Friday, July 14, 2006

Covering the President: News or Public Relations?

'Staying the course' has become the broken record of the Bush Administration. When Bush's numbers fall, Bush and his advisers try to find a new way of saying the same thing. They call it leadership and many of us call it public relations since nothing is changing except an effort to prop up Bush's image. Walter Pincus of The Washinton Post is one of the more prominent journalists of the day. He has a post in Nieman Watchdog where he talks about how the presidency has become focused on public relations in the last twenty-five years and of course he discusses the present; here's an excerpt (hat tip to Josh Marshall of TPM):
At the end of Reagan's first year, David Broder, the Post's distinguished political reporter, wrote a column about Reagan being among the least involved Presidents he had covered. The result was he received an onslaught of mail from people who repeatedly said they had seen him every night on TV working different issues. The often told Deaver story is that one night CBS News correspondent Leslie Stahl met him after narrating a particularly critical piece on Reagan, and Deaver told her as long as the President was on camera smiling it didn't matter what she had said about him. When President George H.W. Bush succeeded Reagan and occasionally drifted off the appointed subject, criticism began to appear that he "couldn't stay on message." When Bill Clinton arrived and as President did two, three or four things in a day, some critics went after him for "mixing up the daily message."

The truth of the matter is that with help from the news media, being able to "stay on message" is now considered a presidential asset, perhaps even a requirement. Of course, the "message" is the public relations spin that the White House wants to present and not what the President actually did that day or what was really going on inside the White House. This system reached its apex this year when the White House started to give "exclusives" -- stories that found their way to Page One, in which readers learn that during the next week President Bush will do a series of four speeches supporting his Iraq policy because his polls are down. Such stories are often attributed to unnamed "senior administration officials." Lo and behold, the next week those same news outlets, and almost everyone else, carries each of the four speeches in which Bush essentially repeats what he's been saying for two years.

The other issue that's tied to public relations is the disconnect between what a president or his advisers say and what the facts appear to be. The media in the last five years has not done nearly enough in that area and has often failed to point out the inconsistencies in the Bush Administration's stories. I'm glad to see a major journalist talking about these issues.

And maybe millions of Americans need to ask themselves why they are so susceptible to the public relations format when it's often the execution or even substance of a politician's policy that is the problem and not the politician's image.


Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

Substance takes some background knowledge to comprehend. It requires some willingness to listen carefully and think critically, not just accept whatever superficial image is being projected.

Unfortunately, many Americans are too busy, tired or distracted to regularly and properly deal with substance.

Substance isn't always easy, instant, new and improved, fun and cool. It can be thorny and troubling.

Attitude plays a part, too. Bush fans assume he's doing the right thing and reject criticisms as the braying of "Bush haters."

Others assume Bush, like most pols, is basically a crook and egotist — so what else is new? They tend to believe the pols are going to do what they're going to do anyway, so why bother to get involved?

In today's incredibly complicated, diverse and fast-paced America, despite omnipresent media, people are probably less well informed, as judged against what they need to know, than were our ancestors of two centuries ago.

That doesn't bode well for our democratic system or the future of our nation.

11:28 PM  
Anonymous Craig said...

S.W., your comment is brilliant. The case for going to war in Iraq was made four years ago and Americans have only in the last year finally caught up to the reality. That's a dangerous pace.

But I think the media let Americans down. And so did many politicians, including moderate Republicans who knew better and a handful of Democrats who gave in too easily too Bush.

I'm still hunting for good books and articles on this subject and how people can be better informed or how people can be roused from their cynicism. I suspect Al Gore would have a lot to say on the subject. Talk about a man tilting at windmills and yet knowing it's important to do so!

12:29 AM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

If you'll permit me a small measure of shameless blog promotion, I think you'll find a recent post relevant to this discussion and worth the couple of moments required to read it.

The post is "Patriotism without truth is just propaganda."

2:04 PM  
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9:49 AM  

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