When The Press Presses Perino

Mark Knoller is a White House Correspondent for CBS News.

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Though small and soft-spoken, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino is showing she's not shy about drawing a line in the sand when she thinks a reporter is out of line.

Last Friday, she got fed up with the accusatory tone of Hearst columnist Helen Thomas – who peppered Perino with a series of questions about U.S. forces in Iraq:

"Does the President want no troops out from Iraq on his watch?"

"Why can't the American people have a say?"

"You mean how many more people we kill?"

Perino answered each of Thomas' questions, but felt that last one went way too far and vented her irritation.

"Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements," scolded Perino.

She told Thomas that "to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive."

But 86-year old Thomas didn't back down as reflected in this excerpt from the White House transcript:

Q: Do you know how many we have (killed) since the start of this war?

MS. PERINO: How many -- we are going after the enemy, Helen. To the extent that any innocent Iraqis have been killed, we have expressed regret for it.

Q: Oh, regret? It doesn't bring back a life.

MS. PERINO: Helen, we are in a war zone, and our military works extremely hard to make sure that everyone has the opportunity for liberty and freedom and democracy, and that is exactly what they are doing.

That was all Perino was going to take. She cut Thomas off and moved on to another reporter.

During her 47 years covering the White House, most of that time for United Press International, Thomas frequently asked pointed questions that reflected her view of the world. But as a columnist, she feels free to pose questions that make no secret of her opinions. The White House knows this and it's one of the reasons why she has rarely been called on by Pres. Bush at one of his news conferences. At the session on Tuesday, Mr. Bush called on every reporter in the front row but her.

And then today, Perino cut off questions from Les Kinsolving, who does a nightly talk show on WCBM radio in Baltimore, but attends the White House briefing every day. He has a well-earned reputation for frequently asking oddball questions that are sometimes so outrageous, other reporters will leave the room.

Here's the way in played out word for word:

Q Two domestic questions. The Media Research Center -- with the Centers for Disease Control's statistics that HIV/AIDS in the U.S. is still a great deal higher among men who have sex with men --

MS. PERINO: Let's move on to the next question. I'm not even going to dignify --

Q: No --

MS. PERINO: I'm not, Les, unless you want to just move on altogether. What's your next question?

Q: All right. In major cities like Washington, Chicago and San Francisco, there are reports that gay bathhouses facilitate --

MS. PERINO: Okay, Keith, go ahead. Les, it's inappropriate --

Q: Inappropriate?

MS. PERINO: -- to bring up those questions in the briefing room.

Q: AIDS isn't that --

MS. PERINO: Just stop it, stop it. Go ahead, Keith.

Perino is not the first Press Secretary to say there are limits to what questions she will address.

During the Reagan years, when spokesman Larry Speakes felt a reporter's questions was out of line or impugned the honor of the President, he would shut the reporter off and declare him or her to be "out of business." That meant the reporter's phone calls to Speakes would not be returned until he felt the reporter had spent sufficient time in the penalty box.

Other press secretaries have not been that explicit about reporters' questions, but have made their irritation know in more subtle ways.

It's part of the dynamic of the White House briefing room – and it's at the heart of the "adversarial relationship" between the press and the government.

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.