How do you manipulate the media? It's easy. Tell them the truth.
The trick is to dress up the obvious and make it seem new. And don't lose any chance to get the message out.
Here's an example of political mind control most people don't notice, or if they do, don't think much about. When a political ad is broadcast, the Federal Communications Act requires it to include what's known as the "authority line." That's the name of the campaign committee or other group sponsoring the ad, and it can reveal whether a campaign is really on the ball. Look at it this way: If you have to devote four or five seconds in a 30-second spot to the name of the campaign committee, why waste that propaganda opportunity on something as boring as "Paid for by Friends of Joe Blow?"
One of my first jobs in politics was to dream up the committee name for a congressional candidate in Florida. The target audiences for our campaign were retirees and middle-class voters, so our authority line read, "Senior Citizens and Working Families for Joe Blow." The idea was to pound that name--and its implication--into the heads of everyone who heard our spots or saw our literature. (Footnote for those congratulating me on my cleverness: We lost.)
The public thinks politicians lie all the time, but the really successful ones understand the judicious use of truth. That's how George W. Bush earned the bragging rights he currently enjoys in his party's presidential nomination contest.
As everyone knows by now, Bush fund-raisers made political history by raking in slightly over $36 million in the Federal Election Commission reporting period ending July 1. This accomplishment has dominated the political news ever since, and made the Texas governor the all-but-certain GOP nominee.
Not content with just breaking all fund-raising records, the Bush campaign played games to heighten the story's drama. In the wake of the headlines, a campaign spokesman acknowledged deliberately allowing reporters to use drastically understated figures in stories published the day before the official release. That made the real amount, when it was announced, seem even more astonishing.
That same spokesman later lost his job. It would be nice to think he got fired for being duplicitous--which is how some in the Bush campaign tried to spin that story. If Gov. Bush seeks to present himself as so concerned about reporters' needs, though, he may have set himself a standard he'll have trouble meeting in the future.
To spin or not to spin? That is the question. Reporters don't like to think they can be fooled.
The Clinton White House knows this--sometimes. Like all its recent predecessors, the Clinton staff has made "communications" a top priority. Other times, though, the lawyers' desire to protect one or both of the First Couple from legal dangers has taken precedence.
When the communicators prevail, it's obvious they're remembering the lesson of Watergate, which is that you get in trouble over the coverup, not the crime. Damage control takes the form of a document dump, instead of stonewalling. We can't look like Nixon, someone will say. We'll put out the worst stuff ourselves, and then explain (off the record, of course) why it's not so bad. The assumption is that the press won't work too hard reading between the lines.
An oddity of the times that we in the trade sometimes make use of is that the media frequently make a story out of the spinning process itself. Look, the reporters say, this is how we were or are being spun. And then they proceed, without apparent embarrassment, to do pretty much what the spinners intended. A politician goes somewhere photogenic--sometimes at eyebrow-raising expense--to have the appropriate background for an announcement (the Grand Canyon for an environmental statement, a flag factory when patriotism is the theme of the day). All the stories will point out that the only reason for the trip was to have the pretty picture in the papers or on TV. And they will all print or broadcast the pretty picture, which is most likely what people will remember.
When the true Bush fund-raising totals were released, the media spent several days reporting about the reporting. It was like watching a washing machine made out of clear plastic--everyone could see the spin cycle. But to understand what happened, you need to see even deeper into the machinery.
One of the best ways to spin reporters is to help them sound like experts, and one of the best ways to prime the pump for your candidate is to brief reporters on "expert information" that helps set up the story you want them to write.
You could see this technique at work in getting out the story of Bush's fund-raising triumph. The Bush campaign stressed how much President Clinton and Vice President Gore had raised in a comparable period four years ago. If Clinton-Gore raised a record $20 million, and they got started fund-raising earlier in the year than we did, said the Bush campaign, anything we do that approaches that total will be just as historic. The press loves historical anchors, and that factoid found its way into many of the stories leading up to the release of the Bush fund-raising totals.
Sometimes, someone will trip up and say something that reveals the hidden wires of the propaganda machinery. The New York Times account of June 30 included the spun version of the Bush news--that his total the next day would be "at least $20 million." But it also included a telltale fact that anyone who can do political math should have noticed. "In Texas alone," the story said, "the Bush campaign has raised $11 million, one supporter said today."
Similarly, the Washington Post story that day said, "Bush's already formidable bank account was likely to be significantly larger by the end of today, with the candidate still in the midst of a three-day California tour expected to raise more than $4 million."
Let me see, I thought. Eleven million in Texas, $4 million in California, they're saying the total will be around $20 million. So in the rest of the country they raised just $5 million? As I believe they say down in Texas--or is it Arkansas?--that dog won't hunt.
Considering the Republicans' demonstrated fund-raising prowess, their habit of anointing front-runners and the booming stock market, it shouldn't have been a big surprise that a Republican front-runner who is also an oil man from Texas was able to raise boatloads of money.
Yet the news of Bush's $36 million took Washington by storm. In part, this reflects the media's fascination with wealth, power and Texas--call it the "Dallas" syndrome--but it also grew out of another textbook case of media manipulation. In the months leading up to the FEC filing, Bush made front-page news by not campaigning for president. He stayed in Texas, met with advisers and fund-raisers, and refused interviews from the national press. By the time the FEC filing deadline approached, the media were starved for a big story. So the fund-raising record, which would have made a big splash anyway, made an even bigger one.
The Bush people may be happy to talk about their fund-raising, but the candidate remains cagey on other things. His policy ideas are still a little thin and he's been, well, selective in talking about his past. (When reporters ask a question he doesn't want to answer, he tells them he won't play their "game" by talking about personal matters.)
James Carville, vice president for spin in the Clinton campaign, used to tell his colleagues in the Clinton war room to "feed the beast" as often as possible. By contrast, Bush seems to favor a starvation diet for the media, with occasional sweets. It seems to be working. But the day will come when they're clamoring for meat--and we'll see what happens.
William Klein has been a political consultant for 20 years, working for candidates for president, Senate, House and local office, as well as for major nonprofit and environmental groups.