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No White House Silent Treatment for N.Y. Times

Although the Bush administration has lambasted the paper's Swift banking story, the two have remained on cordial terms.

July 24, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

In the month since the New York Times reported on a secret U.S. program designed to track financial transactions by terrorists, the newspaper has weathered a wave of censure.

The White House deemed the article "offensive" and "disgraceful." Republican lawmakers demanded that Times journalists face espionage charges. Conservative commentators insisted the newspaper's reporters be banned from the White House, or worse.

But even as the recriminations reached maximum volume, business between the Bush administration and the nation's putative "newspaper of record" remained on a remarkably even keel.

Some journalists at the New York Times' Washington bureau protested critics' harsh tone and said they feared administration sources might go silent. But the furor over the Swift banking article did not stop President Bush and his top spokesman from speaking warmly about the Times' White House reporters. It did not lead the administration to eliminate the paper's reports from the batch of press clippings delivered to the media daily. And at least a couple of important administration initiatives still got their first airing in the pages of the New York Times.

This is all just another shoving match between politicians and the press, said Ron Hutcheson, a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Co.'s newspapers and former president of the White House Correspondents' Assn.

"It doesn't signal any huge break in the symbiotic relationship between the White House and the press," he said.

One New York Times reporter said many in the Bush administration remained willing to work with the newspaper.

"They talk to us all the time, every day, all day," said Elisabeth Bumiller, a former White House correspondent who took a leave in June to write a book about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The White House, she said, "also uses the Times as red meat to stir conservatives. That is just the way it is."

The New York Times' longtime White House correspondent David E. Sanger said the Times remained a fixture within the "foreign policy apparatus," in particular, because diplomats knew the newspaper was widely read in Washington and foreign capitals.

"They might have to deal with us, because of who around the world picks up the Times," Sanger said.

On other beats, Times journalists said, the Swift story could be more problematic. Bulletins reportedly have gone up in some offices at the Pentagon, for example, urging employees to "save a life" by not talking to Times reporters.

"There are some big corners of the government where our reporters have a more difficult time doing their jobs," said Richard W. Stevenson, the paper's deputy Washington bureau chief, declining to offer examples.

He added: "What is hard to gauge is what phone calls aren't being returned because of this."

Criticism from the Bush administration of the New York Times is nothing new. But the complaints reached a new pitch starting in December, when reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote about a secret National Security Agency program to eavesdrop on U.S. communications abroad without court warrants.

The articles won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting that "stirred a national debate on the boundary line between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberty." But Bush allies charged that such reports hurt the United States' war on terrorism.

When the same reporters broke the story of the Swift program, conservative critics again exploded in anger. White House officials said they were outraged because the program had been particularly effective, tracking banking transactions via the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift) to hunt terrorists.

The Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal published similar reports on Swift within hours online, but the New York Times has taken the brunt of the criticism. Some said it earned more vitriol for being first.

Hutcheson of McClatchy suggested another reason: "If you are looking for elite Eastern media to slap around, no one symbolizes that better than the New York Times."

Indeed, conservative Cal Thomas wrote in his syndicated column that the Bush administration had for too long "tried to play cozy with the media elites."

"It has gained them nothing," he added. "Times reporters should be publicly ridiculed and verbally flogged because they richly deserve it for giving aid and comfort to America's terrorist enemies."

Instead, Bush and his team have been more than cordial with Times journalists.

At a news conference two weeks after the story broke, President Bush took the unusual step of acknowledging a reporter's expertise, paraphrasing Sanger on North Korea and its nuclear ambitions.

The week prior, Sanger had been one of just two U.S. newspaper journalists -- the other was Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus -- invited to a state dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Sanger sat at the same table with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

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