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A Day In The Life Of A White House Story

Some stories you'll see on the "Evening News" are just breaking, and others have taken weeks to prepare. Today we offer you a look at a day in the life of one story that's a bit in between. White House Correspondent John Roberts, Producer Max McClellan and Editor Rob Blache were kind enough to let me observe while they developed their story about President Bush's second speech in his series of remarks on the Iraq war. You can watch the story below.

The Day Begins

I arrived at the CBS booth (and by the way, calling it a "booth" is right on target. I hope Roberts and White House correspondents Bill Plante and Mark Knoller all really enjoy each other's company, because I own shoeboxes larger that that thing) in the White House press room at around 9:30 to meet with Roberts, who was accompanied by Bill Plante (who was also kind enough to field my questions as he tried to do his job.)

Checking out the "Evening News" lineup at that time revealed that the Bush speech would likely not be leading the "Evening News." With the "Detroit News" reporting that Ford's board was considering drastic job cuts and plant closings, the lineup had that story potentially leading the broadcast. (For a more detailed look at how the yesterday's lineup was created, you can watch the midday lineup meeting here.) Nonetheless, Roberts predicted that the Bush speech story would "definitely be in the first section" of the broadcast or the "Inside Story" in the second block.

For Roberts, the approach with stories such as this one is pretty straightforward -- "separating the new stuff from the boilerplate," he said. With this story, he'll focus on eliciting what is new about this speech compared to what the president has said in the past about the war and offer a "reality check" of Bush's remarks. A day earlier, in preparing for the story, White House producer Max McClellan had found such a reality checker in Stuart Bowen, Special Inspector General for Reconstruction in Iraq.

Roberts was set to interview Bowen that afternoon, but before then, he had a White House gaggle, a briefing and the president's speech to deal with. Rep. John Murtha was also scheduled to give a press conference responding to Bush's remarks and Sen. Jack Reed would be responding on camera as well. There was also a new CBS News poll, which Roberts was reviewing, that gauged public reaction to the president and the war, and would make it into the broadcast in one form or another.

The Morning Gaggle

No one expects the morning gaggle to offer anything new, just some informal agenda setting – which is what we got. Press Secretary Scott McClellan began with brief notes about the president's activities -- the president chatted with a Chinese leader that morning, the newest installment of the BarneyCam holiday video series, "A Very Beazley Christmas," was being released. And, as predicted, he offered a brief preview of the speech – it would include detail about the progress and challenges in two Iraqi cities, Najaf and Mosul.

The gaggle is fairly relaxed and brief -- some reporters roll in late, others cut out early and no one seems to mind. It's not even a full house. I feared a Judy Miller-Maureen Dowd debacle over seat assignments, but once a friendly ABC News producer informed me not to worry about it as long as I steered clear of the first four rows, I grabbed UPI's seat in the back and no one booted me out. In fact, the whole row remained pretty much empty.

Roberts said that the play between reporters and McClellan often becomes confrontational during the gaggle and the briefings. His philosophy: "We want to check them, but we don't want to create a confrontation for confrontation's sake."

"Sometimes Scott pulls the pin on a smoke bomb, throws it and starts stonewalling," said Roberts.

There were no smoke bombs this morning, and only a few questions focused on the speech. McClellan did spar with Helen Thomas a bit about the issue of renditions, which had been the subject of recent statements from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The back and forth ended with Thomas noting that McClellan's response her question was "pitiful." McClellan told Thomas that he would convey her sentiments to the Secretary.

The Speech

The president's speech followed shortly after the gaggle. Roberts and Plante didn't actually attend this one because it's covered by the network pool, which fed it live. Both Plante -- who was doing a

the speech for – and Roberts kept their eyes on the wires as they watched. Plante wrote a draft script as the speech happened and Roberts took note of anything new that he'd need to build his piece around.

Roberts noticed something else about this speech -- the audience. "When he last did this speech, it was in front of a very friendly crowd. This crowd will sit on their hands until the very end." Plante also noted that Council on Foreign Relations speeches are typically accompanied by an opportunity for the audience to ask questions at the end, something that did not happen in this case.

As expected, Bush began to discuss progress in Najaf and Mosul – as well as detailing some remaining challenges. One line of the speech particularly stood out -- "reconstruction has not always gone as well as we had hoped," -- and Roberts took note. As Bush continued, Roberts noted the continuing shift in the White House strategy. "It's part of [the White House's] new program of 'transparency' I guess you could call it. [Bush] would not have been as likely before to describe in as much detail the challenges" in Iraq. "What did we call it last week?" said Roberts, referring to one of his pieces on Bush's last Iraq speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, "A campaign of contrition to win back the public trust."

Roberts and Plante noted an Associated Press alert that had just come across the wires: "Bush says economic progress is spreading across Iraq although 'reconstruction has not always gone as well as we'd hoped.'" There's the story's lead.

"We mostly hear boilerplate," Roberts explained. The administration "is always criticized for not admitting mistakes ... but this detail on Najaf and Mosul is new. They're saying 'Things haven't gone as well as we'd hoped, but we're adjusting and we're working on it.'"

The Afternoon Briefing

"Scott is his typical late self," Roberts joked as the press corps waited for Scott McClellan to emerge, echoing the sentiments of many a White House reporter. The briefing is "at times tense and heated depending on the ebb and flow of the day," he said later. Reporters' relationships with McClellan are typically "collegial" but "not friendly," Roberts said.

Roberts scored the first question, about the Q&A's that typically follow CFR speeches:

Roberts: Scott, at these CFR sessions, it's traditional for the guest speaker to be involved in a question-and-answer session at the end of their speech. Why did the President forego that today?

McClellan: Well, this was set up as a speech from the beginning.

"If Scott actually answered a question" during the briefing, "I might fall off my chair," Roberts joked to me afterwards.

It seemed that NBC's Kelly O'Donnell had also taken note of the change in audience members since the president's last speech:

O'Donnell: Scott, the audience that watched the President's speech today was more subdued than some that he's appeared before recently, where there were -- to use the phrase -- a lot of applause lines in front of military crowds and so forth. Did the President have any reaction to how he was received today, and the absence of those kind of "hoo-hah" lines?

McClellan: The President appreciated his reception. I don't know why we're having a discussion about that when there are so many important elements that he was talking about in his remarks that I think the American people care about. This was a very important speech about real progress that we're making on the ground, and I don't think any of us here at the White House get caught up in those things.

This type of back and forth went on for pretty much the entire briefing, with no one getting particularly far. The floor is open for all kinds of questions, which are often reduced to semantic debates. Some seem worthwhile – why didn't the president use the word "insurgency" in his speech? Others were less pressing, albeit humorous – was the president comparing Jesus to Santa during a recent holiday event with children? (You can consult the transcript for both exchanges.)

Interview With Stuart Bowen

About an hour later, Roberts and I headed to his interview with Stuart Bowen. The interview will essentially serve as a "reality check" for Bush's speech, and Roberts doesn't prepare questions ahead of time. He's been reading various news reports as well as the Democrats' responses to the speech. "I just know what to talk about," he said.

"I used to meticulously prepare questions," he told me on the way to the interview. "But I realized that I paid a lot less attention to [people's] answers doing that."

Regarding the choice to interview Bowen, Max McClellan later explained that, "We wanted someone who could be an informed and objective referee in all of this." With that consideration, CBS Pentagon Correspondent David Martin had recommended McClellan give Bowen a call. Instead of going for someone like an academic from a think tank to respond to the speech, Bowen seemed to add a useful element to the story because he had recently been to Iraq and was "uniquely informed on reconstruction," said McClellan. "He knows about the place, instead of someone just assessing [the situation] based on media reports."

"He certainly has a Bush background," said McClellan, referring me to Bowen's biography and details about his position at the Inspector General's Web site. "But he's on the record as being critical" in the past. "By charge and by oath he's objective and critical."

The interview lasted about 20 minutes, with Roberts asking various questions to gauge Bowen's impression of the speech: What didn't the President say? Was his assessment on target? Sen. Reed had mentioned that Bush didn't address the lack of progress in places like the Sunni Triangle, Roberts asked for a response.

Right as the interview was ending, Roberts caught a glimpse of CNN on a nearby television screen revealing news that an air marshal had fired a gun onboard a flight. That meant his piece on the Bush speech would likely be bumped ... again. "I try not to take it personally," Roberts said, laughing.

The Producer and The Editor

Back at the bureau, producer Max McClellan and Editor Rob Blache have been spending the day preparing everything else that needs to be done for the segment. They have gathered footage that will potentially be used for the piece, which is culled primarily from APTN – a news agency to which networks subscribe to receive footage from all over the world. The footage is mostly from the last week or so, but some might be months old. But because the piece discusses the war in such a general way, using older footage is appropriate, said McClellan. If they were specifically referring to an event that took place today, he said, and showing footage that was months old, "we would have to label it as 'file footage.'"

They have also been going through the video of Bush's speech, Murtha and Reed's press conferences and Bowen's interview to pull bites that might be used in the piece.

One of the bigger logistical challenges of picking out sound bites from interviews: slow talkers. When you have 2 minutes and 15 seconds for a news piece, those more prone to deliberative speech can be "troublesome," said McClellan (perhaps biting his tongue because, well, this is a family Web site.)

So how does he make sure that the bites they use are representative of what the interview subject has said? The Bowen interview lasted 20 minutes, but they would only be able to use about 30 seconds – if that – of his responses. "If you've asked the right questions," said McClellan, "you can get someone to crystallize a particular point of view." You can ask questions "in a pointed way to get pointed responses ... which John Roberts is very good at."

Roberts says that the time constraints of television news don't frustrate him. "I'm used to it by now," he told me. "Television can't get into the same level of detail as print ... the format doesn't allow for that."

The Script

By 5 p.m., Roberts had written a script and sent it to McClellan.
They briefly discussed it, finalized some small changes, then sent it to "Evening News" Senior Producer Jim McGlinchy in the Washington Bureau, who changed the introduction to include results from the poll, (more poll results would also be the lead-in to the piece) approved it and sent it on to Executive Producer Jim Murphy in New York. By 5:30, the final script was approved and Roberts tracked it from the White House (where he'd be shooting a live close to his piece) and it was fed live to McClellan and Blache.

Originally, some bites from statements by Murtha or Reed were going to be included in the piece, but both Roberts and McClellan eventually determined that they didn't add much to the story.

A story "doesn't have to be balanced, but it has to be fair," Roberts told me, meaning that a news piece doesn't always have to include comments from both sides of the political spectrum to be a fair representation of the story. "We don't need [to always include] Democrats with occasional flamethrower rhetoric, we can just look at facts."

At the same time, the piece can't just note that the president has changed his tone to admit challenges and leave it at that, explains Roberts, which is why they decided to include the interview with the inspector general to give a "reality check."

Murtha's speech "was billed as a reaction to the Bush speech," but he didn't really address anything specific about what Bush said, McClellan explained. "He didn't share facts from on the ground." Sen. Jack Reed's speech was equally lackluster in offering any new information. "They reiterated what they've been saying," said McClellan. "The [inspector general] takes the place of those guys because he can give an informed opinion."

McClellan also noted that Roberts' question to Bowen about challenges in the Sunni Triangle at the end of the piece "was essentially born of what Reed said." But "because our purview was not to get into politics or how Democrats were positioning themselves," adding individual bites from Murtha or Reed "didn't add anything new."

Putting It All Together

Since this is television, after all, the narration in Roberts' piece must be matched up with pictures. So Blache and McClellan began to go through the script, mapping out where to cover the narration with video they've collected throughout the day – footage of soldiers, combat and reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

There are also a few last minute fixes that need to be made. At 5:45, it became clear that the audio on Roberts' microphone during his interview with Bowen was less than desirable, so Blache has to fix that. Someone called asking if Bowen's exceptionally long title – Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction – could be abbreviated to something shorter. No, said McClellan. And since the script's introduction has been changed to include results from the CBS poll, McClellan had to arrange for a graphic to appear over the video in the first section of the piece. There won't be enough time for the graphics department to render the picture and send it to McClellan before air, so the first time they see it will be at 6:30 – live.

The phone has rung approximately 987 times.

With the track put into the editing system, McClellan and Blache then add the video elements to the piece to cover the narration. Some pictures seemed to fit perfectly – as Roberts' track describes water and sewage problems in Iraq, Blache inputs footage of Iraqis distributing water from a well. Other visual decisions were less obvious. For a line about the president noting how much things have changed in Najaf and Mosul:

"How about a Mosque shot?" said Blache.

"Nah, I don't think it works," McClellan responded.

"I think it does," Blache retorted.

"How about the cars driving by?" said McClellan, "Can we get a honk in there?"

Cars with a honk it is. And with all the visual spaces filled, the graphics set and the audio fixed, at 6:25 the piece is fed to the Control Room. When all was said and done, the piece ended up running second, after the lead story about the air marshal shooting a passenger. The news about Ford ended up as the "Inside Story" in the broadcast's second block. And that graphic McClellan and Blache were seeing for the first time – was exactly what they wanted.

And that, dear readers, is the news.