New technology puts fresh spin on U.S. govt spin


  • World
  • Wednesday, 07 Dec 2005

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - From the Strategy for Victory in Iraq to "Recovery Channel" TV on federal disaster relief, the Bush administration's spin operation is in high gear, aiming its message directly at the American public as it critiques the mainstream media. 

There has been plenty to spin: since George W. Bush's August vacation in Texas, when grieving military mother Cindy Sheehan camped outside his Crawford ranch, the president has had to deal with a perceived sluggish federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, the 2,000th U.S. military death in Iraq, the investigation into who leaked a covert CIA operative's name and the indictment of White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby. 

As his job approval rating dipped below 40 percent in a recent Gallup poll, Bush went on the offensive last week, with speeches on the Iraq war -- unveiling a 35-page National Strategy for Victory in Iraq -- immigration and the economy. 

But these addresses are only part of this administration's strategy to shape public opinion. 

The U.S. military last week acknowledged paying Iraqi newspapers to publish pro-American stories written by an "information operations" task force. Then on Monday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blamed the mainstream press for dwelling on "the worst about America and our military." 

This bad news, Rumsfeld told an academic audience, is "reported and spread around the world, often with little context and little scrutiny, let alone correction or accountability after the fact." 

A secretive White House Iraq Group, or WHIG for short, set strategy for selling the Iraq war to the public. The group's work became a focus of the investigation into who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame's name to the media. 

UNNFILTERED MESSAGES 

This is hardly the first U.S. administration bent on getting its unfiltered message to the world. It is not even the first time there has been a WHIG: President Lyndon Johnson had a White House Information Group in the 1960s that aimed to sell the U.S. public on the Vietnam war. 

What may be different is the use of new technologies to sell the president's message, set against this particular administration's generally chilly attitude toward the media, according to Stephen Hess, who has worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations from the 1950s to the 1970s. 

"I don't think they're necessarily better than some past administrations in terms of the spin," said Hess, now a professor at George Washington University. "What they have done which distinguishes them ... is how close-mouthed they are." 

As a result, Hess said, "Their side of the story seems more dominant because at the same time there's not the usual interplay between government and the press." 

The Internet makes it easier now to bypass the Washington media. For example, to get out the government's message on hurricane relief, the Federal Emergency Management Agency offers the Recovery Channel, which can be seen on local government access television stations in the United States. 

Activated periodically for the largest disaster relief operations dating back more than a decade, the Recovery Channel drew some criticism this year for an apparent failure to clearly mark the broadcasts as a government product. 

In streaming video available online at http://www.fc-tv.com/clients/recoverychannel/prime.asx, there are high-gloss pieces on such matters as dealing with children's fears after a disaster, but they feature a crawl at the bottom of the screen showing it is a product of FEMA and the Homeland Security Department. 

Other administration influences in the media have been less clear cut. The Bush administration came under fire earlier this year for paying a conservative commentator to praise its "No Child Left Behind" education policy and for producing video news releases that some television stations aired without identifying their origin. 

"There is a fine and sometimes a stark line between public relations and meaningful information and misinformation and disinformation," said Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter scholar in journalism values at the Florida-based Poynter Institute. "If government officials are disingenuous in the way in which they go about providing information to news organizations or to the public, then that is far from ideal." 

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