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December 3, 2003

Governing Incorporates the Press and Vice Versa: The President's Secret Flight to Baghdad

If word leaked, the trip was to be cancelled. Air Force One would head back to DC. That does not mean the trip was wrong to undertake or to treat as news; but its legitimacy lies outside the logic of "things happen and we cover them."

So on Thanksgiving Day President Bush takes with him five reporters, five photographers, a TV producer and a two-person camera crew as he flies into Baghdad under cover to eat turkey and pose for photos with 600 American troops. After a few hours he boards his plane and flies back, generating excited headlines on a traditionally slow news day.

Reporters who rode along had to keep the trip a secret until Bush was safely gone from Baghdad. They could not tell anyone where they were going. Their cell phones were taken away by White House aides.

The American political language does not include a grown-up vocabulary for such events, which are co-equal with the publicity they generate and could not exist without that publicity. We have two main ways of talking about such cases— one tends to be critical, the other admiring. Both see themselves as sophisticated and up-to-date. There is reason to doubt that.

The first language is summed up well in Matthew Yglesias’s terse dismissal at his weblog: “How much do you think this little poll-driven PR stunt cost the taxpayers?” Publicity—a “stunt”—is just public relations, where the truth value is close to zero, and sometimes less. A key distinction is drawn between symbols (fake) and what is often called “substance,” (not fake) which is held to be symbol-less. (And what a fascinating proposition that is.)

Here there is talk of media events, photo opportunities and the art of staging. The essence of the event is said to be artifice, the manipulation of images. Or it is faux news, news that is not really news because it is just theatre, a poll-driven ploy, a manipulation of the public, and of the gullible press.

These observations prepare the ground for criticizing the publicity-maker, sometimes in openly cynical terms. (See the comment section here.) They serve equally well in criticizing the press for its cooperation. Thus, Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism told Howard Kurtz: “Reporters are in the business of telling the truth. They can’t decide it’s okay to lie sometimes because it serves a larger truth or good cause.”

There is a second, more admiring language for talking about publicity of the kind seen on Thanksgiving. Here the savvy sensibility prevails. A trip like Bush’s is praised, not as great theatre but as smart politics, which is theatre— sometimes. Thus, Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for National Review Online, told Kurtz the Bush trip was “a political masterstroke.”

In this discourse, one is inclined to grant that symbols count, and so clever use of symbols is just good politics— smart when it works because it shapes public opinion your way. It is thought to take advanced skill and even cunning to plan publicity-conscious events. This includes the art of timing. Max Boot in a Wall Street Journal commentary: “This could not have come at a better time.”

The savvy analyst fixes on details that go into staging the event, shrewdly chosen by advisers who tend to emerge as heroes (or very, very good at their jobs) in this kind of account. Michael Deaver was thought to be that guy in the Reagan White House, a genius at staging the “presidential.” The savvy discourse blends smoothly into a realist dialect, as in this observation from Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations:

As FDR realized, a large part of modern warfare must be waged in the public arena. The battle over symbols and images can be as important as the battle for any hill or town. This is particularly the case in a guerrilla war where there are few conventional measures of success and the “center of gravity” — to use Clausewitz’s term — lies in public opinion, American and Iraqi.

Let’s back up. In 1919, the modern publicity state officially began during the peace talks held at Versaille after the Great War. Statesmen and diplomats realized then that a new factor had entered the negotiations, which was publicity. For it became obvious that the demands and positions of the victors—England, France and the United States—were being affected by the reaction back home to news of the talks progressing. And news of the talks progressing was more or less instantaneous now that international telegraphy, mass circulation newspapers and the wire services were firmly in place.

Back along the same wires came word of public reaction and debates in parliament, plus what the papers at home were saying. The politics of the modern news cycle was already in train. If what was said in the negotiating room leaked out and caused a fuss at home, then that fuss was in the room the next day and affected the talks. So here was the publicity effect in international diplomacy, happening in real time or close enough.

The effect was often described as the rise of public opinion in international affairs, but it was equally the rise of the mass press and of publicity— the principle of “playing to the domestic audience” had been established. So too the role of the media wiz as adviser. This is British Press scholar Anthony Smith (Goodbye Gutenberg, 1980):

At the Peace Conference of 1919 all the major statesmen kept key newspaper publishers and editors as their advisers. Those who had demonstrated during the war they held power over the popular imagination seemed to hold a key to the principal political problem of the democratic world of the 1920s, which was how to govern in an age when political power was spread across so large a mass of people.

That is one thing to keep in mind when discussing (or dismissing) made-for-media events. Their origins are in the spread of power to more people, or, to be more precise, the inclusions of publics in forms of politics that had once been reserved for elite actors, who now have to act with “public opinion” more in mind. Even the most naked publicity stunt is an acknowledgement of limited power because those whose power is unlimited need not bother with publicity; they can do things in secret, then claim not to have done them.

A second thing to keep in mind is that the kind of events that flow from the publicity effect—a given nowadays—cannot be separated from press coverage of them. In effect a new kind of politics came to recognition in 1919, which we still struggle to talk sensibly about.

For example: Ask any of the reporters who accompanied Bush to Baghdad what they were doing there and, after allowing for the unusual circumstances (extreme secrecy) they would say they were there to “cover the president’s surprise trip to Baghdad.” Which sounds reasonable enough until you realize that the president’s trip did not exist as a workable idea outside the anticipated news coverage of it. This realization takes under three seconds.

The whole notion of the trip as an independently existing thing that could be “covered” is transparently false, as the White House warning to journalists demonstrates. If word leaked out, the trip was to be cancelled—it would no longer exist—and the airplane would turn around and head back to Washington. That does not mean the trip was illegitimate to undertake or to treat as news; but it does mean that its potential legitimacy as news event lies outside the logic of “things happen and we cover them” or “the president took decisive action and the press reported it.”

Here, the press took action and it was equally decisive. It agreed, first, to go along and record the scene and then to keep the flight a secret; and these decisions by journalists were not incidental to Bush’s decision to go but integral to it. Would the trip have made sense, would the danger have been justified, if reporters and camera crews were not taken along? The answer is clearly no. But this means the press is part of the presidency, an observation that, while true enough, makes it harder to cover the presidency as an independently existing thing.

Here is Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harpers magazine and author of a book on propaganda during the Gulf War, during a radio interview with Amy Goodman:

The remarkable thing about it is the press – the White House press corps anyway, has now turned into…has turned to full time press agency for the President of the United States. The proper thing to do in this case is to refuse the secrecy agreement and say we’re not going to be participants in a photo opportunity, which is merely done to help your re-election campaign, and if that aborts the trip, well, it aborts the trip.

But press doctrine cannot handle an event like “journalists decide to abort Bush trip to Baghdad,” and this is a factor in why it did not occur. The trouble goes way beyond the press, however. We have a halfway discourse about publicity and modern politics, and it has stood there, half-finished, since at least 1919. It sorts symbols from substance but it does not take the next step and tell us when symbols actually have substance— and when they do not.

It tells us that politics is theatre but not how to know when it is merely theatre— and when it is not. Our halfway language talks of photo opportunities; and this is supposed to signal our awareness of staging. But when does a photo op become an opportunity actually to understand the world of politics— and when is it not? Our awareness has not developed to that stage.

The best passage I know of about this riddle is the concluding one in Susan Sontag’s great work, On Photography (1977). Rather than try to solve the problem of our lacking a grown-up language, I will allow her language to frame it:

Images are more real than anyone could have supposed. And just because they are an unlimited resource, one that cannot be exhausted by consumerist waste, there is all the more reason to apply the conservationist remedy. If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.

“A better way for the real world to include the one of images.” We don’t have that. But if we did, we would be smarter.

See the comments section for remarks by: Lou Boccardi, Tom Mangan, Andrew Tindell, Cole Campbell, Roy Peter Clark, Les Gura, Charlie Martin, Kaye Trammell, Matthew Coggins, Rivlax and others.

Listen here to a radio interview I did about this post for NPR’s “On the Media.”

Jeff Jarvis reacts to this post.

Under the heading “Those Who Can’t Do, Teach,” James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web calls this post a “breathtaking example of pointless academic bloviation.”

Robin Sloan at the Poynter’s STUMP site has a different view.

Canadian journalist David Akin reacts.

New York Magazine’s Michael Wolff writes on a similar theme: “We accept that the manipulation produces the news (only the hopelessly cynical will keep moaning about that). We’re judging the dexterity of the sleight of hand.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 3, 2003 12:41 AM