INTERVIEW | | July 21, 2005

Disrupting the media stereotypes

Norman Solomon, a nationally syndicated columnist, recently released the book War Made Easy: How presidents and pundits keep spinning us to death, an excoriating commentary on wartime press relations and media coverage. Through his book, he discusses how administrations from both sides of the political aisle have engaged in obfuscation of the truth about conflict in the past four decades. He talked to about the media's constraints and hunger for narrative storylines, how the White House is handling the Rove affair, and whether or not the administration should be working with external PR agencies.

Q: Given the fact that your book is critical of both Democrat and Republican administrations during wartime, do you expect fewer Republicans will attack your book as a Bush-bashing tome?
A: I hope and, to some extent, I expect the book will shatter some stereotypes about lines of debate and analysis. I've already had the experience on talk shows where somebody, working off his or her clichés, says, "Yeah, you're critiquing Bush. But I bet you weren't critiquing Clinton during the Yugoslavia War." I say, "Well, if you find the dozens of columns I wrote during the bombing of Yugoslavia where I critiqued both the media coverage and policy and if you look at the book, you'll get an answer that will disrupt your stereotype." This goes to something I believe we very much need: a single standard of human rights and a single standard of media criticism.

Q: Your book spans multiple decades and is critical of the media coverage during all of them. Do you think there's something inherently wrong with the media machine? Or is there a difference in the coverage of different wars?
A: The consistency of news media should not give us any comfort. I can't find a war in the past four decades that was subjected to sufficient scrutiny, which is to say vigorous journalism, at the time it began. The news media have been very slow to do their job as independent watchdogs. There's been such a continuity of media serving as implementers rather than scrutinizers of White House war policies.

Q: Our discussion comes at an interesting time regarding Karl Rove and the press corps' interest in his involvement in the outing of Victoria Plame as a CIA operative. Media critics are saying that journalists are finally displaying the tenacity they should have during the run-up to the war and administrative supporters are saying journalists are showing their liberal biases. Do you think journalists can learn a lesson about their coverage from this situation?
A: I have no doubt there will be some mea culpa in the same vein as Dan Rather and Ashleigh Banfield's about the Iraq and Afghanistan war coverage. Like Mark Twain said, "It's easy to quit smoking. I've done it thousands of times." This is part of the pattern. They skim the cream on both sides. In general, the Washington press corps and the punditocracy tend to feast off of the conventional wisdom, which they consume and propagate. When it goes sour, there's a little bit of contrition. One of my book's points is these are institutionally habitual patterns.

Q: You have a chapter entitled, "What the US Government needs most is better PR." It seems to posit that the government is focusing more on how its spokespeople can spin what it is doing, rather than attempting to do things that don't require spin. Does this leads to the contention that PR people are just spinmeisters?
A: Anyone who contends that the White House's problem vis-à-vis Karl Rove now is that they need to find a better spokesperson than Scott McClellan is obviously evading the point. Scott McClellan is left holding the bag for a long history of deception and dissembling. A good analogy would be a company that has rancid or poisonous ingredients in its candy bars, that says it needs a new advertising campaign or maybe needs to change the wrapper. It's a reflex [for the administration] to say, "We are good, but they don't get it. What can we do through our messaging so that they get it?"

Q: Many PR agencies make a good portion of their revenues from the government sector. Do you think there is a better way for the government to use that money or do you think that these external agencies are there to serve a greater good?
A: Messages need to be delivered no matter what. You need press spokespeople; you need a PR strategy. It comes down to what they are selling. What if you had something approximating honest public relations on behalf of the government? At what point would policy need to be changed where it would be helpful to have such public relations? Because we're not near that at all. It's necessary for journalists to never take anything on faith and dig deeper. As long as things stay as they are, whether it's knowingly or unknowingly, it makes PR workers into liars. Was Scott McClellan consciously, knowingly lying when he made his comments a few years ago about Rove? That's between McClellan and his maker. But from a PR standpoint, it's like the chickens coming home to roost.

Q: PR professionals may assert that their job is to make sure the message reaches the public in a simplified way. Do you find that both parties in the government use that "dumbing down" excuse to justify being untruthful?
A: I don't think it's as much as "dumbing it down" as it is "lying it down." The real issue here is candor. Given [the administration's] policies, there's no way that candor is an option, whether it's simple or not. Often there's garbled syntax and backtracking. Often they don't want to be understood. There's often a calculated effort - and "good spokespeople" are adept at this - to use a lot of words to say virtually nothing. They're actually doing the opposite of clarification as they speak.

Q: Do you find the media too often runs with the Administration's talking points?
A: Yes, and I think that's largely the result of deadlines. Most reporters are not in institutions with budgets that support them doing journalism. It's an optimum opportunity for media spin by news release, careful leaks, news conferences, and photo ops. It takes repeated lying and them some - and subsequent investigations from special prosecutors - for those plans to begin to unravel, which we're beginning to see happen in the Rove situation.

Q: You talk about the Jessica Lynch saga, and the Armed Forces have also come under attack for imaginative storytelling in the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman. Why do you think the government chose to handle these situations this way?
A: There's an enormous appetite in the newsroom and among the public for those stories to be simplified into an easy narrative that's very human. A story that has very different implications has a harder slope to climb. A somewhat related point is that I've urged that we adopt a singular standard for the word "terrorist" - if people blow up buildings and kill innocents for political purposes [regardless of what side of the war they're on]. After I wrote a column to that effect while I was working on the book, a TV columnist from a major newspaper wrote me an e-mail, saying, "I agree with you, but if our newspaper adopted your standard for the use of terms like terrorism, the financial repercussions of it would be immediate and enormous."

Q: Do you feel that more so than before the media outlets are beholden to economics and its shareholders?
A: Absolutely. Those pressure points are squared and cubed.

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