Or read the transcript below:
Transcript by J. C. Hendershot
Interview with Richard Benedetto by Roger Aronoff
The “Take AIM” show on BlogTalkRadio, April 12, 2012.
ROGER ARONOFF: Good morning, and welcome to Take AIM, Accuracy in Media’s talk show on BlogTalkRadio. AIM is America’s original media watchdog, and every week we point out biased coverage and bring you the stories the mainstream media ignore. I’m Roger Aronoff, the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and of The AIM Report, which you can subscribe to at aim.org, where you can also sign up to receive our daily E-mail so you can keep track of what the media are up to. Our guest today is Richard Benedetto, who is a retired White House correspondent and columnist for USA Today. As a member of the White House press corps, Richard covered the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. He also has covered every national political convention since 1972, and every Presidential campaign since 1984. Good morning, Richard! We’re so glad to have you with us today on Take AIM!
RICHARD BENEDETTO: Good to be with you.
ARONOFF: Thank you. I want to tell our listeners a little more about you. In 2006, Richard Benedetto became an adjunct professor at American University, located here in Washington, D.C., where he teaches courses about national politics and elections, the White House and the Presidency, political parties, polling, and on and on. He continues to write political commentary for publications such as Politico, and his recent columns have also been published by Real Clear Politics and The Washington Times. He is also the author of Politicians Are People, Too, which was published in 2006. You can learn more about the book, or listen to previous panel discussions with Richard, by logging on to C-SPAN.org, going into the video archives, and putting his name in. I’d like to start off by asking you how you began your career in journalism, before you became a columnist for USA Today and Gannett News.
BENEDETTO: I started out as a reporter, as a newspaper reporter out of college. I worked in upstate New York. I went the traditional route—it used to be very traditional—where you started out at a smaller newspaper, you got to cover a lot of things and you got to meet a lot of people, you got to know the people you covered very closely. It was wonderful training. I never anticipated, at the beginning of my career as a journalist, that I would end up in Washington, D.C. It was never a goal of mine. The goal of mine was the get a job, first of all. Second of all, it was to enjoy myself in covering the news. That was my goal.
ARONOFF: So how did you happen to be there when USA Today was created?
BENEDETTO: I was working for the Gannett Company, for the Gannett News Service in Albany, New York, covering the state capital in the late ’70s and early 1980s, when the Gannett Company decided to go ahead with USA Today. They went and invited a number of people who were already in the Gannett Company to join the start-up team. I was one of those lucky enough to be asked to join. So about nine months before the paper actually began, we gathered in Washington and put together some prototypes, and eventually developed it into the product that you see today. So I was there from when it was nothing, and saw it grow to become the number one circulating paper in the country.
ARONOFF: One question about writing for USA Today that I’ve wondered about—you’re at the same press briefings, but I assume your word length, for your articles, was a lot shorter than the other reporters’ assignments were, so to speak. So how does that affect your reporting?
BENEDETTO: It requires you to get to the heart of the story fast. It puts a great premium on facts. It does not put a great premium on opinion, mainly because there’s just no room for that kind of thing. What you have to do is give the people the straight story in a short amount of space. The notion that, somehow or other, people spend long periods of time reading long stories is just sort of false. So it was great training, because to become a better and tighter writer—it’s much easier to write long than it is to write short, so it was terrific training. The myth—the joke—was that if USA Today ever wins a Pulitzer Prize, it would be for the “Best Investigative Paragraph.” But the thing is, the stories are much longer than people think, and, now, if you look at USA Today and compare it to any other print newspaper, the stories probably are longer!
ARONOFF: I’ve never heard you talk about this, but I’ve seen you quoted. Tell us, where were you on the morning of September 11th, 2001, and what did you see?
BENEDETTO: I was driving into Washington along 395, which parallels the Pentagon, and as I was approaching the Pentagon and listening to the radio in my car—already the news was that New York City had been attacked with these airplanes—I heard an airplane coming from my left shoulder, behind me, very loud and very low. I knew something was weird, because usually, if you’re heading that way, if you see any airplanes, they would be going across your vision—not behind you—because of the international airport, Reagan International Airport. I look up, I see this American Airlines plane just parallel to my car, about, oh, probably, 100, 150 feet above it. I shouted to myself—I was alone—“That plane’s going to crash!” And, sure enough . . . . This appeared behind the bridge that I was headed for, and I saw the big puff of smoke, and the big fireball. I continued driving about 100 more feet, then pulled my car over to the side, got out, ran under the bridge, and headed over to the Pentagon. As I got there, people were already streaming out. I could see the place of impact, where the plane had gone in. So I stayed at the Pentagon the entire day, reporting from there.
ARONOFF: How close did you get to the wreckage that day?
BENEDETTO: Probably, oh, maybe 100 yards.
ARONOFF: Wow. Even today, they live on, these theories—conspiracy theories, books, documentaries—claiming that no plane ever crashed into the Pentagon that morning.
ARONOFF: To support that, they show these pictures, and say, “Look! There’s no airplane debris here!”
ARONOFF: But if you look elsewhere, there are pictures with airplane debris there.
ARONOFF: I long ago noticed you, as an eyewitness of this—so what do you think? Did you ever respond to any of these?
BENEDETTO: Back in—it might have been 2003, or something like that—a television crew from France—the theory’s big in France, apparently, that this was a conspiracy, and it didn’t really happen—interviewed me. I basically just told them what I saw—and I saw the airplane. I saw that it was, clear as day, an American Airlines plane. That plane was low. I saw it. I saw it disappear. I heard the explosion, ran over there, saw the fire—if there was no airplane, then where did the airplane that I saw go?
ARONOFF: Right. And that’s the other question—where are Barbara Olson and the people who were supposedly on that plane, if it didn’t crash there that day?
BENEDETTO: I have no doubt in my mind that it was there!
ARONOFF: Yes. So that’s kind of an amazing thing. I’m sure, at that time of day—9:15 or so in the morning—there were a lot of cars on that freeway.
BENEDETTO: Oh, yes! In fact, what happened was, as soon as that happened, people sort of came to a halt. They stopped. The cars stopped, and people were actually trying to turn around and go the other way, on the four-lane highway there. It was chaotic. I left my car over on the side and ran, as I said, under the bridge—I was worried that maybe my car would have disappeared by the time I got back to it, at about 7:00 or 8:00 that night, but, miraculously, it was still there. But everything had been cleared—in fact, there was nobody around at that particular time.
BENEDETTO: One of the things I did do there at the Pentagon, they brought us into the Pentagon itself at around 5:00 or 6:00 in the afternoon, all of the reporters, and Donald Rumsfeld and Senator [Carl] Levin of Michigan, who was then Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, held a briefing in the Pentagon Briefing Room, just, I think, to show the world that the Pentagon was still functioning. So what they did was, they sent a bus over—we were over at the gas station near the Pentagon, a Pentagon gas station, where they had a staging area where they were giving us briefings—picked us up, brought us into the Pentagon, and, as we walked into the corridor of the Pentagon there on the opposite side of where the crash occurred, there was a lot of smoke still in the corridors, and the very heavy smell of kerosene, the fuel of the aircraft. I remember how heavy the smoke was, because I remember my eyes tearing, and putting my handkerchief to my eyes as I walked through the corridor because the smoke was so pungent.
ARONOFF: So you didn’t make it to the White House that day, I guess?
BENEDETTO: No. The President was on the road—
ARONOFF: Right. Florida—
BENEDETTO: —in Florida. I didn’t travel with him. My partner, Judy Keen, did travel with him that day, so we had a reporter with the President during that time.
ARONOFF: Mm-hmm. So tell us, when you did get back to the White House Briefing Room for the next Presidential briefing, or a briefing with the White House Spokesman, what happened to the mood in the room?
BENEDETTO: The next day, we went over there for the morning briefing, and, actually, there were far, far more people than normally would go to a normal briefing. The mood was very somber. Reporters had an awful lot of questions, many of which we weren’t able to get answers to at that particular time. The Press Secretary at the time was Ari Fleischer, and he gave us as much information as he could possibly give. There was no shortage of information. More information was probably coming out of the—we were concerned about what the President was doing, what the President was going to do. He had already made a speech that night—
ARONOFF: Right . . .
BENEDETTO: —and there were other plans for him to do. They talked about him going up to New York, and addressing a joint session of Congress, and so forth. So we were getting all that kind of low-down, in terms of what the next steps were going to be.
ARONOFF: I’ve got a number of things I want to get into, but let me ask you first to tell me a little about your book, Politicians Are People, Too. When and why did you write that?
BENEDETTO: I wrote it in 2006. It came out in 2006. As I was approaching retirement age, I decided that I should write something. I’d had so many experiences with so many politicians, from the local level on up to the Presidency. There were a lot of stories that I hadn’t told about politicians, that really never got into the newspaper—or, if they got into the paper, they got in as peripheral pieces, rather than as standard pieces. I thought that I’d had some great experiences that I wanted to share. So, as I sat down to do that, I realized that I wasn’t out to get anybody, I was out to just talk about the politicians I’d met. For the most part, almost all the politicians I’ve ever met were pretty nice people. They’re not pretty bad people. So I set up to sell stories about these people, as human beings, that we don’t often tell the public about. Basically, I just told these stories. As I wrote it, I didn’t have a title in mind or anything, but as I wrote, I said, “This book actually comes out as kind of a celebration of politicians!”—the human side of politicians—so that’s how I came up with the title Politicians Are People, Too. Many people kind of laugh at me for that title, because they say, in this cynical age, “Politicians are bums.”
ARONOFF: There is a narrative that is widely accepted as conventional wisdom, that in the run-up to the war in Iraq, no one in the White House Press Briefing Room was asking the tough questions of the administration, except, maybe, a couple of McClatchy reporters, maybe Helen Thomas. How do you remember that?
BENEDETTO: First of all—I point this out, because we talk about this in some of my classes, now, there is that feeling that, somehow or other, had the press been tougher, we might not have gone into Iraq. First of all, there is a myth out there that, somehow or other, the day after 9/11, we invaded Iraq. It was eighteen months after—one-and-a-half years after the 9/11 bombing came the invasion of Iraq.
ARONOFF: Right . . .
BENEDETTO: We debated this thing for eighteen months! It’s out there. All you have to do—and I’ve assigned students to do this, because they have this same feeling—is go out and find news articles that were written during the time that we’re questioning the wisdom of doing it! You know, there’s no shortage of news articles being written, everywhere from The New York Times to Time magazine to USA Today, that questioned the wisdom of going into Iraq. I think Time magazine did a cover story, “Eight Reasons Why We Should Not Invade Iraq.” All you have to do is do the empirical research. It will show you plenty of news articles where the public never bought it. The public bought the idea of going into Iraq, it was like a snowball rolling downhill—what you had going in the public psyche, at that particular time, was the need for some response, revenge. So the public was not against it, and so, therefore, even the stories that we were writing, in the media, that were questioning whether or not it was a good idea, were sort of fluffed off by the public. All you have to do is look at the polling: There was a large percentage of people supporting it, and I think, once we invaded, at the actual time—which is a “rally ’round the flag” effect—80% of people approved of doing it!
ARONOFF: Right. I find it amazing. I hear Bill Moyers, Chris Matthews, and all these people say that nobody questioned it, nobody in the media questioned it. I agree with you—I’ve done that exercise you’re talking about, gone back and seen the many articles that do.
BENEDETTO: The transcripts of all of the press briefings are available out there. All you have to do is look at them to see the kinds of questions that were being asked.
ARONOFF: Now, when you left USA Today—and now you write columns—dare I say that your writings, and you, appear to lean to the Right, politically? Is that true? Was it always true?
BENEDETTO: No. I think that—no. I think that what’s happened—things have gotten so distorted. In fact, the media seems to be so far to the Left that if you just try to be fair, and say, to do a certain thing, “Let’s be fair, let’s cover this fairly,” or “Let’s analyze this objectively,” you run the risk of being accused of being a Right-winger.
ARONOFF: Right . . .
BENEDETTO: Because the conventional position is to the Left. So if you sort of question that, then, somehow or other, you’re seen as being a conservative. You’re seen as being a Republican. You’re seen as being a Right-winger. I’m only doing what I was taught to do, going all the way back to journalism school, and that is, give people good information, and let them figure out what to do with it. I’m not there to proselytize anybody. I’m there to give people the straight story. They can figure things out for themselves. What we think we need to do in the media today is, we need to tell people what to think. And that’s not our job.
ARONOFF: Right. One of your columns was “Journalists’ Sob Stories Block Reform.” It talked about the way they present it, that Republicans are trying to slash everything, and just starve kids and throw Granny over the cliff—all that sort of thing. When you look at what’s happening again with the Ryan budget, which, actually, continues to grow the budget—they’re talking about spending $40 trillion over the next ten years, and today we’re spending, I guess, $3.6 or $3.7 trillion a year, so it’s clearly an increase—but it’s treated as just these brutal, devastating cuts to everything. But you blame journalists to a large extent for the way this is presented to us.
BENEDETTO: We take whatever person or group that is opposing a particular cut—they will come to us, they automatically come to us with their story about what these cuts are going to mean to them, and they have every horror story from starving children to old people being thrown out in the street. The media will play those stories rather than give a solid analysis of the budget itself. Under those kinds of circumstances, with the media talking about all the devastation if budget cuts will occur, the public is basically torn. They say, “We spend too much money,” but then they see all these stories about all the bad effects. The President himself has played right into it—he knows that the media will play that, and he uses that kind of rhetoric in defending his budget, and justifying calls for increases in taxes, by saying that if we don’t do this, all these bad things are going to happen, that children won’t get any care, and food programs for the poor will be devastated—all these kinds of things. Nobody says, “What’s the real story here? Let’s look at that budget. Let’s look at this budget!” Nobody does that!
ARONOFF: You wrote that [Barack] Obama, “Repeatedly divided the nation and helped create resentment between classes by asserting that those who depend on the federal government for support will suffer if the rich don’t pay more taxes.”
ARONOFF: So that’s happening again right now, with this so-called “Buffett Rule.”
ARONOFF: How do you see that, the way that’s being presented? Because Obama talked about how, if we do this, it would, “Stabilize our debt and deficit for the next decade.” But then Treasury’s numbers came out—showing it would raise, at most, $5 billion a year—so this week they shifted to saying it’s a basic issue of tax fairness.
ARONOFF: Nothing to do with closing the deficit!
BENEDETTO: That’s exactly right. The press should be playing those points. Every administration, every President, every Governor, every elected official is out to put together his story. It’s his story, and he’s trying to put it out as best he can, to make him—or her—look as good as she can make herself—themselves—look. Our job is to say, “Are they telling us the truth? Are they slanting the truth? What’s the real story here?” That’s our job. We’re not referees in a battle. Our job is to cut through the spin and give the people out there the full story, so that when somebody comes along, like the President, and talks about the Buffett Rule, the impression that he wants to create—and that we in the media leave—is that, somehow or other, these millionaires are getting away with something. Are they, or are they not? That should be a story. What are they getting with? Are they getting away with it? Are they not paying their fair share of taxes? Well, if you look at where the revenue comes from, millionaires and billionaires, the people who are making the most money, pay the most taxes in this country. I think it’s something like the top 5% of wage earners pay something like 40% of the federal taxes. But that’s not even part of the debate! It’s not even part of the story! Our job, in the press, is to give the story context and perspective. And we just don’t do it.
ARONOFF: Another column you had was titled “Media Abet Obama’s Aloofness on Tough Issues.” You say “Obama’s ability to avoid tough questions, skate above the fray and look presidential while his potential successors appear to be futilely flailing is not by accident. It is by White House design, abetted by a press corps that seems content with being shut out by the president and being spoon-fed the message of the day, rather than clamoring for more chances to ask him questions during this critical time.” Why is that? Is it access? Is it ideology? What—?
BENEDETTO: From what I gather—I’m not at the White House, but I do talk to White House reporters who are there, and some of the things I pick up are, first of all, there’s a very tight ship there, and reporters who write tough stories are hit pretty hard by insiders in the administration. Therefore, they run the risk of being cut off. This is an administration that knows very well how to work the press, and reward those who they like by giving them leaks and inside information—naturally, spun the way they want it to be spun in hopes of getting out the story out that they want to get out. The other thing is, I think there’s just a general feeling among the White House press corps as a whole that they kind of like the President’s policies, in their own way, and I think that is a factor in how they cover him. I think that back in the days when I was covering the George W. Bush administration, people in the White House press corps kind of liked George W. Bush as a person—they really did!—but they didn’t like his policies too much, and they covered him accordingly. They liked Bush, but they gave him tough press. They like Obama, I guess, although not as a person, from what I hear—he’s not very friendly to the press corps, from what I hear from people, I have no firsthand knowledge of that, but I do have secondhand, that he’s not very friendly with the press corps that covers the White House—but at the same time, they don’t let that affect their coverage of him, in terms of the fact that the coverage, I think, coming directly out of the White House is pretty soft.
ARONOFF: So what are your personal three or four favorite sources of news today? Newspapers, blogs, TV, radio—what do you turn to?
BENEDETTO: I listen to a lot of radio. NPR—I listen to NPR every single day, the Morning Edition, two hours in the morning. I usually get up and turn it on, and it’s playing for the two-hour cycle of Morning Edition. It plays in my house while I’m doing other things, as I’m getting ready to go to work or go to school. I listen to that, I do a lot of reading of the newspapers. I do read the major ones: I read The Washington Post, I read The New York Times, I read USA Today, The Wall Street Journal. And then, naturally, I pick up everything else peripherally. I sometimes tune in to conservative radio talk shows, just to hear what subjects they’re hitting on. That’s often in my car—I don’t sit and listen to them. The rest of the time, I’m paying attention to the Nationals—the Washington Nationals! I’m a big Washington Nationals fan!
ARONOFF: Yeah, I was just reading this morning that this is the first year that they’re above .500 after six games!
BENEDETTO: Yes, we’re very optimistic this year.
ARONOFF: I know, it’s exciting! So, Obama foreign policy: Has the U.S. regained the supposed lack of respect around the world that he inherited? Does killing bin Laden make him a successful foreign policy President?
BENEDETTO: I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t think he’s increased our respect around the globe—certainly not with those people who we consider our enemies in the Middle East. I’m sure they don’t have any more respect for us now than they had five years ago. But the fact is that he himself, personally, tries to stay out of direct foreign policy involvement as much as he possibly can. Afghanistan is my favorite example: He never, never, never talks about Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not going well. We know that. The American public—a majority of the American public—now thinks that being in Afghanistan is a mistake. That was not true when he first took office. But, on the other hand, it’s not seen. People don’t even think of Obama and Afghanistan in the same breath. By design, he doesn’t talk about it. When was the last time he gave a speech on Afghanistan—a direct speech where he went out and said, “I’m going to talk to the American people about what’s going on in Afghanistan, and justify our position there”? He hasn’t. He hasn’t done it. Because he doesn’t want to.
ARONOFF: It’s really even more cynical than that, because even most of his supporters believe that he doesn’t really believe in the mission there, and everything appears to have been sort of structured around the 2012 election: The surge; the announcement, at the time the surge was announced, of when we would be withdrawing; the rules of engagement—you know, it feels like our troops are sitting ducks there. Three years ago, they were talking about only 100 al-Qaeda forces, and that’s what we were there for, to root them out.
BENEDETTO: Mm-hmm. I just find it mind-boggling. We were so highly critical of George Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war, but—I’m talking about the media—we’re certainly not so critical of Obama’s conduct of Afghanistan.
ARONOFF: We’re just about out of time. Why don’t you give us your take on this Presidential race. You’ve observed them all since the ’60s. This week, more or less, the Republican nominee was named, in the sense that he doesn’t really have any real opposition anymore. As we look at this, and see when this race is ending, we look back to 2008—it was June before the Democrats picked their candidate, it was February that McCain got the nomination, basically, and then Obama won handily. So everyone’s been talking about this time—will the dragged-out battle in the Republican primaries hurt Romney? Give us your take on the 2012 Presidential race, and then we’ll let you go there.
BENEDETTO: At this stage of the game, I would rate this race a toss-up. I think that there is enough economic angst out there to make people who are concerned about that issue, which is identified as the primary issue in this campaign, one that will give them pause in terms of thinking about reelecting President Obama. Now, we don’t know where the economy going to be next November. It could be better, it could be worse. We don’t know. The numbers this week weren’t particularly great. The thing is, it’s going to come down to those battleground states—and not only to the battleground states, but it’s going to come down to the independent voters in those battleground states. They are the people who are going to decide this election. Identifying who those independent voters are is not easy, because most people who are truly independent voters are people who really don’t pay an awful lot of attention to politics, and only come to the table very late in the game. So this is one that can really go down to the wire.
ARONOFF: Do you see voter fraud as a big concern?
BENEDETTO: I don’t see that as a huge concern, except if it was huge in a battleground state where the election was really, really close.
ARONOFF: The media role: One more question. We remember a statement about—I’m not thinking of his name—how the media was worth fifteen points for John Kerry, and he brought it back to more like five points. How much do you think the media is worth for Obama in this race? How many points?
BENEDETTO: I think that the media have been a huge factor in President Obama maintaining the job approval rating that is not at 50%, but just a little bit below. I think he works very hard at courting that. He knows how the media cover him. He takes full advantage of it. He makes sure that he’s out there all the time—and that’s part of the game. As they say, 90% of the game is showing up, and the fact is, he’s out there all the time. He works real hard at doing all kinds of things to keep himself in the public eye, so that the public—which is not paying that much attention to the actual substance of what’s being said and talked about—says, “Oh, he’s working.” That’s important. That’s a factor to people. If you ask what Obama said today, people wouldn’t be able to tell you. But they would say, “I saw him on TV, he said something, so he must be working!” That works.
ARONOFF: The name I was searching for was Evan Thomas.
BENEDETTO: Oh, Evan Thomas!
ARONOFF: Our guest today has been Richard Benedetto, former White House correspondent for USA Today, author of the book Politicians Are People, Too—you can get it, I’m sure, at Amazon, and wherever books are sold—and I urge people to take a look. As I mentioned earlier, you can go on to C-SPAN.org, and select video archives of Benedetto—Richard, it’s been great having you on with us today. I want to thank you for joining us on Take AIM!
BENEDETTO: Keep up the good work! Glad to be with you!
ARONOFF: Thank you so much. That’s it for this week on Take AIM. We’ll be back next week. So long!