Monday, October 31, 2005

Getting Our Priorities Straight

Northeastern University journalism prof Dan Kennedy recently lamented last Friday as "a dark day for journalism," citing concerns that Patrick Fitzgerald's indictment of Lewis Libby "blasted an enormous hole right through" journalists' right not to reveal anonymous sources. Here's how he summed up the broader implications:
Short of a national shield law -- something that seems unlikely to pass -- the reporter's privilege has now gone from tenuous to nonexistent. Perhaps some good will come out of this: A source will think very, very hard before he uses a reporter's promise of anonymity to engage in criminal behavior.

More likely, though, Fitzgerald's crusade will make it harder for journalists -- and journalism -- to expose the truth.
As further evidence of the widespread erosion of protection for journalists, Kennedy cites the case of Providence, RI television reporter Jim Taricani, who was sentenced to house arrest last year for refusing to identify who gave him a surveillance tape of a city official taking a bribe. Taricani and Judith Miller were both detained for protecting anonymous sources who may have violated the law by divulging information to the media. I agree that "exposing the truth" is a pressing imperative for the profession of journalism and the public interest, but firm distinctions must be made as to whether the crime in question is serious enough to warrant compromising journalists' anonymity prerogative.

Threatening journalists with jailtime for withholding sources is not something that should be done lightly. Reporters need to know that they can feel relatively free to rely on anonymous sources to supply sensitive information when on-the-record corroboration is unavailable. The adoption of a clear standard of when legal action may be brought against journalists, which would probably include capital and national security crimes, would help them understand the relative precedence of legal and journalistic priorities. While the media's right to protect anonymity is important, there are other imperatives that can and should supersede it, and the decisions about what should trump what and when should only come at the end of a vigorous public debate.

Interesting endnote: the sources in Kennedy's two cases both claimed that they either never bound their respective reporters to any confidentiality promises or that they unbound them before punitive action was taken. Two observations immediately spring to mind: one, that perhaps Kennedy's fears of a significantly compromised media are slightly overblown; and two, that holding journalists to strict confidence even in the face of imprisonment would be in most cases an extremely selfish position--and in any event, a fairly rare one.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Hence The Prepositive 'Former'

Always warms my heart to see former senator (R-MO) and UN ambassador John Danforth continuing his string of broadsides against the Christian right's influence on the GOP, which he did at the University of Arkansas Wednesday. Good on ya Johnny, but the party's not buying it--they're too busy soliciting votes and contributions from the right's lunatic fringe, and that won't stop until said fringe wises up and figures out how they're being exploited. Considering their political alternatives, that doesn't seem particularly likely in the near future.

Do Leaky Boats Always Sink?

Wal-Mart, like any good ruthless multinational, is always looking for new ways to cut costs. I don't think many people were surprised at the contents of a recently leaked internal memo that suggests, among other things, "discouraging unhealthy people from working at Wal-Mart" and shifting workers to low-premium, high-deductible health insurance plans. Maybe these are sensible options from a business standpoint and maybe they're not, but they certainly don't do much to improve the company's public image. This article is currently (as of midday Oct. 27, 2005) the #1 most emailed NYT piece, so word is spreading far and fast, and I can't imagine the top brass is happy about it.

See, Wal-Mart's been spending lots of money and resources on public diplomacy initatives like NPR sponsorship, the website, its eight community-relations offices across the country, and high-profile Katrina relief efforts. All this PR is aimed at convincing the American public that the world's largest corporation actually cares about the little people--and then a memo implying the exact opposite hits media front pages. There's no way to verify this, but I'm guessing that the bang/buck ratio is much higher for this little revelation than for all Wal-Mart's PR efforts combined. Information not intended for public consumption is presumed to be much more indicative of an organization's "true" inner workings than its public image, which suggests that a single inopportune leak can have a more significant effect on public opinion than months of steady propaganda inundation.

However, this isn't always the case. Consider the Downing Street Memo--widely cited as a "smoking gun" of the Bush Administration's premature intent to invade Iraq by antiwar critics, war supporters and the American public mostly discounted or ignored it. It's tough to say why, though: the media's reluctance to follow through on the story undoubtedly contributed, as did the administration's refusal to comment. Another factor may have been that Democrats had been hurling allegations of intelligence misuse for over a year before the memo surfaced, so it may have simply seemed like more of the same to casual observers. But it's also possible that many Americans either refused to believe (out of naiveté) or didn't care (due to faith in democratization through violence) that their government would lie to them about something as serious as war. If this last point has any merit, it would seem that we're better at calling out duplicity in corporate boardrooms than we are at seeing it in the White House in wartime. Why that is, I can't say.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Why Public Image Matters Mk. Umpteen

It affects the bottom line, as underscored by this article in the NYT. Here's Keith Reinhard, president of Business for Diplomatic Action, on why people in other countries are hesitating to buy American:

Q. Is the war in Iraq driving the negativity?

A. That's one of four root causes. Another is the arrogance, ignorance and insensitivity of American people. A third reason for anti-American sentiment is the pervasiveness of American pop culture. We're not the only source of "cool" anymore. And the fourth reason is the effects of globalization. In developing countries, they resent the fact that American-led globalization has, in their minds, left them out.

Effective PR can help, but actual action is always best. Fortune 500 CEOs, I'm looking at y'all.

Monday, October 24, 2005

When The Right Gets It Right

No matter how tightly an ideological coalition is managed, dissent eventually takes root, and when it does there's little chance of stopping it. Over the past month we've borne witness to a torrent of right-on-right criticism on FEMA's response to Katrina, the Miers nomination, and now the administration's Middle East policies, specifically Iraq. Objections such as those recently raised by former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former State Dept. chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson will sound familiar to those of us who opposed the war from the start. But while commentators like Matt Yglesias are content to warn against praising these strange bedfellows too effusively, Crooked Timber's Henry Farrell hits the nail on the head by noting that the publicity of these conservative schisms is an indicator of the movement's thorough internal decay. The dissenters are voicing their complaints now because things have gotten so out of hand that basic ideological principles are beginning to supersede the benefits of loyalty. They certainly aren't looking to curry favor with liberals, so there's not much point discussing how much "credit" we should or should not give them for realizing what we've known all along. Best to acknowledge these admittedly welcome public reassertions of independent thought with a nonchalant nod of assent and carry on.

One further point bears mentioning. If it is true both that the conservative movement is losing its integrity and that party discipline plays a significant role in electoral success, the GOP we've known and loathed since 1994 may be coming to an end. True, a disorganized Republican party may not directly translate into more votes for Democrats, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Cheap Shot

Hey conservatives: nominate smarter presidential candidates. Why? Well, if Iraq, Katrina, Social Security private personal accounts, and a flagrant lack of fiscal responsibility weren't bad enough, there's always the chance that something like this could happen.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The GRE Took My Baby Away

Ugh. I won't be posting much (or at all necessarily) this week, as I will be taking the GRE this Thursday morning. And on top of that, I'm trying to put together packets for my recommenders to grad schools containing everything they'll need to get their recs out quickly. Wish me luck, and I'll see you at some point after Thursday.

Friday, October 14, 2005

What It Means to Stay "On-Message"

There's no question that the GOP has greatly strengthened its already formidable position in American politics since the 2000 election. Their significant electoral gains, ability to set the legislative agenda, and galling indifference to accountability all attest to their strong unifying conservative philosophy, emphasis on party discipline, mastery of the art of political rhetoric, and willingness to place winning at the top of their priority list. All of these factors make national coordination much easier for Republicans than it is for Democrats, who encompass a much greater diversity of ideology, political interests, demographics, and tactics. Effective national message coordination is absolutely crucial for winning elections and shifting the public's perceptions of what a party stands for, as I hope to show in the following paragraphs.

Since the 1960s, conservative philosophy has focused on a limited number of principles strongly identified with Western culture, Christianity, and the American Dream. A prospectus from the April 1999 issue of the Hoover Institution's Policy Review magazine provides a helpful breakdown:
Conservatives resolve arguments in favor of the individual rather than the collective, of clear standards of judgment rather than relativistic measures, of personal responsibility rather than the interplay of vast social forces, of the market rather than government economic intervention, of international strength and self-reliance rather than empty promises of security. The federal government is, in general, too big, taxing too much of the wealth of Americans, doing too many unnecessary and often counterproductive things that get in the way of economic growth, to say nothing of personal liberty. Even as it has indulged in frivolity, the federal government has been neglectful of the security of Americans in its rush to disarm after the successful conclusion of the Cold War. Meanwhile, a debased high and popular culture shows few signs of recovery.
It's doubtful that liberals would be able to come up with a similar list and keep it comparably brief. They probably wouldn't be able to agree on the relative importance of domestic and international social justice, environmental protections, gun control, women's rights, civil liberties, minority rights, the social safety net, socialized health care, and so forth. This lack of agreement has stymied efforts to develop a compelling liberal ideological portrait to match the harmonic coherence of conservative thought. The right profits greatly from the fact that most of its ideas (with the notable exception of the mistrust of government) draw from a common philosophical tradition that reaches back thousands of years and is inextricably ingrained in the consciousness of all Westerners. Thus, they exude a psychological gravitas that newfangled progressive notions simply haven't been around long enough to develop.

The fact that conservative principles fit together so neatly allows GOP candidates and operatives to focus on a very small number of issues in media campaigns, all of which reinforce the conservative ethos in the public consciousness. It's a very effective feedback loop that works something like this: "taxes must be lowered because the government is too big, capital investment creates jobs, and the individual knows best how to spend his money. And since money (i.e. property) is what allows people to maintain their standard of living, i.e. the American Way, anyone who violates the law must be punished severely. Everyone is treated equally before the law; after all, we are a nation of laws, not men. Law enforcement, national defense, and the court system are the sole provinces of government, which can't do much else very well. On the international scene as in business it's every man for himself, so we can't rely on the UN or other international standards to look out for our interests. And we must leave social services up to faith-based organizations, because only they have the moral ballast necessary to properly direct charitable energies. Etc."

Regardless of how effective the above ideas turn out to be in the real world, they sound good and complement each other well. They are also very simple, which works to the advantage of the party that exalts faith, ideology, and "good character" above knowledge, intelligence, and competence. Republicans understand that in politics, "when you're explaining, you're losing"--a point that many otherwise learned folks, some of whom make their livings teasing out complex issues, fail to grasp fully. The GOP keeps its PR messages short, resonant, and above all consistent--what they've managed to accomplish is the political equivalent of national branding, maintaining brand identity over time by delivering the same talking points to every market. Democrats haven't achieved anywhere near that level of PR consistency, which is why their successes at the state and local levels far outshines their national performance.

The elevation of a cluster of political ideas to brand-name status depends principally on party unity, or more specifically the suppression of dissent in favor of partisan loyalty. Without a small group at the top defining strategy and an all-encompassing (or very close to it) group of lower representatives and base members dedicated to maintaining message coherence, the party starts to look like a house divided. You get things like sharp divisions between elected officials and the base, representatives frequently rebuking each other in public, and internecine power struggles between opposing factions, none of which project an impression of effective leadership to voters. It would be quite ironic indeed if conformity and obedience, two qualities that many among the Democratic base pride themselves on not having, turn out to be prerequisites for electoral success in the 21st century.

But conformity is comparatively easy for Republicans. They are, as Howard Dean infamously pointed out earlier this year, predominantly Christian and white (and heterosexual). Their base is concentrated further away from the lowest economic classes than Democrats', whose greater ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity presents a significant obstacle to long-term party unity. Moderates find it difficult to distill a Democratic philosophical essence from such a great multiplicity of voices. The polls have shown in election after election that a demonstrated record of political competence is not enough--to do more than take electoral advantage of its opponents' failures, a party must project a sound, consistent, coherent collection of messages with near-total cooperation from its base and representatives.

Perhaps most importantly, the definition of a successful GOP legislator is one that is willing to subordinate his principles to the interest of winning at all costs. To put it charitably, Republicans recognize that doggedly clinging to principle is counterproductive if it keeps you out of power. The Democratic Party stands no chance of dislodging GOP dominance unless it is willing to take winning as seriously as they do. That means falling into line behind a positive agenda that may well be far less than perfect--as long as party members can agree that it's better than what the right is peddling. So what's necessary now is to figure out a plan and start hammering home the same talking points repeatedly and universally, because if history is any indication, it'll all take years to sink in. This is how multigenerational majorities are formed--between the 1930s and 80s, voters saw the Dems as standard-bearers of the New Deal and Great Society. But nothing lasts forever, and now Democrats have to stitch together a new identity without the help of a economic depression. I, for one, hope they can get something together before the nation reaches a major crisis point.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Statistical Significance

I have repeat visitors! Or so my new counter tells me. I don't know exactly what y'all are doing here, but I should probably let you know, if you don't know me, that I am a dilettante, an amateur. I don't blog for fame or recognition, which is why you won't find me on anyone's blogroll. I have no qualifications to my name other than my BA, so I've no official claim to the title of "expert" in any particular field. I write because I enjoy teasing out political communication/propaganda issues for myself, and because I plan to go to grad school soon and I want to hone my reasoning skills a bit before I matriculate. But I reserve the right to flip-flop like a flounder on a hot skillet because no one pays me for my ideas and I don't much care if I contradict myself. The only consistent point of view you'll find on this blog is the (admittedly naive) faith that statistical methods usually generate much stronger evidence than ideology and pure assertion.

That said, I sometimes post here, and if you're interested in the recent debate over The Politics of Polarization, I put my final word down over there this past Sunday.

Hmm, what an odd post. More substance next time. And thanks for reading!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Third Way's Bitter Pill, Part II

In my last post I summarized what I thought was the most insightful line of argument in The Politics of Polarization: that the greater numbers of conservatives and religious people compared to liberals and secularists in this country make it necessary for Democrats to appeal strongly to moderates to win consistently. The main weakness of the paper is probably the authors' excessive reverence of Bill Clinton--the fact that he never managed to win a majority of the popular vote in spite of his widespread appeal goes unmentioned. In basing their recommendations on what worked for Clinton in the 90s, they open themselves up to criticisms of strategic obsolescence in today's radically different political landscape.

That said, many of the reactions from the left side of the blogosphere weren't quite as charitable as mine, and some were downright unfair or inaccurate. Before we get to those, let's start with the Post piece itself: it's a fairly good summary with two glaring exceptions, which just so happened to be the grafs that most of the angry bloggers fixated upon. First, the article asserts that "the authors argue that the rising numbers and influence of well-educated, socially liberal voters in the Democratic Party are pulling the party further from most Americans." Now this is true with regard to the party base--Galston and Kamarck do say that liberals have replaced New Democrats as the largest bloc of the Democratic base and that many liberal viewpoints are outside the mainstream, and they've got the stats to back up both of those assertions. But the paper also states that one of the party's biggest problems is that too many moderates can't figure out where its representatives stand. Moderates can't simultaneously consider elected Democrats too liberal and be confused about what they stand for, and the paper makes the latter argument. Thus the authors don't, in Armando from Kos's words, "blame Democratic losses on the Democratic base"; in fact, they go out of their way to emphasize that "it would be a Pyrrhic victory for either party if the mobilization of its ideological and partisan base came at the expense of its appeal to centrist and independent voters."

Armando cites a post by Political Animal's Kevin Drum that proves he didn't read the whole thing (in case you're wondering, I did--twice). Drum's summarizes his upshot thusly:
In other words, contra Galston and Kamarck, the liberal base is not really the problem a lot of people make it out to be. It's the Republican base that's far outside the mainstream.
But G & K never call liberals a 'problem,' and they marshal plenty of evidence that some liberal positions are indeed outside the mainstream. Besides, if liberals represent 19% of registered voters, and there are 50% more conservatives than liberals (=28.5%), which group would you say is closer to the mainstream?

The second misleading item in the WaPo article comes in the final sentence, which reads in its entirety:
[The authors] suggest that Democratic presidential candidates replicate Clinton's tactics in 1992, when he broke with the party's liberal base by approving the execution of a semi-retarded prisoner, by challenging liberal icon Jesse L. Jackson and by calling for an end to welfare "as we know it."
Everything after the phrase "when he broke . . ." is entirely accurate--Clinton did all the things listed as part of his 1992 campaign. But the whole sentence gives the impression that the paper holds up these particular actions as exemplars that current Dem candidates should follow, which it absolutely does not. At no point do the authors call for a "replication" of Clinton's strategies--they acknowledge that the new political environment we're living in now will require the best of what worked in the past along with redoubled efforts in such areas as national security and cultural liberty. The paragraph erects a strawman with strong editorial overtones, neither of which has any business in a straight news piece in one of the nation's preeminent newspapers.

Unfortunately, both Tom Tomorrow and Talkleft uncritically take the bait, perhaps because they felt threatened by the article's implications. Disagreement is all fine and good, but without hard stats to back it up, it's just so much hot air and wishful thinking.

Moving beyond the Post article, Marshall Wittman tries to take home from the Politics the message that fiscal responsibility is "critical" for future Democratic successes. But that's a 90s mindset--remember "It's the economy, stupid"?--that won't fly as long as more Americans consider homeland security and debates over "values" more important. In Galston and Kamarck's own words:
As early as 1996, the proportion of the electorate who voted primarily on economic issues had dropped dramatically, a harbinger of things to come. These voters remained a smaller portion of the electorate in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Thus, while Clinton had made significant progress on the economy, it was of little help to Democrats in an electorate whose priorities had changed.
Matt Yglesias rightly takes the Bull Moose to task for missing this point.

Much as it pains me to admit it, the conservatives are more correct in their commentary. Raleigh's own Betsy Newmark can accurately remark, "Well, that is all good advice for the Democrats . . ." because she just so happens to have the majority on her side. Insults Unpunished, the author of whom manages to be completely wrong on just about everything else, manages to nail this: "[Democrats a]re trying to win in a country that leans center-right and they’re center-left, so they have work to do." Again, sad but true. However, The Right wasn't all right, as Mister Snitch manages to make the same mistake as Armando in taking away this conclusion from the paper: "Stay clear of out-of-touch liberals" (cf. the quote at the end of the second paragraph of this post).

The moral of the story is this: always, always, always read the whole thing. And if you can't read the whole thing yourself, read people who have read the whole thing. Like me, for example.

The Third Way's Bitter Pill, Part I

Yesterday the blogosphere buzzed a bit about a Washington Post article on a new report by centrist Democratic strategists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck called The Politics of Polarization. Briefly, the paper argues that in order to start winning more elections, Democrats must focus on appealing to moderates rather than relying exclusively on base mobilization. Because self-described conservatives outnumber liberals three-to-two in this country, we cannot expect to retake power at the national level unless we start making a few concessions. That's the cold, hard truth, and while progressives weren't happy to hear it, none of the leftist commentary I read managed to rebut Galston and Kamarck's arguments successfully. But I'll return to the reactions in a later post; first I want to discuss some of the report's evidence and advice on its merits.

Probably the most significant point the authors raise is that there are 50% more conservatives in this country than liberals. A recent Harris poll found an even starker ratio--two conservatives for every liberal. Galston and Kamarck use this clearly lopsided ideological distribution as the centerpiece of their argument that tending only to the liberal base while ignoring the center (the "myth of mobilization", in their terms) is a losing electoral strategy for Democrats. Because the GOP's base is so much larger, they can afford to spend more time simply getting-out-the-vote and relatively less time winning over moderates. I don't see any way around this conclusion--by accepting the ratio they cite, you've essentially conceded that some ideological compromise will be necessary to reclaim power. And yes, by compromise I do mean "rightward motion" for progressives, unsavory as it sounds.

Galston and Kamarck also touch upon the widely-discussed relevance of "values" to the electorate. They acknowledge that people interpret the term in multiple ways and that altering the content and response type of values questions in surveys produces different results. But they identify two broad categories of "values", both of which are weak points for Democrats: (1) stances on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research, and (2) personal character traits including consistency, honesty, and integrity.

On social issues the authors counsel "tolerance and common sense," i.e. leaving gay marriage up to state legislatures while opposing its enactment by judicial fiat, espousing the general right to an abortion but compromising on issues like parental notification, and trying to become more religion-friendly. These are all good suggestions as far as they go, but they don't all delve into specifics. In presidential politics, where personality takes center stage, Galston and Kamarck insist that Democratic candidates need to exude "strength," "integrity," and "empathy"--three characteristics John Kerry sorely lacked in the eyes of the majority. The point that the most thoughtful policy agenda will fail if not presented by someone Americans can trust is well-taken.

The character issue is partially tied up with the increasing influence of religion on politics. Our nation is overwhelmingly Christian (76.5%) and demands traditionally Christian traits of its leaders over and above factors like competence and intelligence. Unfortunately, while 55% of Americans view the GOP as friendly to religious citizens, only 29% think the same of Dems, down from 40% just last year. Many churchgoing Americans support Democratic positions on the economy, health care, and Iraq, but consider cultural issues like gay marriage and abortion more important--indicating that addressing these issues is a crucial component of candidate "empathy." One major reason why observant Americans may consider the Democratic Party hostile to their interests, and this is just my own opinion, is the vitriolic anti-religious rhetoric employed by many of the liberal rank-and-file against people like James Dobson and Pat Robertson. Unless Dems can counterbalance such criticism with high-profile overtures to centrist and progressive religious organizations, they'll never improve their poor image among the devout.

That's it for now--next time I'll review the liberal reaction to The Politics of Polarization and tell you how they all got it wrong.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Sometimes People Say Stupid Things

By now everybody's heard all about Bill Bennett's infamous on-air faux pas about how aborting all black babies would lower the crime rate. As is typical in the wake of such inflammatory remarks, his political opponents went apeshit: Michigan congressman John Conyers called for radio stations to drop his morning show, the NAACP asked for an apology, and both Democrats and Republicans soundly denounced the comment. In an ill-advised statement defending his line of reasoning, Bennett cried context-specificity, saying, "A thought experiment about public policy, on national radio, should not have received the condemnations it has." The blogosphere buzzed for a bit, but has now mostly moved on to discussing the new Iraqi constitution's referendum rules and the qualifications of Harriet Miers.

We go through this same process every time a public figure says something untoward within earshot of a bored but influential reporter: all the major papers and TV stations pick it up, interest groups and elected officials loudly declare their opposition, and the pundits all pick sides. But to what end? With all the substantive problems threatening America today, why are we expending so much sound and fury on one windbag's tossed-off nonsense?

Three reasons immediately spring to mind: first, pretty much the only time you ever hear about the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, or Focus on the Family is when they're condemning some stupid statement or other. The practice of releasing oppositional (and occasionally supportive) press statements in response to rhetorical controversies is an integral part of their overall PR strategy. Additionally, there are certain sects within every political and social movement that get off on public indignation, and part of an advocacy group's job is to duly acknowledge these noisy and annoying (but frequently well-heeled) busybodies. Thus, press releases of this nature mirror and refine the sentiments of these organizations' constituencies as well as attempt to reaffirm the orgs' relevance as cultural institutions. Whether they actually succeed in this second endeavor is a matter of some debate.

Secondly, shouting down racist/sexist/homophobic language is a very effective way to cause major trouble for one's enemies. While some loudmouths, among them Pat Robertson and Bennett himself, manage to get away with only a collective tongue-lashing, people like Trent Lott, Ann Coulter, and Michael Savage aren't so lucky. As you may recall, Lott resigned from his Senate Majority leadership post after lauding the good old days of Southern segregation, Coulter got booted from the National Review's opinion page for advocating fascism against Islamic nations, and MSNBC axed Savage after he told a caller to "get AIDS and die." As you can see, poorly thought-through blather has its consequences--but should it? Aren't we supposed to be the people that love the First Amendment so much?

Here, we need to distinguish between merely condemning reprehensible comments and insisting that the individuals who make them be fired or impeached or whatever. The former is perfectly in keeping with the First Amendment, while the latter in most cases amounts to an opportunistic attempt to abridge it. If the comment falls under the umbrella of "protected speech," we as liberals can and should denounce it, but we should stay far away from the admittedly tempting expediency of censorship. (Boycotts are still fair game, though.) The only exception I would make would be for opinion workers, who could be appropriately terminated for contradicting the spirit of their parent publication or production. But that decision should be left up to editors, publishers, and producers and involve as little influence from external interest groups as possible (though I'd wager that such influence probably figured prominently in most of the the cases I've mentioned).

Finally, the mere threat of career damage comprises the third reason to condemn: deterrence. Presumably, commentators and politicians watching the firestorm of criticism that continues to singe Bennett will watch their words more carefully from now on, and we'll all be able to enjoy a less offensive media environment. It's impossible to say how well this strategy is working since there's no way to see what pundits and politicians would say without advocacy groups on both sides policing the public record. But people need to feel free to say what they want to say, if for no other reason than that it's always better to know who one's enemies are and what they stand for. Besides, while words may hurt, long-standing social ills and ineffective public policies do far greater damage. And that makes all this hoopla about some dumb thing somebody said seem pretty trivial.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

GAO to Bush: Quit Propagandizin'

Remember Armstrong Williams, the conservative pundit whom the Bush administration paid last year to shill for No Child Left Behind? The Government Accountability Office ruled Friday that the cash-for-commentary scheme constituted "covert propaganda" in violation of statutory law. The GAO declared further that the Department of Education illegally paid the PR firm Ketchum Inc. to research media portrayals of Bush's commitment to education. Said the Office: "We see no use for such information except for partisan political purposes. Engaging in a purely political activity such as this is not a proper use of appropriated funds." Damn right.

Without systematic study it's difficult to tell whether this administration's media management strategies are significantly more flagrant than its predecessors, but this isn't the first time it's run afoul of the GAO. The independent congressional office has ruled against the Department of Health & Human Services, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and now the Education Department in cases involving video news releases (VNRs) designed to look like news reports and delivered to local TV stations across the nation. All three instances involve the same anchorwoman, one Karen Ryan, 'reporting' favorably on executive policies and initiatives--in the Ed Department's case, she touts Bush's efforts to improve remedial education. None of the VNRs indicate that Ms. Ryan is on the administration's payroll, which is the main reason the GAO doesn't like them.

But while its written contempt may smart a little, the GAO's decisions carry no penalties, which means there's no mandate for federal departments to adjust their media strategies to accord with the law. In fact, as far as I can tell, there's no legal mechanism through which the government has recently (ever?) been punished for violating propaganda statutes. If it turns out there's no way to hold the offending departments accountable for their infractions, or that applicable law enforcement bodies simply can't or won't do their jobs, we will continue to see the same types of propaganda again and again.

Quite apart from the question of how to prevent and punish federal media manipulation is how news stories on the White House's propagandistic activities affect its public credibility. Do people trust the government less when Armstrong Williams and VNRs are in the news, or have we been so polarized over the years that such stories only confirm the left's distaste for Bush and the right's disdain for the "liberal media"? My guess would be the latter, but only quantitative research could provide any reliable insight.