The Big Idea

Beyond Spin

The propaganda presidency of George W. Bush.

A frequent complaint about the Clinton administration was that it tried too hard to “spin” everything in its own favor. Clinton’s spin doctors had a variety of individual styles but shared a grating habit of relentlessly coloring the news to support their side in any argument. George Stephanopoulos, with whom the technique was closely identified, once defined spin as “a hope dressed up as an observation.” In practice, Clinton-era spinning meant that officials seldom conceded the obvious or acknowledged losing, failing, or being wrong about anything.

George W. Bush arrived in Washington avowing an end to all that. He promised he would never parse, shade, or play nice with the truth the way that Clinton had. But if Bush has shunned spinning, it has been in favor of something far more insidious. If the Clintonites were inveterate spinners, the Bushies have proved themselves to be thoroughgoing propagandists.

Though propaganda and spin exist on a continuum, they are different in essence. To spin is to offer a contention, usually specious, in response to a critical argument or a negative news story. It does not necessarily involve lying or misleading anyone about factual matters. Habitual spin is irksome, especially to the journalists upon whom it is practiced, but it does not threaten democracy. Propaganda is far more malignant. A calculated and systematic effort to manage public opinion, it transcends mere lying and routine political dishonesty. When the Bush administration manufactures fake “news,” suppresses real news, disguises the former as the latter, and challenges the legitimacy of the independent press, it corrodes trust in leaders, institutions, and, to the rest of the world, the United States as a whole.

Propaganda is the only word for the Pentagon’s recently exposed secret efforts to plant positive stories in the Iraqi press. There is, to be sure, precedent for the U.S. funding democratically-minded foreign journalists, both clandestinely through the CIA and openly through agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. Covert funding is both ethically indefensible and, in most cases, practically counterproductive. In the Cold War context, however, such efforts were often aboveboard and directed toward supporting courageous independent media and opposition voices in repressive countries.

In the Iraq cash-for-flacks scheme, on the other hand, the Pentagon did something simply stupid and wrong by hiring a propaganda-making firm called the Lincoln Group to cultivate an impression of grass-roots support for the American occupation. In this greenhouse, the gardeners did not just water and fertilize the seedlings; they handed out plastic flowers and hoped no one would notice they weren’t real. American operatives paid Iraqi journalistic mercenaries to publish a farrago of puffery and outright misrepresentation. Here’s my favorite quote from the Nov. 30 Los Angeles Times piece that exposed this operation: “Zaki [an Iraqi newspaper editor] said that if his cash-strapped paper had known that these stories were from the U.S. government, he would have ‘charged much, much more’ to publish them.”

As with the torture and rendition scandals, Bush administration officials are sorry about this only because they got caught doing it. Look at Donald Rumsfeld’s Dec. 5 response: The only blame he assigns is to the international news media, which has “pounded” the revelations. With one wave of the hand, Rummy excuses the government’s ham-fisted propaganda effort and expresses his dripping contempt for genuine journalists, who in his mind are eternally spreading negativity, undermining support for the war on terror, and compromising military security. Like his colleagues in Bush’s war council, Rummy indicates with every gesture that he simply does not accept the legitimate role of a free press.

According to a recent report in the British press, Bush last year proposed bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters to Tony Blair. This may or may not have been a joke, but given our military’s record of accidental assaults on journalists in Iraq, it’s not impossible to imagine that the president thinks smart-bombing would be a good way to respond to hostile coverage. At home, it’s more a matter of freezing out and anathematizing organs, such as the New York Times, that are deemed unfriendly, while promulgating his own, dubious version of reality. The familiar litany of the administration’s domestic disinformation efforts includes the Department of Education paying Armstrong Williams to defend the No Child Left Behind Act, HHS hiring Maggie Gallagher to promote its “marriage initiative,” and both agencies sending local TV stations prepackaged pseudo-news videos advocating administration policies. Any of these incidents might be excused as an episode of poor judgment by an underling. In combination and accompanied by various presidential comments about not reading the newspaper, preferring to get his news from aides, and so on, they suggest a propaganda ethic.

For the Bush team, rolling-your-own news has the further advantage of supporting the revolving-door conservative welfare state that has flourished in five years of expanding, undivided government. The administration’s need to outsource its propaganda work—for reasons of deniability, not efficiency—has promoted the emergence of a new kind of PR-industrial complex in the nation’s capital. Outfits like the Ketchum’s Washington Group, the shadowy Lincoln Group, and the even more flourishing, even more shadowy Rendon Group are the parasitic fruit not just of unchecked self-puffery but of a lucrative new patronage network.

In a way, what’s most troubling about the Bush’s administration’s information war is not its cynicism but its naiveté. At phony town hall meetings, Bush’s audiences are hand-picked to prevent any possibility of spontaneous challenge. At fake forums, invited guests ask the president to pursue his previously announced policies. New initiatives are unveiled on platforms festooned with meaningless slogans, mindlessly repeated (“Plan for Victory”). Anyone on the inside who doubts the party line is shown the door. In this environment, where the truth is not spoken privately or publicly, the suspicion grows that Bush, in his righteous cocoon, has committed the final, fatal sin of the propagandist. He is not just spreading BS but has come to believe it himself.