In the first interview segment of "The O'Reilly Factor" on Wednesday night, Bill O'Reilly told former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer that it would be nice to be able to tell reporters like Helen Thomas (politely) that everyone knows they have an agenda, but they can't. (Actually, Fleischer grew confident enough to suggest that to Helen, saying after the 2002 elections, that "Helen, you sound like a [campaign] commercial that didn't work.")
Ari responded by saying that questions that the public thinks are stupid is one reason the media's in decline in public esteem: “The press secretary's job is to mix it up a little bit with the press in a respectful way but also in the modern media world, where the country gets to watch the questions, that's one of the reasons I think, Bill, the press is in decline substantially because they bring a bit of it on themselves. I know one reporter who once said there’s no such thing as a stupid question. I think the reality is, the public watches some of these questions, not all, but some of them, and they think, that was really a stupid question.”
Ari Fleischer wrote an op-ed for today's Washington Post that states the obvious for Tony Snow: the briefing is now a TV show. (He said the same thing on Fox.) But it ought to be acknowledged that McClellan's briefings have rarely aired live on cable news this year, unlike the almost daily serving of Fleischer in the wake of 9/11. It's not exactly a regularly scheduled show these days. It will pick up with some curiosity about Snow, but will probably drop off again when the novelty wears off.
But Ari's harsher than that in the Post piece: the briefing is an unserious "spectacle" in which the two sides talk past each other, in which the media "do their best to pressure the White House, regardless of which party is in power, into admitting that much of what the president is doing is wrong."
As a guy who sat there with Fleischer at many a midday in my World magazine reporter days, this is oversimplifying. I would suggest the tenor of the briefings was almost always serious and substantive, and "spectacle" isn't the word you'd use most days. There were a few days when the press would ask 36 questions on the same topic, like Enron, with barely differing spins. (They would even get angry at reporters who would ask about India rather than Enron.) Ari certainly knows better than to insist the briefings are the same "regardless of which party is in power." Reporters did press the Clinton White House for answers, but he knows the reporters in the room are largely liberal Democrats.
Finally, Ari insists the untelevised morning "gaggle" was better, when reporters didn't feel the need to press endless follow-ups. But it should be noted that the midday briefing was usually 45-50 minutes, and the gaggle was 15 to 20. Reporters wouldn't follow up as much because of the time allotment, and the knowledge that they could follow up more at noon.