while he will not discuss future operations, intelligence matters or any kind of classified information, he has never felt any need to lie to reporters nor any desire to do so.

He says credibility is crucial, both for him and for the Pentagon, and the only thing that gives people and institutions any standing.

Pentagon reporters, for all their frustrations, have no quarrel with that.