The crowning achievement of the Bush administration’s first term was public relations, spin and salesmanship. So how can it be that now, in addition to everything else it has bungled or destroyed, the administration has discredited public relations itself?
Ivy Lee (a.k.a “Poison Ivy”), the “father” of public relations in the early 20th century, pioneered what was then a revolutionary PR strategy: Tell the truth, appear open and thus sympathetic, and move on. For example, Lee counseled the Pennsylvania Railroad – notorious for its refusal to provide information or interviews to reporters, especially after accidents – to admit their mistakes, vow to do better and let newspapers in on the story rather than try to suppress it. He insisted that honesty and directness were better PR tools than deception. That way, of course, as corporations have found ever since, companies could also better manage the flow of information about themselves and more subtly craft their images.
But the Bush “CEO presidency” has used every PR trick in the book – and then some – not to try to put a more favorable spin on events and policies, but to spin flat-out lies into facts. And really, this administration has not been engaging in PR. It’s been engaging in distortions and lies – in other words, propaganda – and has helped blur the line between the two.
And this is not just standard propaganda, as practiced on Voice of America, with motives that, however dubious at times, are transparent. No, this is what has been termed “black propaganda,” a practice that relies on passing false information and deceptions to a targeted group – in this case, the American public. Such psychological warfare was used by several countries in World War II. Japan, for example, dropped pamphlets in the Phillipines – ostensibly written by the U.S. Army – claiming the native women were disease-ridden.
In choosing this approach, the current administration took a nice page out of Bush Senior’s playbook. In 1990, under the coaching of PR firm Hill & Knowlton, the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States posed as “Nayria” during the run-up to “Desert Storm.” She falsely testified before a Congressional caucus that Iraqi soldiers had come into a Kuwaiti hospital with guns, ripped hundreds of babies out of their incubators and left them on the cold floor to die. Not surprisingly, this helped Bush Sr. get the votes he needed for our first military adventure in Iraq.
And now, we have the revelation that Bush himself may have authorized the leak of bogus intelligence information to the press to buttress the sales pitch for invading Iraq.
Scott McClellan’s efforts to spin this make Bill Clinton’s efforts to parse the meaning of “is” seem ingenuous. McClellan argues that even though Bush has been emphatic about denouncing leaks, it was OK for Bush to do it because this leak was in the interest of national security. Passing misinformation that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons to the likes of Times reporter Judy Miller did not “compromise national security,” McClellan insisted in an April 8 press briefing.
In light of the subsequent diversion of Americans’ attention away from al Qaeda and toward Iraq, the unnecessary deaths of our soldiers, the rise in terrorism in the region and the engorged hatred of Americans that resulted from the invasion, it seems fair to say Bush’s actions had a devastating effect on national security.
So why is there not a much more outraged and robust movement for impeachment?
Of course, the quick answer is that Republicans control the House and Senate. Still, (through a clear failure of imagination) I never thought anyone in my lifetime would be worse than Nixon, but Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld actually are. Lying to Congress and the public in order to invade Iraq, illegally spying on and wiretapping Americans, authorizing torture and renditions, trying to strip Americans of their rights by seeking to detain people without access to legal counsel, the indefinite detention of non-citizens against whom no formal specific charges have been made and, possibly, leaking the name of a CIA operative all seem to be worthy of impeachment hearings. But that’s just the propaganda of the left, right?
Here we see the deeper reason that calls for censure and impeachment are floundering. One of the deep consequences of the relentless Bush propaganda is that millions of people now struggle daily to figure out what actually are facts and what is spin. In this environment, everything is spin, and laws and facts are cast as debatable, mere opinions. Everything is partisan, everything “framed.”
Team Bush has not just discredited itself by over-reaching on the propaganda front, allowing reporters, bloggers and activists to repeatedly reveal them as congenital liars and hypocrites. They have contaminated public debate by implying that there is never any truth to be known.
“The most fun and accessible introduction to socialist ideas I’ve ever read.”—Anand Gopal
For a limited time, when you donate $20 or more to support In These Times, we’ll send you a copy of the new, expanded edition of Socialism ... Seriously by Danny Katch.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.