Spin, Or Worse?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 9, 2005; 11:24 AM

When people accuse the Bush White House of excessive spinning--the harshest critics use the L-word--I sometimes wonder if they remember anything that happened before 2001.

Some Clinton White House aides could spin faster than a top, especially in the face of multiple scandals. Bush I reneged on no new taxes. The Reagan White House was state-of-the-art when it came to message management, creative use of visuals and explaining away factual blunders by the president. Each administration builds on the news-manipulation techniques of its predecessors.

Still, we're approaching critical mass in terms of the debate over the Bush administration's veracity: WMD. Paying off pundits. Bogus news releases. Planting stories in Iraqi papers. Plamegate and the promise to fire anyone involved. Condi's tortured explanations of what constitutes torture and whether the United States is engaged in it.

Not to mention a president who rarely meets the press, at least in full-blown news conferences.

But is this substantially different from the self-serving reality peddled by previous administrations or different only in degree? Does it seem worse because of the passions surrounding the war and the polarization over Bush? Or will the anti-Bush partisans have a more tolerant view if a future Democratic president engages in factual flimflammery?

One strike against the administration is the people who leave (Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke) and then offer evidence of dishonesty of their former employer. Do some Bush loyalists, as an unnamed White House aide told journalist Ron Suskind, believe that reporters and others are members of the "reality-based community"? ("We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.") Or do we have to wait for more memoirs to find out?

Slate Editor Jake Weisberg tries to make the case that the Bush approach is far, far worse:

"A calculated and systematic effort to manage public opinion, it transcends mere lying and routine political dishonesty. When the Bush administration manufactures fake 'news,' suppresses real news, disguises the former as the latter, and challenges the legitimacy of the independent press, it corrodes trust in leaders, institutions, and, to the rest of the world, the United States as a whole . . .

"For the Bush team, rolling-your-own news has the further advantage of supporting the revolving-door conservative welfare state that has flourished in five years of expanding, undivided government. The administration's need to outsource its propaganda work--for reasons of deniability, not efficiency--has promoted the emergence of a new kind of PR-industrial complex in the nation's capital. Outfits like the Ketchum's Washington Group, the shadowy Lincoln Group, and the even more flourishing, even more shadowy Rendon Group are the parasitic fruit not just of unchecked self-puffery but of a lucrative new patronage network.

"In a way, what's most troubling about the Bush's administration's information war is not its cynicism but its naivet. At phony town hall meetings, Bush's audiences are hand-picked to prevent any possibility of spontaneous challenge. At fake forums, invited guests ask the president to pursue his previously announced policies. New initiatives are unveiled on platforms festooned with meaningless slogans, mindlessly repeated ('Plan for Victory'). Anyone on the inside who doubts the party line is shown the door. In this environment, where the truth is not spoken privately or publicly, the suspicion grows that Bush, in his righteous cocoon, has committed the final, fatal sin of the propagandist. He is not just spreading BS but has come to believe it himself."

Another example of the administration's approach to press relations has given us a new phrase: "reporter compensation." Which sounds suspiciously to me like payoffs:

"A U.S. investigation into allegations that the American military is buying positive coverage in the Iraqi media has expanded to examine a press club founded and financed by the U.S. Army," says USA Today .

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