Saturday, June 04, 2005

Losing Control of the Message

The Bush White House is probably the most effective bully pulpit media machine in the history of the United States. It's hard to compare them to pre-TV administrations, of course, but regardless this White House's communications team has probably done more with less than any administration in history, parlaying a four-year litany of endless failures into an apparent victory in a high-turnout election.

But now, less than six months since the beginning of the second term, the Bush White House is in massive trouble. The media people are losing control, and with nothing underneath, things could get messy quickly.

Exhibit A is this AP report about the Pentagon/Newsweek Quran abuse fiasco. It's generously headlined, but the content is devastating: White House Plays Down New Quran Reports .

Some key passages:

"I think on this issue, they fell into a trap," [Joe] Lockhart said. "They saw a way to push back on a damaging story by making it look like it was just out-of-control journalists, and now they've had to admit that it has happened."


The Pentagon confirmed Friday evening — after the networks' evening news shows had aired — that a U.S. soldier had deliberately kicked a prisoner's holy book. The report also said prison guards had thrown water balloons in a cell block, causing an unspecified number of Qurans to get wet; a guard's urine had splashed on a detainee and his Quran; an interrogator had stepped on a Quran during an interrogation; and a two-word obscenity had been written in English on the inside cover of a Quran.

Pretty negative stuff from AP. But the real killer is the finish - Laura Bush's goodwill tour provides the money quote:

"We've had terrible happenings that have really, really hurt our image of the United States," she said. "And people in the United States are sick about it."

Somehow I don't think that particular talking point was on the card they gave her at the beginning of the trip.

Exhibit B is a Washington Post piece, Bush's Optimish on Iraq Debated. The subhead is "Rosy View in Time Of Rising Violence Revives Criticism."

The toughest graph in this one is actually unnecessarily "balanced;" the pro-administration lead sentence is editorializing. But in the end it serves to sharpen, rather than soften, the force of the blow to come:

It is not unusual for a president to put the most positive spin possible on U.S. policy, especially during a time of armed conflict when public support is crucial. But the administration's assertions about Iraq have been a source of controversy since the earliest days of the operation, from the insistence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to Cheney's claim of links between Iraq and al Qaeda to the rosy forecasts about how welcome U.S. troops would be.

Exhibit C is not really on the same level as the other two, but it's included because of how it fits into the overall picture - it's probably not a good sign when the AP has two completely different stories running the wire getting headlines with the words "White House Downplays" in them

White House Downplays Missing-Arms Report.

McClellan said that the United States has helped to remove low enriched uranium and radioactive sources, offered jobs to weapons experts from Saddam Hussein's programs to keep them from taking their expertise elsewhere, and helped Iraq establish an independent radioactive source regulatory authority.

The somewhat humorous thing about the apparent White House strategy on this story is that the basic idea they are using is actually true - the only real serious WMD threat is nuclear. Biological and chemical weapons are a pretty minor proliferation threat, comparatively speaking.

But since the nuclear piece was always the very weakest part of the case for invading Iraq, and the best justification the White House can now use for the war is that Hussein could have theoretically started manufacturing chemical or biological weapons anytime (by definition, since they are easy to manufacture), it's got to be hard for McClellan to use this argument with a straight face.

I don't doubt he can do it, but the current media climate is finally making me skeptical that he will be able to get away with it. Four big news weeks coming up for the White House - they need a good June or they could be in big-time trouble.

1 comment:

RBP said...

I know it's fashionable on the left and the right to bash the media, but I think in this case it's warranted. The reason the White House spin machine works so well is that nobody calls them on their BS.

So for instance, when the Duelfer report comes out and says there were no WMD's in Iraq when the US and the UK invaded in March 2003, the president isn't called a liar. The spin is, "the intelligence was wrong." And somehow that sticks.

Or when the 9/11 commission says there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the attacks or any connection to Osama Bin Laden, the White House spin is the news. Intelligence failures are the culprit.

And now we have the Downing Street Memo, confirming what most of the world already believed, that the Bush Administration was fixated on Saddam Hussien, and would find any justification needed to launch an invasion. Didn't we learn all this 18 months ago when Richard Clark and Richard Perle put out their books on the administration? But how big a story is this in the US?

There is a sizable group of people who simply don't care what the US does in the middle east. To them it's all payback for 9/11. They believe this country was chosen by God to rid the world of evil doers. They believe that Bush is the instrument He is using to do this. They see the election in 2000, in which Bush loses the popular vote, but wins the presidency not as one of the quirks of the electoral college system, but divine intervention. These are the true believers, who don't even mind being lied to, because in their minds, the ends justifies the means.