Wednesday, February 20, 2013
The Reagan administration--with the Great Communicator at center--was masterful in managing the press, creating a number of new techniques to give the president control over his message--things such as the "Message of the Day", calling the press on deadline to release news, and inventing persons such as the "Chicago Welfare Queen" in order to demonize welfare recipients as well as the entire welfare system. Despite the fact the press knew that no such person existed, they would often continue to report on the 'Welfare Queen" in Reagan's speeches as if she did exist.
The press responsibility of playing watchdog had so faltered in Reagan's 8 years that Mark Hertsgaard titled his 1988 book on the press and the Reagan administration On Bended Knee, claiming that when the press comes to challenge the president, they do so from a subordinate position.
In the Bush I administration, despite the fact that he served only one term in office (and blamed the media for that), many marveled at the ability of the president to control the press, particularly where it came the use of military force. Thus during the march to war with Iraq in 1991, the Bush administration carefully controlled the political debate in a way that the argument was whether the US should use unilateral force to eject Hussein or use multilateral force to eject him. Thus at the center of the debate, beyond dispute, was the use of force. The debate was not whether we should use force or should continue economic sanctions. And then when we got to the war, the Bush administration was masterful in controlling press access to the battlefield, as well as sanitizing the ugliness of war--smart bombs, guided missles, Patriot Missles, and referring to body bags as "human remains pouches".
Next came Clinton. Despite his rocky start, Clinton smartly went out and stocked his office with folks from the Reagan administration, including David Gergen, who exerted message discipline and regulated press access. The Clinton administration also took advantage of the variety of new news formats in order to make their case with the American public--appearing on "Larry King Live", "Arsenio Hall", and "Oprah Winfrey". Clinton understood that these formats would enable him to reach audiences who normally do not pay attention to the news and at the same time avoid tough questioning. Furthermore, the Clinton administration made extensive use of the "Satellie Media Tour", which allowed the White House to connect with local audiences through local television news stations and talk radio stations. Clinton invited Talk Radio to come to the White House and broadcast live from the White House lawn during their effort to overhaul health care in 1993. During impeachment, the White House built a War Room that created two different kinds of presidential communication: The War Room, run by folks such as Paul Begala and Rahm Emanuel, would deal with the ugliness of the Monica Lewinsky controversy. They would engage in the bare knuckled tactics of battling Ken Starr and the House Republicans. Clinton would lead the other type of communication, which was strictly presidential--above the fray, on the business of governing, and leading the U.S. into the 21st Century. The brilliance of the Clinton media machine was captured by Howard Kurtz in the book Spin Cycle.
And then we get George W. Bush, and people marveled (at least in the first term) at his masterful handling of the press. In large part, Bush was helped by the 9/11 attacks, which sent his public opinion numbers into the stratosphere. It would take awhile for the press to write critical stories of the administration for fear of being branded al Qaeda surrogates. But even without those terrible attacks, Bush would have been just as masterful in his press management abilities.
First, Bush had a knack for handling the press, and most importantly, with cutting down on unauthorized leaks from the White House. During his father's administration, W was brought in to stop leaks, something that he got very good at doing. So he did not have to worry about leaks in the way other presidents did. And clearly Bush was helped by a very good communications team, whose point man was Ari Fleischer. Jonathan Chait, writing for The New Republic, chronicled Fleischer's brilliance in handling the press in a 2002 article titled "The Peculiar Duplicity of Ari Fleischer".
The Bush administration would insist on top-down message control. For instance, the only person authorized to speak daily to the press was the press secretary. All of the agencies would get their message marching orders from the White House Office of Communication. And in a particularly brilliant move, the White House also insisted on picking the press secretaries and deputy press secretaries at all the bureaucratic departments and agencies, making sure there were Bush loyalists in place to keep an eye on a potential cabinet member about to "go native". The Bush first term media manipulation successes were documented very well by Ken Auletta in his piece, Fortress Bush. My favorite line from a reporter--it doesn't matter who you speak to inside the Executive Branch, they all say the same thing. It is as if there is a mind meld in place. In addition, the Bush administration also took advantage of the rise of conservative media--in particular, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. The administration would create an echo effect in all of its messages, a strategy documented by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph Cappella in their book, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment.
Which brings us to the Obama administration and this treatise by Politico on how they are the zen masters--Jedi Priests of media manipulation and management not seen by any president yet. As I said, same old song and dance. So why is it that each new president excels over his predecessor, regardless of party? I can think of at least four reasons to provide light to this question:
1) The Building Blocks answer--each new president comes into office with a lot of information about what does and does not work. Thus a new president, if he is smart, will not start from scratch, but instead build upon the successes of his predecessor. Take two presidents--Carter and Clinton. Carter decided to take the media playbook, and chuck it right over the rails of the yacht Sequoia just before he sold it. As John Maltese argues in Spin Control, Carter made a decision to mothball the Office of Communications and instead speak plainly to the American public. As a result, he lost control of his image and his message, and ultimately his presidency. Bill Clinton, when he came into Office in 1993, almost repeated Carter's mistake by not tending to the messaging needs of his administration. Only after the disaster of health care and the Republican victories in 1994 did Clinton right his ship. Each president wants to make life easier for his successor (if you believe Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy), thus each leaves a president a number of strategies to deal with the Congress and with the press. Wise presidents make use of those strategies and build upon them.
2. Resources. The communications resources that a president amasses is something that has continued to grow from Reagan through Obama. The president has a lot of control over information, which is ultimately what the press is after. By controlling how that information is handled and released, a president can go along way in controlling the way the news is framed. Control the frame and you control the agenda. And isn't agenda control the essence of political power anyway? Resources is a two edged sword. For the news media, it means a lack of resources. As a result of corporate downsizing, newsrooms and reporters are expected to do more with less. James McCartney and John Herbers were already sounding the warning siren back in 1999, when they wrote that in DC, not only were entire news bureaus disappearing, but those who stayed were saddling their reporters with more beats. Rather than a reporter covering a physical beat such as the State Department, now one reporter was tied to the "National Security Beat", covering State, Defense, National Security Agency, CIA, and the White House. Naturally where a reporter is taxed this way, his or her critical abilities are greatly diminished. The dwindling supply of resources in our newsrooms is a problem that continues to get worse, and so long as the balance favors the president, so will the president's ability to dazzle all of us with media control.
3. Technology: This is ever increasing the advantage into the hands of those with information. Technology has helped the president get around the press and connect directly with whichever citizenry they are trying to reach. As I mentioned above, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton all used satellite link ups to connect directly with local television, where the questions would be soft and their message controlled (see "Spin" for a glimpse).
After the introduction of the Internet, and with the advent of communication technology, Presidents have found new ways to work their message without bothering with the filter. Many of the techniques used on the campaign are exported directly into the White House. Thus Obama has spent more time with Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook than he has with the New York Times or ABC News. In fact, back in 2010, Lloyd Grove of "The Daily Beast" pronounced the White House press corps dead and the dawn of the "filterless presidency".
In addition to expanding technology, there has also been the fragmentation of the media universe. In addition to the problems of polarization, media segmentation allows presidents to reach out to specific audiences. Whether it is the Golf Channel, the NASCAR channel, or Lifetime, presidents do not need the filter in the way they once did. The dramatic changes over the last three decades in our media environment has meant easier times for a president and his communications team.
4. Public Disdain: And of course the last thing that has aided presidents in their ability to control the press is the continuing public disdain for the "Fourth Estate". James Fallows, writing back in the mid-90s, identified a half a dozen reasons why Americans hated the press--from the continuing rise of infotainment to the refusal of the press to hold itself to the same standard it judges others. For Fallows, these were deep seated problems that have extended over decades, and until the press begins to deal with the problems, they simply will not have the support of the American public. Fast forward to today, and these problems have only gotten worse, as documented in this insightful study by Jonathan Ladd.
This is not just an academic problem. The press needs the support of Americans if they are to fulfill their First Amendment obligations to challenge power. Those in positions of power--say presidents--are likely to take the press seriously if they believe that Americans are taking their side. But that has not happened in a long time. Most Americans today believe the press is immoral, likely to cover up mistakes, and biased. Thus in Gulf War I, when the press complained about being kep in pools far away from the fighting, most American complained that they were interfering with the war effort, something that "Saturday Night Live" picked up on in a skit on the press briefing before the War began. The questions the press asked: "What date are we going to start the ground attack?", "where would you say our forces are most vulnerable to attack?", and "what would be the one piece of information that would be most dangerous for the Iraqi's to know?".
So if you think you have seen the last of these articles on president and media management, trust me, you haven't. Instead, Same old song and dance.
Monday, February 18, 2013
Obama has issued very few signing statements in his first term in office. From 2009-2012, Obama issued just 37 total signing statements, compared with 100+ from each of his predecessors. Interesting, the President who comes closest to Obama in total number of signing statements is his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, who has been the most reviled where signing statements are concerned.
In Obama's final year of his presidency, he issued seven signing statements, and none that challenged any provision of law. But before we break out the cigars, it is important to note that Obama issued the third most challenges, coming in behind George 43 and his father, George 41. So he may have not issued many signing statements, but he gets his money worth when he does.
It is hard to know whether these numbers are indeed completely accurate. In one respect, the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents have now been adding keywords to their entries, so signing statements now contain the label "bill signings". In the other respect, according to a January 2010 NY Times report by Charlie Savage, the administration claimed it would not use the signing statement to voice disagreements with law where disagreements have already been made, and may instead use the OLC to voice new disagreements--and OLC opinions are not always published. So we are left wondering what these numbers really mean.
You would hope this would be an issue the Congress would take more seriously, and not just when it comes to partisan advantage. Despite what some scholars think about congressional oversight of the signing statement, the fact of the matter is there is little to no evidence that Congress has a handle on how, why, and when the president uses the signing statement, burglar and fire alarms notwithstanding.
Thus I have taken advantage of the administration's "We the People" project to ask the administration to make the signing statement transparent, and allow a tracking mechanism similar to the executive order. You can find the petition at: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/publish-each-and-every-refusal-enforce-laws-president-signs-his-bill-signing-statements/wdmSnGlg?utm_source=wh.gov&utm_medium=shorturl&utm_campaign=shorturl
Please take the time to sign my petition if you think this is an issue that warrants attention.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Political advertising, as we well know, is not subjected to the same regulations as commercial advertising--government does not insure the political ads are being honest in the claims they make. Somehow giving government that role violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, and yet in other democratic countries, it is accepted that government, who supposedly is working on behalf of "the people", checks the veracity of political ads.
Since government cannot do this, the job naturally falls to the media--that independent institution with standing in the Constitution. But the media in the United States is also subject to a greater power than the people--it must bow to shareholders, who seek a return on their investments. Because this is true, fact checking advertising by the press is something that went by the way side beginning in the 1980s, when the media in the US went through a massive transformation, resulting from downsizing and consolidation. "Do more with less" was the motto. And when the media was challenged for neglecting factchecking advertising--something that everyone agrees is at the core of its functions--well the reasons offered had something to do with "objectivity" and avoiding the taint of "bias". See, if the media challenged the things featured in a political ad, that was seen as taking sides, and taking sides is not being objective. Objectivity, of course, is the Rosetta Stone of American Journalism. No matter that in the past, particularly in the late 19th century and early 20th century, journalists who were considered muckrakers saw it as the essential mission of journalists to challenge the powerful--thus journalists brought down the political machines that choked democracy in big cities across the U.S, as well as shining a light on the mistreatment of workers in stockyards, coal mines, and manufacturing.
It wasn't until the Internet came along, and with it a non-media, not for profit organization called Factcheck.org, that brought factchecking back into the newsroom. Factcheck.org was run out of the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and former CNN reporter Brooks Jackson. They began to challenge the factual basis of political advertising about a decade ago, and because they had the market to themselves, they generated a lot of traffic from people looking to separate truth from lies. The site also challenges Internet rumors, and can be a great resource if you have loonies in your family tree who feel compelled to alert you to the impending take over of the US by the United Nations.
In 2004, the site was mentioned by VP Dick Cheney in his debate with John Edwards, though Cheney gave the web address as "Factcheck.com". A supporter of Kerry-Edwards quickly registered the domain name, and for every hit on Factcheck.com, it directed the person to an anti-Bush website. But because of the interest in fact checking, the news media in the U.S. began to return to the business of fact checking ads as well as claims/assertions made in town hall meetings and in debates. Thus the Washington Post created their own column, "The Fact Checker", that rated ads by how many Pinnochios it registered (Pinnochio being the wannabe boy whose nose would grow whenever he told a lie. If an ad received four Pinocchios, rest assured it was an outright lie.
Similarly, the Tampa Bay Times created "Politifact.com", where they would measure an ad on a "Truth-O-Meter", where it could range from "Mostly True" to "Pants on Fire", as in "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire". And it is Politifact that is the subject of this posting. The Internet has been abuzz with a story coming out of Politifact, where it awarded Mitt Romney's campaign ad about Jeeps being made in China as the "Lie of the Year"! Some context: in the closing days of the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney ran an ad in Ohio claiming that Chrysler--who makes the Jeep--had begun the process of shuttering its manufacturing plants in Ohio and shipping them to China--thus American jobs being sent overseas to China. This at the behest of the Obama administration. The ad--which was desperate in its design--provoked an instant negative reaction from the press, politicians, and especially Chrysler, which held its own press conference to take the unusual step to denounce an ad run in a presidential campaign. It is still somewhat of a mystery why Romney's people thought this ad was a good ideal, but for whatever reason, it backfired in a big way.
So why is the newspaper in the business of handing out awards? Well for the same reason that Time Magazine has been naming it's "Person of the Year"--it boost circulation size. Politifact has banked on the ideal that naming the Romney ad the biggest pants on fire of them all would generate buzz, and that buzz would find bring it lots and lots of unique visitors to the website, and lots and lots of unique visitors equals more money from advertisers. So Politifact decided to make news, rather than report, not for anything noble as democracy or maintaining an informed citizenship, but solely for the bottom line. Which means that this exercise in fact checking by the media is subject to market demands irregardless of whether the public wants them continued. Sure enough, if fact checking becomes more a cost than a benefit, we may very well return to the days of Factcheck.org owning the entire market to itself.
I am reminded of a scene from the movie "The Rainmaker", featuring Matthew Damon as an idealistic young attorney going up against a corporate lawfirm. At one point Damon asks the lead attorney for the insurance company he is suing, played by Jon Voight: "I'm just wonderin'...do you even remember when you first sold out?"
Game Change was a fascinating look at the complex and Machiavellian power plays by candidates and staffers looking to win the presidency. Parts of the book are simply stunning: for instance, a whole chapter dedicated to the strained and weird relationship between John and Elizabeth Edwards (and before we learned of his affair). The public persona of Elizabeth Edwards was shattered, as the authors showed her to be a mean, thin skinned woman who brow beat her husband at every step of the way. And John Edwards, the good looking, down home Southern Gentleman was proven to be little more than an opportunist. For instance, when it became clear that he was not going to win the nomination, he began to bargain his delegates for an important Cabinet position in either the Clinton or the Obama administration. Things got so bad in the Edwards campaign--between John and Elizabeth--that early on his own campaign staff began to worry about what would happen if he actually won the presidency, and thus began to contemplate whether they should go public and end Edwards campaign for the good of the Party. It never got to that.
Game Change also gave us an interesting glimpse at the Clintons, a co-equal partnership of two giant egos. How Hillary planned revenge on staff who left her campaign to work for another, and how Bill, supposed surrogate of Hillary, often caused her more pain than help when he would go off script and attack Barack Obama, or how he would suck the media oxygen out of a room, leaving little chance for Hillary to gain her own media time for herself (there is a wonderful example in a grocery store).
HBO decided to produce a film of the book, and instead of looking at the complex relationships of the various campaigns, they instead decided to focus on the pick of Sarah Palin, and then to document the strained relationship that emerged between McCain aide Steve Schmidt and Sarah Palin. Particularly in Palin's tendency to not stick to the McCain script, and instead go it alone, something the McCain people referred to as "going rogue". This would often generate more negative coverage than positive, but Palin was not concerned about how she appeared to the mainstream media, but instead was more concerned about how she appeared to conservative audiences, who loved her. Her problem was believing that these audiences were the typical voter, and not atypical. But the McCain-Palin dynamic--which ended with Schmidt leaking information to the press designed to undermine her standing as it became clear McCain would not win--was just a tiny part of the book.
Heilemann and Halperin--due to the success of the book--committed to writing another book about the 2012 race. Apparently that commitment has been formalized, a Penquin picked up the publishing rights to Double Down: Game Change 2012. And HBO has picked up the rights to film another movie.
My problem from the time the two reporters announced a 2012 book is that the book would not be as raw and candid as the Game Change book. Here is why: campaign books are nothing new. From Timothy Crouse's Boys on the Bus to Alexandra Pelosi's Journeys with George, campaign books or documentary films are a staple of presidential elections, but usually do not have a wide audience, and instead are produced for a more academic audience. Game Change was able to leap out of the box and find a larger audience. Because of its success, I am certain that the campaigns in 2012 who spoke to the two reporters did so with an eye towards the audience reading their book. Thus what they say is likely to be filtered. Furthermore, since 2012 featured an incumbent president, I am certain that the book will focus more on the Republican primary and then the Romney general election campaign. And HBO will once again be producing charicatures of the Republican candidates, only furthering the cries of media bias.
For my money, the best campaign book on the 2012 election cycle has been the three part (although part three is not yet out) series produced by Tom Bevan and Carl Cannon.
Friday, November 02, 2012
Monday, October 15, 2012
The issue raises an interesting question. Can a journalist, who is not a party to the agreement, be bound to the terms? In this case, the two candidates argue that the MOU stipulates that the moderator has a limited, passive role in the debate, which aside from Jim Lehrer rubs against the instincts of journalists. We will know by tomorrow night just what kind of influence the Commission actually has over their moderators.
Sunday, August 05, 2012
Thursday, January 19, 2012
I write this because this hypocrisy reared its head just this week. If you are following the Republican nomination fight, you know that Mitt Romney has gotten into a bit of hot water for not releasing his tax records. This past Tuesday, ABC News's Diane Sawyer was speaking to Jonathan Karl, who informed her that Romney had earned "374,000" in speaker fees alone. Here is what Sawyers said in response:
Sawyer: "Nearly $350,000, Jon?"
If you go to the talent agency representing Diane Sawyer, you find that her appearance booking fee range to be "$30,001-$50,000." Now Romney claimed that he made his money in 8 speaking engagements, which means, on average, he made about $47,000 per speech. That falls within the $30k-$50k that Sawyer commands. For the same 8 speeches, she would make anywhere between $240k to $400,000k--possibly $25k more than what Romney made for his eight speeches.
Like Sawyer said: "Wow!"
Friday, October 28, 2011
The Pew Research Center released their study "The Media Primary" looking at how the candidate have fared in the press and in the blogosphere. They found that the Republican candidates, with the exception of the barely mentioned Gingrich and Santorum, have received more negative coverage in the press and in the blogosphere, though Paul was the only one who had a net positive rating online (no mystery there). For the most part, Bachmann and Perry--the two frontrunners at different points of the study, earned more and more negative coverage the more they lead the pack, resulting in a destruction of their campaigns and a free fall back into the pack. The only candidate who had consistent ratings throughout was Romney--his positive and negative numbers changed very little throughout the entire study. And Obama, who enjoyed fawning treatment in 2008, has the highest negative numbers of any candidate in the race, though Republicans won't believe it.
And now is Cain's turn. In the Pew Study, Cain was emerging as the frontrunner of the moment. In an example of media priming, Cain started to earn positive treatment back in late August, which had the effect of positive public evaluations by October--repetitive media coverage has the effect of influencing public evaluations of the candidate. In this case, a chorus of positive coverage leads to Cain as the frontrunner. So just as he starts to break from the pack, the media throws on the brakes. This Howard Kurtz article is typical of the recent coverage of Cain ("'Tired' Cain Campaign Slows Down). In it, Kurtz documents the number of gaffes Cain has recently committed:
- He claimed he was against abortion even in rape and incest, but then told Piers Morgan that it was up to the woman and her family to decide whether they want an abortion or not--"not some politician. Not some bureaucrat." He then walked back the statement when the criticisms flew as a statement made because he was tired;
- He told Wolf Blitzer that he would consider exchanging Gitmo detainees for US soldiers held hostage. Again, it was a mistake the came from a lack of sleep;
- He supported an electric fence to kill immigrants seeking a better life in the US--a joke, but then it wasn't;
- His 9-9-9 plan turned into a 9-0-9 plan
Expect to see more just like this.
So back to Romney--this strategy of allowing other candidates to take the hits means that the media is spending no time tearing him down. All the negative coverage of Cain's weirdness, Perry's lack of message discipline, and Bachmann's campaign destruction is no time about his support for liberal causes in the past or the issues that he has flip flopped on recently. It means he goes into the start of the primaries relatively unscathed. Not too stupid.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
We're seeing the same kind of thing today, only directed at Rick Perry. This NYT article caught my eye--it is a focus on the "bad blood" between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry that dates back to the time when both were governors. If you watched the debate from Tuesday night, you saw up close how little the two men liked one another, which explains why CNN decided to place both of them next to each other on the stage.
So Romney was changing planes the other day, and his "aides" were asked to comment about Perry's aggressive approach to the debate. Here is the money quote:
But other aides public accused the Texas governor of acting like a bully at the debate. "I don't think road rage is a quality people are looking for in their next president..."
Get it. Road rage activates a particular image in the minds of the audience that reads or hears it--we have all experienced road rage--the irrational waving of fists, the profanity, and perhaps the vehicle riding up on your bumper or even swerving at you. Irrational. And that is exactly why the term was used.
Get ready for more just like it in an effort to paint Perry as a crazy, ill-tempered jerk.