Thursday, December 08, 2005

Bush and the New Propaganda

Slate editor Jacob Weisberg reached a conclusion recently that this blog has danced around and hinted at but never stated explicitly: over the past five years, the Bush administration's efforts in public diplomacy have significantly outstripped those of White Houses past in both volume and egregiousness. He begins by defining the difference between mere "spin" and propaganda:
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.
There may be a meaningful distinction to make between these two concepts, but Weisberg hasn't made it here. He immediately telegraphs the forthcoming typological shortcomings in the first sentence: things that exist on a continuum pretty much always share the same "essence." Propaganda may or may not involve lying, and the entire purpose of spin is to effect favorable impressions and actions among the public--just as Jacques Ellul said of propaganda. If you're trying to convince me that the current administration uses propaganda more perniciously than its predecessors, great, but Weisberg's distinction amounts to little more than an attempt to tar Bush with the negative connotation of the word "propaganda."

But that's a fairly minor quibble; the relevant question is the one I just mentioned: whether this White House's use of propaganda techniques is actually more frequent, greater in variety, and more secretive than ever before. Weisberg's examples have all been well documented: Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher, VNRs, and this new Iraqi newspaper payola scandal. But he never quite manages to transcend assertion—there's very little investigation into specific comparative questions, such as how Clinton-era VNRs differ from those of today or whether paying pundits to flack for administration policies has any historical precedent. The only substantive comparison Weisberg makes is between US underwriting of "democratically-minded" foreign journalism during the Cold War and the recently uncovered scheme in Iraq, and while it is relevant, it is not strong enough by itself to support his broad thesis.

I should reiterate at this point that plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that this president's public diplomacy methods do indeed represent a significant break from previously accepted practices. But simply ticking off a list of Bush's transgressions doesn't make a strong case for that conclusion. Arguing it successfully would require a clearheaded, apples-to-apples look at the similarities and differences between the information-management strategies of all the modern presidencies. Historical propositions require historical analyses.