Nose-Ringed No More

BY Susan J. Douglas

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The Bush media management methods--speaking before only pre-selected audiences, stonewalling in the face of criticism--finally appear to be wearing thin.

This is the summer of Bush’s discontent. The more he tries to project that everything is just A-OK, the more ridiculous he looks. His bike ride with members of the press on his beloved ranch in Crawford, in which he said he had thought about Cindy Sheehan’s request to see him but that now “it’s also important for me to go on with my life,” has moved alongside Tom Cruise’s sofa-jumping as one of the summer’s more embarrassing public moments. It then got out that while Iraqis missed the deadline for agreeing on a constitution, and more Americans were dying there, Bush was going to attend a Little League game, fish, hang with Condi and take a nap.

The Bush media management methods–speaking before only pre-selected audiences, stonewalling in the face of criticism, trying to change the subject by showing the president clearing brush–finally appear to be wearing thin. Some of this stems from long-simmering exasperation among journalists about Team Bush’s media manipulation. But some of it is also “The Daily Show” effect, which has played a key role in moving us from a post-9/11 media environment to, for lack of a better term, a post-post-9/11 media milieu.

The post-9/11 era of cowed, ring-in-the-nose journalism lasted until the summer of 2003, when it was clear that “shock and awe” had not been a lasting success and no WMDs had been found. The major turning point may have occurred on May 1, 2003, when Bush flew in, Top Gun style, onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major combat in Iraq with the “Mission Accomplished” banner as a backdrop. It was too much–too obviously choreographed, down to the jumpsuit and the camera angles designed not to show how close the carrier was to San Diego. Like a magic trick that defies perception, the spectacle was so bald that viewers wanted to know how it was done–and thus it contained the seeds of its own undoing.

The post-9/11 media environment further evolved into the post-post-9/11 milieu in the summer of 2004, when the 9/11 hearings and a spate of anti-Bush exposés further emphasized the gap between Team Bush assertions and the facts. This summer’s press briefing about Karl Rove’s possible role in leaking the identity of Valerie Plame, in which the White House press corps savaged Scott McClellan, prompted Jon Stewart to quip that the press corps had been replaced by real journalists.

Witness the recent changes on CNN. Now even Lou Dobbs, who rants regularly about illegal immigration and political correctness, has begun to express outrage over presidential incompetence and corporate greed. On August 8, when reporting on the signing of the energy bill, Dobbs noted that “While energy companies are set to receive those massive tax breaks and reap what are nothing less than windfall profits, American consumers are being squeezed by the rising price of gasoline.” On August 11, he denounced the “abject failure” of the command staff of the military in Iraq and asked, “How is it that this–that the top Pentagon officials are allowed to continue, if you will, to speak in such circular and obfuscatory terms?”

Dobbs interviewed Dick Gephardt about the future of America’s labor unions and actually said, “The ironic and tragic thing to me is that at a time when employees need every kind of help they can find in this country, in nearly every industry at all levels, organized labor cannot find traction or a way in which to engage them, or to find a role for itself in a relationship with employers.” This was followed by “And as we see jobs being outsourced in this country, wages have been static in this country for just about three decades, as you well know.”

Dobbs is no fool–he has grasped the post-post-9/11 media milieu and appears to be cobbling together a conservative populism that blends right wing cultural values with an anti-corporate and, increasingly, anti-Bush stance.

The Bush PR machine is continuing to win, so far, on some spin games, especially on Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, whom we are repeatedly told was merely working for others, so we can’t possibly know what he might do on his own on the court. But putting Bush out there is no longer working so well (especially with Cindy Sheehan just down the road). According to an August Gallup poll, his approval rating is 45 percent, the lowest at this point in his term of any president since WWII. Nearly six in 10 oppose the war in Iraq.

The post-post-9/11 media milieu has been fueled by, but has also helped bring about these shifts. But we are in a new phase of the standoff between this increasingly unpopular presidency and an embattled and discredited news media. It will be interesting to see where the new milieu takes us.


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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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