W. was here — where was the Express-News?

On the evening of March 25, ex-President George W. Bush spoke — eloquently, reported one observer — at a United Way dinner here in San Antonio, and the Express-News didn’t cover it.

Was it not news? Was it another example of the liberal media disdaining Bush? It’s not that simple. Read on.

The morning after the event, I received this e-mail — actually, a letter to the editor — from a local physician, W. David McInnis:

“Last night … former President George W. Bush spoke to the 70th anniversary of the United Way of San Antonio. In attendance were almost 1,000 volunteers, donors and military veterans. He spoke for almost on hour, without a TelePrompTer.

“His talk was insightful, uplifting, humorous, self-deprecating and provided an understanding of his value system as well as how he made decisions as president. He received multiple standing ovations. At no time did he disparage his successor. Yet, not one word of this was in today’s paper. Why?”

That was hard to believe, I thought, but a query to the newsroom indicated no one — top to bottom — had prior knowledge of a Bush speech to the United Way, an organization that knows how to seek, and get, coverage.

Last Monday, Express-News Metro Editor Jamie Stockwell was told by United Way communications director Sandi Carlyon that United Way’s agreement with the Washington Speakers Bureau, which exclusively represents Bush, was that media not be invited. Carlyon confirmed that with me Wednesday.

However, on Thursday, Express-News Publisher Tom Stephenson had a different take. He was invited to the event more than a month ago, he said, and assumed the newsroom knew about it. Stephenson, a United Way board member, said the charity was simply abiding by the terms of its contract with the speakers bureau.

“It’s disappointing,” Stockwell said, “that the Express-News was excluded from such a well-attended event at which a former president spoke. A former president’s remarks, whether before a crowd of 10 or 1,000, always merit news coverage.

“Even when not officially informed, we usually learn in other ways when someone notable will be in town. It’s too bad that in this case, the city’s newspaper wasn’t there to record for readers what took place.”

This is a nonpartisan issue for the paper. Ex-Vice President Al Gore excluded media when he spoke to an architects’ convention here in 2007. But, because editors knew about it, a reporter infiltrated the event and reported it.

“It” wasn’t anything Gore hadn’t said before, just as what Bush said March 25 probably wasn’t anything he’d not said before — but we don’t know.

Is the Express-News disappointed that United Way kept us in the dark? Yes. Are we disappointed, even angry, that a politician this newspaper endorsed in three races excluded us? Yes.

Should Bush hate the media for how his administration was covered between 2001 and 2009? Maybe yes, maybe no, but banning news coverage of his speeches is immature.

Everything a president or ex-president says or does is important and newsworthy, and not only to the people who pay to hear him.

What if Bush had been assaulted at the event here or said something profound about the U.S. relationship with Mexico? It isn’t as if no one would know. There were 1,000 witnesses, but accurately reporting a story after the fact is more difficult.

So, in response to anyone who attended the United Way dinner and wondered why the newspaper didn’t cover it, we didn’t snub Mr. Bush; he snubbed us.

This column was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News on April 4, 2010.

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