Joe Strupp

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Bush Takes a Beating

To watch a video of the below event, go to PEEK.

A blistering comedy "tribute" to President Bush by Comedy Central's faux talk-show host Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondent Dinner Saturday night left George and Laura Bush unsmiling at its close.

Earlier, the president had delivered his talk to the 2,700 attendees, including many celebrities and top officials, with the help of a Bush impersonator.

Colbert, who spoke in the guise of his talk-show character, who ostensibly supports the president strongly, urged Bush to ignore his low approval ratings, saying they were based on reality, "and reality has a well-known liberal bias."

He attacked those in the press who claim that the shake-up at the White House was merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. "This administration is soaring, not sinking," he said. "If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg."

Colbert told Bush he could end the problem of protests by retired generals by refusing to let them retire. He compared Bush to Rocky Balboa in the "Rocky" movies, always getting punched in the face -- "and Apollo Creed is everything else in the world."

Turning to the war, he declared, "I believe that the government that governs best is a government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq."

He noted former Ambassador Joseph Wilson in the crowd, just three tables away from Karl Rove, and that he had brought " Valerie Plame." Then, worried that he had named her, he corrected himself, as Bush aides might do, "Uh, I mean he brought Joseph Wilson's wife." He might have "dodged the bullet," he said, as prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald wasn't there.

Colbert also made biting cracks about missing WMDs, "photo ops" on aircraft carriers and at hurricane disasters, melting glaciers and Vice President Cheney shooting people in the face. He advised the crowd, "if anybody needs anything at their tables, speak slowly and clearly into your table numbers and somebody from the N.S.A. will be right over with a cocktail. "

Observing that Bush sticks to his principles, he said, "When the president decides something on Monday, he still believes it on Wednesday -- no matter what happened Tuesday."

Also lampooning the press, Colbert complained that he was "surrounded by the liberal media who are destroying this country, except for Fox News. Fox believes in presenting both sides of the story -- the president's side and the vice president's side." In another slap at the news channel, he said: "I give people the truth unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the No Fact Zone. Fox News, I own the copyright on that term."

He also reflected on the alleged good old days for the president, when the media was still swallowing the WMD story.

Addressing the reporters, he said, "Let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The president makes decisions, he's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know -- fiction."

He claimed that the Secret Service name for Bush's new press secretary is "Snow Job."

Colbert closed his routine with a video fantasy where he gets to be White House press secretary, complete with a special "Gannon" button on his podium. By the end, he had to run from Helen Thomas and her questions about why the United States really invaded Iraq and killed all those people.

As Colbert walked from the podium, when it was over, the president and first lady gave him quick nods, unsmiling. The president shook his hand and tapped his elbow, and left immediately.

Those seated near Bush told E&P's Joe Strupp, who was elsewhere in the room, that Bush had quickly turned from an amused guest to an obviously offended target as Colbert's comments brought up his low approval ratings and problems in Iraq.

Several veterans of past dinners, who requested anonymity, said the presentation was more directed at attacking the president than in the past. Several said previous hosts, like Jay Leno, equally slammed both the White House and the press corps.

"This was anti-Bush," said one attendee. "Usually they go back and forth between us and him." Another noted that Bush quickly turned unhappy. "You could see he stopped smiling about halfway through Colbert," he reported.

After the gathering, Snow, while nursing a Heineken outside the Chicago Tribune reception, declined to comment on Colbert. "I'm not doing entertainment reviews," he said. "I thought the president was great, though."

Strupp, in the crowd during the Colbert routine, had observed that quite a few sitting near him looked a little uncomfortable at times, perhaps feeling the material was a little too biting -- or too much speaking "truthiness" (Colbert's made-up word) to power.

Asked by E&P after it was over if he thought he'd been too harsh, Colbert said, "Not at all." Was he trying to make a point politically or just get laughs? "Just for laughs," he said. He said he did not pull any material for being too strong, just for time reasons. (He later said the president told him "good job" when he walked off.)

Helen Thomas told Strupp her segment with Colbert was "just for fun."

In its report on the affair, USA Today asserted that some in the crowd cracked up over Colbert, but others were "bewildered." Wolf Blitzer of CNN said he thought Colbert was funny and "a little on the edge."

Earlier, the president had addressed the crowd with a Bush impersonator alongside, with the faux-Bush speaking precisely and the real Bush deliberately mispronouncing words, such as the inevitable "nuclear." At the close, Bush called the imposter "a fine talent. In fact, he did all my debates with Sen. Kerry." The routine went over well with the crowd -- better than did Colbert's, in fact.

Among attendees at the black tie event: Morgan Fairchild, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Justice Antonin Scalia, George Clooney and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter of the Doobie Brothers -- in a kilt.

Deep Source

At a time when journalists are increasingly coming under attack for using anonymous sources, history's most famous -- and well-protected (this side of Robert Novak) -- confidential source is being heard. And he emerged just in time to give anonymous sourcing everywhere new life.

W. Mark Felt, the former FBI deputy director whose identity as the famed Watergate source Deep Throat had remained secret for nearly 33 years, broke his silence Tuesday, admitting in a Vanity Fair article that he was The Friend who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down Richard Nixon.

In admitting this, Felt not only solved one of journalism's biggest mysteries, he also reminded skeptics that such reporting can be vital and positive. Moreover, the ability of Woodward, Bernstein and former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee to keep his identity a secret proved that whistleblowers who aid journalists can be protected even over three decades.

But more than solving a legendary Washington riddle, Felt's admission also breathed some much-needed life into the dying support for anonymous sources, which seems to have crippled journalistic credibility in many areas. From WMDs to the Valerie Plame case to Newsweek's recent stumble, confidential sourcing is a much battered journalistic tool.

"This is a case history and a case lesson of why it is so important that we have confidential sources," Carl Bernstein told The New York Times last night.

In recent years, newspapers have clamped down on the use of such sourcing, with tighter rules, stronger pressure to avoid no-name attribution, and more efforts to get information on the record. USA Today claims to have reduced anonymous sourcing by 75% in the past year.

While it is obviously preferable to have as much news on the record as possible, and the trend toward tightening anonymous sourcing can only lead to more reader confidence in news, the reminder of what the duo known as "Woodstein" and Felt accomplished through detailed, methodical, and multi-sourced reporting about a high-government scandal is important.

For a generation of readers who were not even around when Watergate occurred and view anonymous sourcing of today as merely bias, laziness, or cheap shots, a fresh look at Deep Throat's accomplishments, power, and positive contribution to U.S. history, is welcomed.

But it is also a reminder that proper sourcing is still needed. In each case that Deep Throat aided Woodward and Bernstein, he was never used as a sole, or even direct source. He was, as the nickname describes, always "on deep background." Watergate junkies also know quite well that the investigative duo forced themselves to have at least two sources on every story. That lesson remains even more important today, especially after the single-sourced Newsweek goof.

Some observers, such as former Nixon White House aide John Dean, have claimed the Bush administration is even more secretive and anti-press than Nixon's White House. The need for careful anonymous sourcing appears to be more obvious than ever.

And reminders of a past era when even the president could not hide his misdeeds - and a source could remain protected until he chose to come forward decades later - prove again that reporters need not hold back a story just because the sourcing might draw attacks, as long as the news is correct.

PR for Soldiers

As the U.S. military approaches nearly two years in the Iraq conflict, media training for soldiers going into the war zone has been stepped up, becoming mandatory for Army troops since October, E&P has learned.

"Talking point" cards for military personnel, meanwhile, are being updated regularly as the war progresses – often as much as once a week – to keep up with the conflict's changing issues and the proximity of embedded reporters. Among the current talking points: "We are a values-based, people-focused team that strives to uphold the dignity and respect of all."

Soldiers preparing for deployment in hostile or critical areas have received some kind of media training in handling press inquiries since as far back as the first Persian Gulf War, according to several military press officers. Such training has also included pocket cards with suggested talking points for the combatants, which advise them how best to promote the military operation and avoid awkward or confrontational interviews.

"As situations happen, you will have ever-changing talking points, as much as every week," said Capt. Jeff Landis, a Marine Corps public-affairs spokesman. "They are tailored to the situation."

The media training consists of one or two hours of briefings by public-affairs specialists from the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md. In the past, such training was provided only to those Army units who requested it, according to Sgt. Don Dees, an Army spokesman based at the Baghdad press center. But, since October, it has become a mandatory requirement for all deploying Army troops.

"The Army just recently made it a common soldier task; it is one of the requirements they go through," Dees said. "It is in our best interest to provide them that training."

While the Marine Corps has made such training a requirement for years, it has taken on more importance in recent months as well. "There is more heightened awareness with this particular conflict," Capt. Landis told E&P, referring to the Iraq operation. "It has taken a higher priority."

During training, soldiers are urged to speak with the press as a way of promoting the positive elements of the operation, but not to lie or speak about issues with which they are not familiar.

"It is a standard part of deployment preparation," said Lt. Col. Gerard Healy, an Army spokesman based at the Pentagon.

Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Department of Defense spokesman, compared it to any other basic training. "It is a common task, much like firing your rifle," he said. "It has emerged over the past 10 years as a necessary skill."

The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., noted this week that the first talking point in a slide show for troops at Fort Bragg was: "We are not an occupying force."

A list of "wallet-card" talking points given to a group of Marines heading to Iraq, obtained by that newspaper, included:

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