All the President's Spin

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from 'All the President's Spin,' by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan.

Bush’s White House has broken new ground in its press relations strategy, exploiting the weaknesses and failings of the political media more systematically than any of its predecessors. The administration combines tight message discipline and image management – Reagan’s trademarks – with the artful use of half- or partial truths and elaborate news management – Clinton’s specialties – in a combination that is near-lethal for the press.

These techniques are effective precisely because they prey on four key weaknesses of contemporary journalism. First and foremost, reporters are constrained by the norm of objectivity, which frequently causes them to avoid evaluating the truth of politicians’ statements. In addition, because reporters are dependent upon the White House for news, the administration can shape the coverage it receives by restricting the flow of information to the press. The media are also vulnerable to political pressure and reprisal, which the Bush White House has aggressively dished out against critical journalists. Finally, the press’ unending pursuit of scandal and entertaining news often blinds it to serious issues of public policy.

By aggressively deploying its communications strategy against a media establishment wary of giving credence to charges of liberal bias and fearful of challenging a self-described “war president” after Sept. 11, Bush has successfully dissembled about public policy on a far more consistent basis than his predecessors. Do President Bush’s tax cuts primarily benefit the wealthy or the middle class? Was there clear evidence that Iraq was attempting to produce nuclear weapons or was connected to al Qaeda? What role have tax cuts played in the recent growth of federal budget deficits? There are answers to all of these questions, but the media are frequently reluctant to point out the misinformation in Bush’s statements about such controversial policy issues. By using every advantage it can muster against the media, the Bush administration has dedicated itself to transforming the press from a watchdog to a mouthpiece for its spin.

The Weaknesses of “Objective” Journalism

The gold standard of American journalism has long been “objective” reporting. Journalists at news outlets are expected to present the public with an unbiased account of the facts rather than their own views on the issue at hand. This is a laudable goal, but the expectation that reporters will present both sides of the story too often translates into the mistaken belief that they should refuse to sort out competing factual claims. This is the media’s greatest weakness in dealing with political dishonesty.

While the press generally does a reasonable job of pointing out the most blatant instances of political deception, reporters attempting to remain objective often fail to evaluate claims that are misleading but not obviously wrong. This is especially true when it comes to politicians who are generally seen as honest. As a result, Bush has frequently gotten away with misleading claims and language. Perversely, this strategy of dissembling and denial leaves journalists in the position of appearing to be “taking sides” if they point out deception.

The pressure to remain objective frequently reduces reporters to little more than stenographers transcribing the latest spin from politicians. Rather than sort out competing factual claims, they typically give equal play to both sides – even if one is misleading. This “he said/she said” form of journalism allows politicians to enter deceptive statements into the public record and leaves citizens with little or no basis to evaluate the truth of the matter at hand.

Coverage of the debate over the war in Iraq provides a particularly telling example of this sort of thinking. New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who has come under fire for her generally credulous reporting about the Bush administration’s case for war, told Michael Massing of the New York Review of Books, “My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.” (Miller later claimed in a letter to the editor that she had actually stated, “I could not be an independent intelligence agency.” Massing disputed that claim, stating he read Miller her quote for approval and the reporter signed off.)

In a May 12, 2004, interview on MSNBC’s Hardball, veteran journalist Jim Lehrer, the host of PBS’ The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, expressed similar deference to the claims of government leaders. When asked by host Chris Matthews whether journalists had explored the issue of how Iraqis would respond to Americans running their country after the war, he responded, “The word ‘occupation,’ keep in mind, Chris, was never mentioned in the run-up to the war. It was ‘liberation.’ This was a war of liberation, not a war of occupation. So as a consequence, those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.” When Matthews asked why reporters weren’t able to go beyond the Bush administration’s framing of the war as one of “liberation,” the answer was astonishing: “It just didn’t occur to us,” Lehrer said. “We weren’t smart enough to do it.”

In fact, Miller and Lehrer’s job (and the job of other reporters) is to go beyond government claims and uncover the truth. Their statements demonstrate an all-too-typical reluctance to sort out the facts for readers and a deference to authority that is troubling coming from any reporter, let alone two at prestigious national news outlets.

Reporters’ Dependence on the White House

The nature of the White House beat is that reporters depend on the officials they cover for access and information. If the administration decides to stonewall them, there is often little they can do. By controlling the flow of information available to the press, the White House can shape news coverage. Despite the media’s tendency to focus on negative stories, the absence of damaging information usually preempts critical coverage and creates a news vacuum that reporters must fill. If they are offered nothing other than the White House’s chosen message of the day, coverage tends to focus on that message.

To fill the news vacuum, the Bush administration offers reporters an unending supply of carefully scripted talking points, a standard public relations tactic that the White House has elevated to an art. When talking points are all officials will repeat, it gives reporters literally nothing else to quote.

For instance, during the July 2003 controversy over Bush’s claim that Iraq had attempted to obtain uranium from Africa, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley pounded the spin point that the statement in question was only “sixteen words” long, repeating it six times each during an interview on CNN and a press briefing, respectively. This focus on a scripted message often defeats reporters’ attempts to provide coverage of topics other than administration talking points.

Two internal memos from the Treasury Department’s public affairs staff to Secretary Paul O’Neill graphically illustrate the disciplined message that the administration tries to enforce.

First, to prepare O’Neill for a February 2001 press conference announcing the President’s fiscal year 2002 budget, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Public Affairs Michele Davis wrote a memo telling O’Neill, “This event, more than anything you’ve participated in to date, requires that you be monotonously on-message.” Her advice was frank: “Roll-out events like this are the clearest examples of when staying on message is absolutely crucial. Any deviation during the unveiling of the budget will change the way coverage plays out from tomorrow forward. . . . Your remarks should be very focused and your answers during the Q and A should only repeat your remarks.” Davis’ comments demonstrate the strategic approach the Bush administration takes to its public statements.

The memo clearly had the desired effect on the often spontaneous O’Neill. During the press conference, the Secretary largely stuck to his message save for a testy exchange with reporters over the percentage of the tax cut going to the wealthiest Americans.
In a second memo to O’Neill, Davis gave him advice for a Jan. 6, 2002 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. This time, she encouraged him to aggressively insert the administration’s talking points into the interview. Davis advised O’Neill to disregard host Tim Russert almost entirely: “first answer, no matter the question: We must act to ensure our economy recovers and people get back to work.” She later stated that “You need to interject the President’s message, even if the question has nothing to do with that.”

As she predicted, Russert’s first question concerned the state of the economy, not Bush’s agenda. When the host asked, “How bad is this recession?” O’Neill gave a short answer before turning to his talking points as Davis suggested, saying, “We need to get people back to work in this economy.” The memo also listed “key lines” and “word choices,” such as “economic security” (a phrase O’Neill used five times), and advised him to say that “the terrorist attacks and the recession caused the deficit,” which he did. In this way, the administration turned the interview from a spontaneous exchange into something closer to a prepared speech.

The Bush White House’s philosophy that the media serve no particular democratic function guides its relationship with journalists. Because it sees them as a hostile force in search of the next headline, the administration has no reservations about employing an arsenal of public relations and news management tools to try to shape coverage. These include half-truths and strategically ambiguous language that are difficult for “objective” reporters to expose, relentless message discipline, restrictions on press interaction with Bush, direct pressure on journalists, and dishonesty about policy issues that the media find boring. By wielding these tactics against reporters reluctant to criticize the President after Sept. 11, Bush was able to neuter the press corps for most of his first three years in office.

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