May 31, 2002

Is the press in awe of Ari Fleischer?…

Jonathan Chait has written a cogent critique for The New Republic of presidential press secretary Ari Fleisher’s method for answering, or not answering, reporters’ questions in press conferences. He demonstrates that Fleischer manipulates reporters in several “audacious” ways: 1) lying by denying facts or past statements, 2) telling “process non sequiturs,” and 3) refusing to answer based on a shifting set of rules. Chait differentiates between spin–putting the best face on facts–and the “fairly blunt propaganda” Fleischer hands the press (also see the entry for propaganda in the Rhetorica Critical Meter). As Chait writes:

[W]hat Fleischer does, for the most part, is not really spin. It’s a system of disinformation–blunter, more aggressive, and, in its own way, more impressive than spin. Much of the time Fleischer does not engage with the logic of a question at all. He simply denies its premises–or refuses to answer it on the grounds that it conflicts with a Byzantine set of rules governing what questions he deems appropriate. Fleischer has broken new ground in the dark art of flackdom: Rather than respond tendentiously to questions, he negates them altogether.

While I’m largely in agreement with Chait’s critical stance (i.e. what features of Fleisher’s discourse he highlights and why he highlights them), I’m amazed that he implies Fleischer’s tactics are something he inflicts on hapless reporters. In several places in this article, Chait characterizes Fleischer as a “breathtakingly” audacious man who “radiates boundless certainty” that cows reporters into submission. I would suggest that any reporter who cannot prepare well enough to question a press secretary, or who cannot properly deflect flack or follow-up on “fibs” has no business covering the White House.

Far more interesting, I think, is the article as news itself. If Fleischer is lying, then why is the press not reporting it regularly in the way Chait does here? I think the answer is that the press does not see Fleischer’s performance as news in itself. Instead, it is only fodder for analysis after the damage is done. They attend the press conferences seeking information and forget that the process may be the most news worthy item of the day. For that to happen, however, reporters will have to stop being awed by Ari Fleischer and start holding him more accountable for the things he says.

For more on Fleischer, see the Chatterbox column on Slate

May 28, 2002

How to read a typical campaign story…

Howard Fineman writes about presidential advisor and political strategist Karl Rove in the current issue of Newsweek. This story is an excellent example of modern campaign coverage. I cannot legally reproduce it all here, so please jump there now and read it so the following will make sense…All done? Okay…let’s see what’s going on here.

First, notice that this story is focused on personality and campaign strategy. Typical campaign coverage tends to focus on these two elements. The reason for this is that journalism has a narrative bias that leads reporters to frame “stories” as dramas with protagonists and antagonists who act against one another within a plot. The primary importance of a campaign story becomes introducing who the actors are and what they are doing in relation to other actors. The quality of the actors’ actions lead to the goal, which is winning the election.

Next, notice that this “story” ignores the needs of the general public. While it is certainly instructive to demonstrate how politics works, what in this story is useful for the average American voter in making a decision about a presidential election more than two years away? Nothing. Fineman mentions some very important policies but only in the context of political maneuvering. In other words, the personalities and strategies are more important than policy, again typical of modern campaign coverage.

Finally, notice that no sources are named. This is essentailly a one-source story. Since the focus is on Rove, with a mention of Karen Hughes, it is likely that one (or both) of them is the quoted “insider” and “strategist.” In other words, either Rove or Hughes is feeding Fineman some politically charged material for strategic purposes, and Fineman is feeding Newsweek readers as if this were useful information. It is certainly important for the public to understand political strategy, but reporters hinder that understanding when they offer one-sided information.

To be fair to Fineman, I should point out that this piece was published in the “Periscope” section of Newsweek, which they bill as a “heads-up look at scoops, trends, ideas, and people to watch.” So the writing he is doing fits this feature. But the troubling elements of his piece are typical of the kind of coverage we will be seeing beginning next summer when politicians begin formally declaring their intentions to run for president.

May 27, 2002

The “alarming trend” is politics as usual…

Howard Kurtz’s Media Notes column this morning highlights an “alarming trend” in terror alerts: the administration keeps issuing warnings and then complains when the press does its job by questioning them in addition to reporting them. And why shouldn’t the press question them? Ari Fleischer specifically said last week that the rise in warnings was in part a reaction to criticism about how the administration handled the intelligence gathered prior to 9/11. The warnings have been non-specific and horrific. As Kurtz writes:

“In the space of several days, there were reports that another attack on America is almost certain (Dick Cheney), that nuclear weapons will one day be used (Donald Rumsfeld), that suicide bombers are next (FBI chief Robert Mueller) and that the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge could be targets (unnamed officials).”

What are we to believe? I vote for believing Ari Fleischer. There certainly continues to be a terrorist threat. We would be foolish to believe otherwise. But we would be just as foolish to suppose that the Bush administration, or any administration, is above fomenting a little angst among the citizenry in order to redirect mounting criticism. The democratic bargain maintains that winners lead and losers wait. The Republicans would prefer to continue leading. The Democrats are tired of waiting. The press smells a controversy because this situation has the stink of a one-term presidency on it.

May 24, 2002

How to confuse a Superpower…

On Tuesday, Ari Fleischer, presumably speaking for the president, admitted that the recent terror alerts were issued in part because of criticism about how the administration handled intelligence “warnings.” On Wednesday evening, speaking to Larry King on CNN, the vice president emphatically denied that criticism played any role in the alerts. This morning, Jules Witcover takes a look at the disparity between imminent attack and our current state of “yellow” alert. He asks: If there’s more “chatter” in the system, why haven’t we moved to orange alert?

There are some legitimate questions that the administration needs to answer. But what I think we see here in this confusion is, well, confusion. Avoiding open inquiry, a goal of the VP’s recent tactics (see below), merely exacerbates the confusion. We spent the Cold War preparing for conflict with the Soviet Union. Instead, we are faced with well-financed, affluent, “Muslim fundamentalists” willing to fly passenger jets into skyscrapers. How do you deal with that? What we are discovering is that there is no simple answer that will satisfy our sound-bite culture.

May 23, 2002

The danger of softball journalism…

CNN’s Larry King is a successful entertainer. He is not a journalist, although he plays one on his TV show.

Last night he “interviewed” Vice President Dick Cheney. In yesterday’s late entry to Commentary and Analysis (see below), I commented on a Cheney quote from last night’s taped episode. And I wondered if King would challenge Cheney’s outrageous (to use the VP’s word) statement that some members of Congress have suggested that the “president of the United States had fore knowledge of the attack on September 11th.” Name one other than Representative Cynthia McKinney.

Anyone who has ever watched Larry King already knew the answer. Of course he did not challenge the vice president. He let Cheney’s statement stand thereby lending legitimacy to Cheney’s attempt to define Congressional criticism as “despicable” and “outrageous.”

By letting this statement stand unchallenged, King is complicit in Cheney’s deceptive battle of definitions. Complicity in deception should not be the role of a journalist. It is fine for entertainers I suppose. Since King’s show masquerades as journalism, however, his complicity damages civic discourse by misleading his viewers.

May 22, 2002

Fighting the battle of definitions…

Tonight, in a taped interview with Larry King on CNN at 9:00 p.m. EDT, Vice President Cheney will make this remark:

“When members of Congress suggest that the president of the United States had fore knowledge of the attack on September 11th, I think that’s outrageous, that is beyond pale…Somebody needs to say, that ain’t criticism, that’s a gross outrageous political attack, and it’s totally uncalled for.”

I do not recall any reputable member of Congress making any such suggestion. I do recall Representative Cynthia McKinney saying something of the sort. But surely the vice president is not worried about her.

No. This is simply a crass attempt by the vice president–playing on his considerable stature as a reasonable statesman–to taint any criticism of the administration with labels such as “despicable” and “outrageous.” Cheney’s statement attempts to create a fact where none exists. By asserting that such criticism exists, he creates legitimacy for his own response to imagined events. In politics, those who win the battle of definitions win the battle. And Cheney is quite clearly attempting to define Congressional criticism as “despicable” and “outrageous” in order to frustrate attempts to investigate the pre-9/11 situation and to promote a stunted idea of patriotism before the mid-term elections.

Will Larry King challenge Cheney’s statement? Stay tuned and we’ll see…

May 22, 2002

Emotional manipulation…

Aristotle argued that logic should rule the discussion of human affairs, although he realized his contention was idealistic. Emotional appeals move hearts, and hearts move minds.

Last night on television I watched pictures of the Statue of Liberty as some voice told me that terrorists might soon target it for destruction. I was told that it is only a matter of time before terrorists use weapons of mass destruction against the United States.

In the news this morning, I read this:

The Bush administration issued a spate of terror alerts in recent days to mute criticism that its national security team sat on intelligence warnings in the weeks before the September 11 attacks. The warnings, including yesterday’s uncorroborated FBI report that terrorists might target the Statue of Liberty, quieted some of the lawmakers who said President Bush failed to act on clues of the September 11 attacks, although Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle yesterday reiterated his demand for an independent investigation. The latest alerts were issued “as a result of all the controversy that took place last week,” said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, referring to reports that the president received a CIA briefing in August about terror threats, including plans by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network to hijack U.S. commercial airliners. (Washington Times)

To whom should I direct my consternation? At the administration? Perhaps. But are they not playing the game of politics properly by protecting the president? Ari Fleischer did not try to hide this obvious fact of political life. Bush and his aides are fighting back and rightly so. Should I direct my consternation at the press? Perhaps. But are they not doing the job that they are called to do? With the very real possibility of further terrorist action, they would be remiss if they did not report the government’s warnings and comment on those warnings.

I suppose I should direct my consternation at television. This electronic medium amplifies the emotional manipulation of politics by making everything a narrative. Why show me pictures of the Statue of Liberty? It is intact as I write this, so it is not the news. The pictures are, however, the beginning of a story of destruction and national pain. Showing an intact national symbol while weaving a story (based on vague “chatter”) about its possible destruction merely inflames the emotions. I am, however, persuaded by these emotions that we must fight terrorism and remain vigilant, although how we do these things must remain open to reasonable, perhaps even logical, public discourse.

May 20, 2002

Playing politics with 9/11…

Some Democrats and pundits accused the Bush administration of playing politics with 9/11 for offering a photo taken that day as a promotion for political contributions. Some Republicans and pundits accused some Democrats of playing politics by calling for Senate hearings into what Bush knew and when he knew it regarding “warnings” of 9/11. And some of those not involved in these mud fights are standing by the wayside hollering “politics” at both sides.

What does it mean to “play politics”? This is not a simple question with a common sense answer because so much of what it means to play politics is grounded in the points of view of the political actors involved. Further, there are those, like me, who do not believe that human interaction can ever escape rhetoric or politics because nearly everything is rhetorical and political. That’s a fancy way of saying nearly everything it up for negotiation, which requires rhetoric and politics.

Here’s a simple axiom of politics in a republican context: You must win to lead. If you lose, you must wait until your next opportunity to win.

In such a political context, how is it possible not to play politics? That’s a simple question with a simple answer: It’s impossible not to play politics. But, one may certainly play the game with style and grace. While offering a rather mundane photo of a man talking on a telephone seems harmless enough, if the man is the president and the situation is a tense moment on 9/11, grace requires that you think twice about offering it as a promotion for contributions. As for the “Bush Knew” “scandal,” just plug the particulars into the grammar of the preceding sentence.

There is no way not to play politics regarding these situations. So let’s pay particular attention to how and why politics is played (and what language is used to play it). In an election year the goal of winning is always foremost, but it is particularly so this year because the margin in the Senate is so tight. Add to this the fact that presidential campaigns no longer have beginnings and endings; the campaign is ongoing. For Democrats and Republicans alike, these situations hint at presidential vulnerability–hence, the playing of politics.

May 17, 2002

Where’s the beef?…

A staggering amount of intelligence makes its way to the White House every day. Analysts pour over the meaning of ambiguous tidbits looking for patterns and credible threats. This is a difficult job.

In hindsight, it all seems so clear: suspicious students attending flight schools, bin Laden wanting to attack America directly, and terrorists planning to hijack planes. Do these bits really add up to 9/11? Are there more bits?

Since the Watergate hearings, the question that administrations fear is: What did the president know and when did he know it? In the case of these “threats,” this question is probably unfair because this is not a situation Bush created. The events of 9/11 happened to all of us and were beyond our comprehension or control.

The administration did, however, choose not to tell the public about what intelligence it did have–as skimpy or ambiguous as it may have been. So far, we know that Vice President Dick Cheney did allude to such intelligence in a television interview shortly after 9/11 when we were all still reeling in horror. No one picked up on it.

Bush has two problems to face. First, journalists get indignant when politicians do not disclose the whole truth (whatever that is). In this case, this indignation assumes an ease of integrating and interpreting random intelligence that may not be possible even under the best circumstances. Second, Americans value pre-emptive admissions or apologies. As presidential hopeful Gary Bauer said yesterday:

“Anybody who has been in Washington for a while knows that it is not the mistakes that hurt you, it is the effort to hide the mistakes. It would have been much better if early on, the White House had said, ‘Here is what we knew, and we’re shocked that they used airplanes as weapons.'” (Boston Globe)

We need to know what the president knew. But I wonder if any of us would have made different decisions about what to do with the intelligence. We also need to watch the political and journalistic spin. Whether or not this situation is a scandal is determined by how the press and the politicians talk about it. For an opposing party in an election year, anything that hints at vulnerability in their opponents becomes a target. For the press, anything that they thought they should have known, becomes a cover-up scandal.

May 15, 2002

Fund-raising photo creates a smokescreen…

The Bush administration is catching heat for offering a photo of the president, taken on 9/11, as a fund-raising promotion. Donors received the photo, as part of a 3-picture set, when they made a minimum $150 donation at a recent gala for major corporations. While the gesture is certainly in questionable taste, critics should focus their attention elsewhere. For example, as reported in the New York Times:

Among the companies making the top donations of $250,000 each tonight were the the American International Group, Chevron, the El Paso Corporation, Microsoft, Philip Morris and Union Pacific, fund-raisers said. All have issues before the government, and the executives of one, Chevron, were represented by the American Petroleum Institute last year in meetings before Vice President Cheney’s energy task force. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, is a former Chevron executive.

I certainly think that offering the photo politicizes the events of 9/11 in an unsavory way. But, then, political fund-raising is often an unsavory business in which Democrats and Republicans alike find themselves making tasteless decisions to chase the almighty dollar.

The press focuses on drama because it plays well according to the inherent narrative bias of journalism. The photo is the center of drama, and it adds visual tension (and a snippy ethical element) to a “story” that is easily presented and easily digested. And it draws fussy sound-bites from opponents. The important controversy, however, will be found in the thirteenth paragraph of the Times story.

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