Ari Fleischer: Robert Gibbs Doesn’t Have It Any Easier

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Photo: Getty Images

Yesterday at the IFC Media project's “Make Media Matter” panel discussion at the Paley Center, Tina Brown, Peggy Noonan, and Ari Fleischer discussed the future of the industry. Afterwards, we caught up with Fleischer, the former press secretary for President Bush, and asked him about Obama, and his own press secretary, Robert Gibbs.

Do you watch Robert Gibbs do press conferences?
I watched the first briefing he did on January 21 or whatever it is, out of pure fascination. And I haven't watched one since.

You want to give him a grade?
I won't. Anybody who's ever stood at that podium, you have nothing but sympathy and respect for anybody that follows you … it's a hard job and a fun job.

You really aren't curious to watch him more often?
No. I was in the business for 21 years I'm in the private sector now. I don't even have a TV in my office during the day. So I'll watch the news of course at night, and see the snippets of how he'd doing, etc. It's his turn and I wish it well.

Do you think he's having it easier than you did?
No, I think it's always hard. I think he gets a much more sympathetic press than Bush got.

You do?
Yeah. I think the questions he gets from the White House press corps are equally hard as the questions I got. So his time in the briefing room is just as critical and just as tough. But the coverage that results, that was much harder and tougher on George Bush than it has been on Barack Obama.

Do reporters seem more polite in those news conferences than they were with Bush?
No, I don't think so. Watching the news conferences with President Obama — I watched the first two, I didn't watch last night's — struck me as very similar in tenor, the type of questions they asked President Bush. It certainly is a different time. You know, there is legitimacy too, things were not as well for President Bush as they are now for President Obama. I think the biggest driver of media tenor, ideology aside, is whether a president is popular or not. That narrative really shapes what makes it into print.

So this media love affair, if that's what it is, it's not just the press likes Obama — it's that everyone else does too?
There's no question. The press doesn't operate in a void. There is a two-way street to these things.

So if we turn, they'll turn.
That is definitely an element. But it's more complicated, because after 2001, by the time December rolled around, 2001, everyone knew the war was going well in Afghanistan, Bush was immensely popular, and it really started to turn in the press corps. In January, as soon as the Enron scandal hit, the press went with a vengeance at President Bush even though he was very popular. And things around the world were going very well. I don't know if that same dynamic would play out if something horrible happened, involving something with President Obama. Would the press turn? I don't know.