I am not sure when the Bush administration realized it had a media problem. The White House was humming along with a well-oiled media management machine. The president was riding high in the polls. He clearly had the country behind him. And yet, something wasn't working on the world stage, even after savvy handlers turned a politician denigrated as a bumbler into a more self-assured and even inspiring leader. Their media makeover was as meticulous as the makeup applied to movie stars playing monsters.
The turning point had come early on, with W.'s well-crafted speech to the U.S. Congress, which plainly had been designed with applause lines in mind and stirring but measured phrases. He had mastered the TelePrompTer and was well-practiced in his delivery. It worked: One day he was laughed at as a global village idiot, the next he was hailed by the same pundits, on the strength of one performance piece, as a statesman par excellence.
Hungry for a leader, the American people rallied behind his call for unity, alertness and patriotic patience. There were some murmurs about the mixed message that on the one hand counseled vigilance and, on the other, shopping as usual. Overseas, some eyebrows went down when phrases like "crusade" and "smoking out the evil ones" were dropped from his rhetorical lexicon.
But a serious communications problem remained, because of a more objective problem: Many realists, especially in other countries, weren't clear that bombing and bombast could bring terrorists to heel. Those issues began to be raised by skeptics and even comics.
In response, the White House seems to have taken three steps.
First, keep critics off the air. (And not just videos of bin Laden or Al-Jazeera, which "coincidentally" had its Kabul office bombed). It soon became clear that the media were allocating little space for domestic critics, much less harder-line opponents, of the policy. While administration officials condemned the ideological fundamentalism of the Taliban, a certain ideological intolerance began to be practiced in the homeland media. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), noted on November 2 that 44 columns in the Washington Post and New York Times stressed a military response, with only two that suggested diplomatic and international law approaches.
Second, bring the press on board. The American media empires soon seemed to be marching in lockstep with the government. Despite a tightening of information policies and the total exclusion of reporters from most battlefields, nary a critical word heard from many of those who have been loudest in defense of freedom of the press. Even a champion of freedom of the press like Walter Cronkite said he was willing to countenance a censorship board of some kind, if camera crews were allowed in. (They weren't and his proposal went nowhere.)
The media is going along to get along. Will government media managers soon boast about what a great job they did as they did 10 years ago in the aftermath of Desert Storm? Then, Michael Deaver, President Reagan's PR honcho, was ecstatic, contending, "If you were to hire a public relations firm to do the media relations for an international event, it couldn't be done any better than this is being done." Hodding Carter, President Jimmy Carter's former chief flack, seconded the emotion: "If I were the government, I'd be paying the press for the coverage it's getting."
Yet the press and this was a television story above all else did not have to be paid. Pete Williams, the man who "handled" media for the Pentagon during the Gulf War and was rewarded with a job on NBC News, put his finger on it: "The reporting," he boasted to his superiors, "has been largely a recitation of what administration people have said, or an extension of it." Is this true today? Not totally. Happily, there are still some exceptions, like Seymour Hersh, who catch the Pentagon in blatant lies, as happened recently in conflicting stories about casualties U.S. troops suffered on the ground.
Third, get the West Coast studios to jump in. On the day this column was written, media moguls and movie studio heads strategized with White House aide Karl Rove on how they can do even more than they already have to boost the war effort. Tom Cruise, star of Mission: Impossible, and a sequel in the works, is just one star who has met with the CIA and according to MSNBC.com, "He was emphatic about presenting the CIA in as positive a light as possible."
The military is quietly infiltrating Hollywood as well. The little-known Institute for Creative Studies at the University of Southern California brings top Hollywood talent into secret contact with top military officials. The think tank received funding of $45 million from the U.S. Army in 1999. According to The Sunday Herald, "One of the few members named publicly, by the Hollywood newspaper Daily Variety, is Steven de Souza, co-writer of the hit 1988 action movie Die Hard." Michael Macedonia of the Army's Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command said: "You're talking about screenwriters and producers. These are very brilliant, creative people. They can come up with fascinating insights very quickly."
While movieland is key because of its global reach, the cooperation of the TV networks is vital for the engineering of consent on the domestic front. The networks have their own reasons to cooperate. Remember that while war unleashes devastation and death on people, it delivers ratings and brings life to television. War is often the "big story" (when sex isn't) and a defining moment for many journalists. It's the story that permits news departments to mobilize their "troops" that's what ABC called employees when I worked there and show off their high-tech deployments. Many reporters who make it to the top do so because of war reporting. Ask Peter Arnett, Cristianne Amanpour or even Peter Jennings no disrespect intended if being under fire helped or hurt their careers. The answer is obvious. Less obvious is the relationship between our bloated defense budget and war coverage. The Pentagon uses and manipulates TV's military boosterism to hype adventures, secure appropriations and sell weaponry.
The problem in an age of globalization is that harnessing domestic media is no longer enough. The fact is that coverage outside the United States seeps back in, and despite the government's media strategists, is growing more critical and less cheerleading by the day. Growing skepticism in influential media outlets overseas is worrying to policy-makers here. On November 11, the front page of The New York Times carried a long piece on "the battle to shape opinion," reporting on the Bush administration's new strategies. The article acknowledges that the administration has enforced "policies ensuring that journalists have little or no access to independent information about military strategies, successes and failures."
But it also notes that public opinion worldwide, led in part by the press, increasingly opposes U.S. policies. The Arab press is hostile. The Asian media, unconvinced. Over 60 percent of the people in Tony Blair's Britain, the only real partner the U.S. has in its leaky coalition, say they want a bombing pause. Half of Italy agrees. The German press is critical. I know because I have been interviewed by many media outlets in that country. Reports the Times, with understated candor way at the bottom of a story that consumed an acre of print, "European journalists have also become suspicious that the American news media have been co-opted by the government or at least swept up by patriotism." One German calls this a "Post Vietnam Patriotic Syndrome." To massage this problem, the Bush administration has hired PR firms and created a task force for coordinating U.S. and UK communications directors with daily conference calls between the White House, London and Islamabad.
So far, there is no evidence that this PR offensive is working internationally. In fact, a growing number of Americans are looking for news and information elsewhere, from the very sources that alarm Bush media strategists. NPR reports that American are flocking to foreign web sites while England's BBC and Canada's CBC report a big spike in viewing by Americans. Our own Globalvision News Network is generating considerable traffic by offering articles and analysis from other countries. Clearly, other viewpoints are there for those willing to look for them. I was delighted to find Vanity Fair this month quoting me on this very issue (p.182). (Sadly, Brad Pitt, not your News Dissector, made the cover, probably because of his more impressive abs.)
In the Soviet Union, most of its citizens didn't trust the state-managed press, fully aware of its propaganda function. In the U.S., most people tend to trust the press, unaware of its role in what Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman call "manufacturing consent." I heard Max Robins of TV Guide report that news viewing is way up. True enough, but skepticism is rising on both the right and the left and is likely to erupt in the mainstream sooner rather than later.
I hope that it is not too late for the U.S. media establishment to get the message, distance themselves from "official sources" and "coded" propaganda and seek out more diverse sources of information.
Danny Schechter is the executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His latest book is "News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics, 1960-2000," from Akashic Books. Feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org