Will Guzzardi ’09: The spin doctor’s miracle cure

Friday, October 21, 2005

The masters of media manipulation have done it again.

You’d think the Republicans would be in some pretty hot water. First came Katrina, literally and figuratively the perfect storm. Then, of course, came the news about Tom DeLay. Not that it’s really news – he’s been a known ethics violator for virtually his entire political career, and especially so in the last five years. But with his formal indictment on charges of money laundering and the loss of his post as House majority leader, you’d think these days would be pretty grim for the GOP, too.

Most recently, news broke of the scandal-ridden withdrawal of the administration’s nominee for deputy attorney general. Timothy Flanigan’s nomination to the second-highest post in the Justice Department sank in a whirlpool of allegations, primarily of illicit dealings with corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Flanigan was negotiating with Abramoff on behalf of his current company, the bastion of justice that is Tyco International.

But you probably won’t have heard much about this last story, and that’s because the P.R. wizards have already won. Recently, the administration that makes spins more than a bottle at a slumber party delivered perhaps its finest work of media magic yet: Harriet Miers.

I can’t stand it when people accuse our president of being stupid. Look no further than this nomination. Although she was Bush’s personal lawyer for many years, Miers’ only bench experience comes from weight rooms and parks. This leaves her views on crucial issues wide open for speculation – speculation with which every major newspaper in the country is willingly filling its pages.

Sure, Bush is taking some flak from the left for blatant cronyism and from the far right for not appointing a known abortion clinic bomber. But barring some kind of political miracle, Miers will be confirmed for lack of any grounds to do otherwise, and in the meantime, she’ll bump Katrina, DeLay, Flanigan and other political bad news to page two.

One of the pieces of “other bad news” that’s been lost to the Miers nomination has a poetic sort of irony to it. The Government Accountability Office released a report several weeks ago upbraiding the administration for literally buying news. Among other blatantly illegal moves mentioned in the report was the taping last year of short TV spots anchored by a woman named Karen Ryan. The government paid Ryan to speak highly of its education and health care policies, and the filmed spots were then sent to and aired on stations across the country without any mention of the government’s involvement. The same was done with various columns and talk show appearances by conservative pundit Armstrong Williams. The administration also paid journalist Jeff Gannon to ask soft questions during press conferences, allowing Bush, Rumsfeld and the gang to serve up their well-worn rhetoric instead of addressing the real crises. We were essentially getting state-sponsored news, except without any disclaimers.

These tactics are both illegal – explicitly violating a ban on “covert propaganda,” according to the GAO – and highly odious. Moreover, they get at the heart of how the Bush administration was able to duck so many political blows in the past five years. When it’s not purchasing stories outright, it’s been able to manipulate the media enough to cover its mistakes. At times, it’s had to exaggerate, alter or flat-out lie about the news. In other circumstances, it’s generated catchy sound bites like “flip-flopper,” “axis of evil” or “war on terror,” then pounded this jargon du jour into the news by having various aides and flunkies say it 50 times a day on camera.

And when things get extra-bad, the White House just generates a more exciting news story to divert everyone’s attention. Stunts like the Miers nomination should come as no surprise – the very same Supreme Court nominee trick saved Karl Rove’s political career just a few months ago. This kind of timely newsmaking is one of the administration’s most effective and most used damage control tools.

I’m not sure if Bush can dodge the bullet that seemed headed for his administration and his party. But if our president, an elite New England-born Ivy Leaguer, can spin himself into an average Joe Texan ranchero that Middle America could have beers and watch the game with, I’m convinced the man can do anything.

Will Guzzardi ’09 has size 16 feet.

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