Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2005/08/19/ab_rlfwd.html
On July 25, I sent Austin Bay (his bio, his blog) the following note:
In my post, Rollback, I argued that the Bush White House has been pro-active in pushing the press back, by: feeding it less information, answering almost none of the questions reporters choose to ask, reducing their role as interlocutor with the president, letting it be known within the White House that talking to the press would not only be frowned on but punished, and many other ways. This collection of policies I call rollback, which goes beyond wariness to change the terms of engagement with the press.
That is my view of what is happening. I think it correct but not exclusively so.
One of the benefits of doing a blog, as you know, is that you learn what people say back to you; and I know from doing PressThink that for a healthy percentage who support the President, or despise the cultural left, or believe with all their might in what we’re doing in Iraq, or think the news media hopelessly biased, “rollback” sounds like a pretty good idea. They’ve told me so, any number of times.
My questions for you. Do you think rollback has been happening to the press under Bush, 2001-05? Or is my description off? And if there is press rollback, is it a wise policy, a necessary one?
This is what he wrote in reply. I will save my commentary to the end. We’re publishing it at both blogs today.
Special to PressThink
Roll Forward: Why the Bush White House
Needs the Press to Win the Big One
by Austin Bay
One: What “Rollback” Echoes With
In his July 16 post, Rollback, Jay selects an interesting term—a frame, really—to describe what he calls the current Bush Administration’s “press strategy.”
Here’s his definition: “Press rollback, the policy for which McClellan signed on, means not feeding but starving the beast, downgrading journalism where possible, and reducing its effectiveness as an interlocutor with the President. This goes for Bush theory, as well as Bush practice. The President and his advisors have declared invalid the ‘fourth estate’ and watchdog press model.”
What’s in a name? “Rollback” has historic echoes— including “rolling back the Communists,” a strategy Dwight Eisenhower rejected as too risky. In early 1953 Ike had his national security team wargame the Truman Administration’s strategy of “containment.” Eisenhower commissioned two teams, one tasked with evaluating containment and various related options, the other evaluating “rollback” or offensive-type strategies against the Soviet Union.
Ike had his teams examine the options in detail. Rollback’s economic costs—as well as its risk of all-out war—led Eisenhower to conclude that a modified-form of containment (a reinvigorated shield of conventional forces backed by the threat of nuclear retaliation) made the most sense.
Ike knew the Cold War would be a long, tedious test of wills, and he agreed with the Truman Administration’s assessment that the social, political, and economic vitality of the U.S. would be very effective tools in that struggle. The Hungarian revolt in 1956 was the ultimate test for Ike’s decision to forego “rollback” and stick with “containing” the Soviets. Because the U.S. didn’t intervene or back the armed revolt, Hungary suffered another 33 years of Red fascist Hell. Of course, nuclear war didn’t turn Central Europe into radioactive glass, either. And ultimately, Communism was rolled back
Jay mentioned the “long roots” of the recent spat between White House Press Secretary and the “gaggle” of reporters. The roots are longer—and thornier—than his original post suggests.
Jay and I agree that the Bush Administration and what (for the moment) I’ll call “the national press” are locked in a figurative war. Let’s stipulate that this figurative war occurs in the midst of a real (non-figurative) and ever active global conflict—both hot and cold—that is first and foremost an information war waged by an enemy that is itself a strategic information power. I speak of course of Al Qaeda. The “press conflict” and US domestic political clashes cannot be isolated from this multi-dimensional war and its harsh historical circumstances. Those who think it can deceive themselves.
A quick review of Al Qaeda’s information warfare capabilities helps put the White House’s biggest challenge in perspective. Yup, Al Qaeda’s a more serious “information” challenge than the “the national press.” Let me quote from a recent column:
Al Qaeda…understands the power of perceived grievance and the appeal of Utopia. In the late 1990s Osama Bin Laden said Al Qaeda’s strategic goal was restoring the Islamic caliphate. Bin Laden expressed a special hatred for Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, who ended the caliphate in 1924. History, going wrong for Islamist supremacists at least since the 16th century, really failed when the caliphate dissolved. Though Al Qaeda’s time-line to Utopia remains hazy, once the caliphate returns the decadent modern world will fade as Western power collapses— and presumably Eastern power as well. (Islamists are active in China’s Sinkiang province.) At some point Bin Laden-interpreted Islamic law will bring strict bliss to the entire world. If this sounds vaguely like a Marxist “Workers Paradise” that’s no accident— the Communists also justified the murder of millions pursuing their atheist Utopia.
The appeal to perceived grievance and promise of an Islamist utopia made Al Qaeda a regional information power in a Middle East where other political options were denied by tyrants. The 9/11 attacks made Al Qaeda a global information power: they became an international advertising campaign for Jihad. Four years later Al Qaeda remains a strategic information power, but little else. In every other measure of influence and success, Al Qaeda is very weak.
Our world, however, is “information-rich,” and “compressed.” I made this point in a Weekly Standard article that appeared July 22, 2005:
Oceans still spawn hurricanes, but they don’t stop ICBMs or terrorists. On 9/11 al Qaeda demonstrated that what the World War I generation called “over there” is nowadays very close to “back here.” America—according to its enemies—is everywhere, but a computer keystroke finds al Qaeda, Chinese spam, Nigerian scams, North Korean agitprop, Bhutanese rug prices, and Sudan’s hideous genocide in Darfur. An airline ticket, a sick tourist, and 22 hours moves the Asian flu from Bangkok to Denver. The upscale phrase is “technological compression,” but the down-to-Earth 21st century fact is all of us live next door.
When it comes to understanding the effects of technological compression in their area of expertise, public health officials are way ahead of journalists. No one doubts the flu is a contagion that harms us all—- though the health officials often face huge political fights when they attempt to impose quarantines that affect trade. Information isn’t a bug—health officials rely on the free flow of information to stop the transmission of infectious disease—but rapidly transmitted information can also kill. Here’s an example: A reporter’s or US military officer’s verbal slip-up on tv “live from the battlefield” can fatally compromise an on-going operation. By fatal I mean fatal for American soldiers.
Sparring between Scott McClellan and “the national press” comes in the midst of a war fought in a world where video and audio travel at the speed of light, but cultural, historical, and political contexts still move at the uncertain, iffy velocities of education, thoughtful analysis, common interests, and mutual respect, as well as accurate translation.
Two: The New York to DC to LA Axis
The first word in Jay’s definition of “rollback” is “press.” What do we mean by “press?” I used a provisional term “national press.” But—thanks to technology—there is no “national” press, not anymore, not in a world with technological compression as a defining feature. PressThink and my web log are both international platforms. So is a cellphone with a camera. Middle school teachers know their classroom yawns can be e-photographed by the kid-in-the-back and sent to every giggling student on campus. No campus, however, is an island. The photo of the awkward yawn can end up on a computer screen in New Guinea.
Quoting The Economist, Jay describes a case of lost power:
Power is moving away from old-fashioned networks and newspapers; it is swinging towards, on the one hand, smaller news providers (in the case of blogs, towards individuals) and, on the other, to the institutions of government, which have got into the business of providing news more or less directly.
If power is moving away from the “big” news engines, the next question has to be: the power to do what? Power to make money in the same way networks and newspapers have made money for the last fifty years? Yup— that business model’s moving. Power to investigate? It’s arguable that institutions of government cracked Watergate, since we now know Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat was the FBI’s deputy director. Power to transmit information? I’ll agree that this form of “press power” is more diffuse: welcome to the 21st century. As Jay notes, government websites can dispense with the press as “middle man.” Readers can interpret the press release for themselves.
Or perhaps Jay means the “national press’” power to set an agenda is fading? Jay writes:
I think Rove also knew that the press is that rare special interest group that feels constrained in how “organized” it can be to protest or strike back. In fact the national press, which is only a semi-institution to start with (semi-legitimate, semi-independent, semi-protected by law, and semi-supported by the American people) has no strategic thinking or response capability at all.
So who is “the special interest group?” Here’s what I think the Bush Administration means by “the Press,” and I think it intersects with a definition Jay would grant has a degree of validity: The NY-DC-LA (Nid-Claw) axis that dominated American political and cultural information from the late 1920s to the mid-1990s.
What are the Nid-Claws most noticeable characteristics? Urban? Yes. Politically liberal? According to the received wisdom of polls, nine out of ten members of “the national press” say they are Democrats. Culturally liberal? Return to the description “urban.” When I lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the early 1980s, I knew precisely six other Reagan Republicans. I was the only one who’d say it loud and say it proud.
Recently an international reporter told me (with a touch of bitterness) that his stories have to meet a specific editor’s expectations. That’s the word he used: “expectations.” Of course, you say, the editor is his boss. The reporter felt—felt, heck, he knew— important information he gleaned in the field was often cut from the account back home. Important nuances were lost. Do we blame it all on limited column inches or limited air time? Exercising good judgment, relying on professional experience, and just good, common sense editing are the upside of an information template— the affirmatives. Personal bias, ignorance of the facts, and lack of field experience are the downside— the negatives.
I’ve had way too many field reporters tell me that the people who get promoted to editor tend to be the NY and DC “stay at homes” who play the office and local political games well, but have minimal field experience themselves. It would be interesting to see some hard statistics to either dispute or support the anecdotes. The key questions wouldn’t simply be “years in the field” but “years where?”
Five years Paris, London, and Tokyo don’t score a tenth as many points as four months in Somalia, circa 1993. But I’ll wager that one type of editorial bias derives from the urban editors whose central experiences are Beltway, Manhattan and Hollywood politics or corporate gamesmanship within the media hierarchies themselves. This is a tough question to ask reporters; it could put their career on the line. However, if the “urban political milieu” affects editors, then that needs to be recognized and the bias vetted.
The memory of old institutional successes deeply affects the NY-DC-LA axis today. Two great gotcha successes drive the national press: Vietnam and Watergate. The Bush Administration thinks these “press templates” utterly distort today’s world. Some old guard media institutions operate on a “paper template”: a fossilized notion that information is still disseminated at the speed of the postman or delivery boy.
Again, from the July 22 Weekly Standard:
Unfortunately, many politicians and journalists still habitually live by 20th-century templates. Newsweek certainly thought [they’re] there and we’re here” when it ran its notorious “Koran flushing” anecdote, sparking deadly riots in Pakistan. Two other templates were also in play then: the Vietnam and the Watergate templates. Vietnam and Watergate for three decades have provided the New York-Washington-L.A. media axis with convenient—if reductive—headlines. The Vietnam and Watergate rules are simple and cynical. Rule One: Presume the U.S. government is lying—especially when the president is a Republican. Rule Two: Presume the worst about the U.S. military—even when the president is a Democrat. Rule Three: Allegations by “Third World victims” are presumptively true, while U.S. statements are met with arrogant contempt.
Yes, that’s the myth of the Noble Savage re-cast, just like “blood for oil” is a Cold War lie in jihadi clothing. Iraq is not Vietnam. Nor is Afghanistan. Nor was Desert Storm. But what’s the first template applied to any US military engagement since 1975? Vietnam.
Three: How About Rolling Forward?
The press templates are not only inaccurate, they are a disservice to the citizens the “national” press claims to serve. They are archaic domestic political frames that are particularly damaging in the midst of a global war against a strategic information power.
Editors and producers need to roll forward to the 21st century, and perhaps a new generation will. Glenn Reynolds says that 40 to 45 is the cut-off age between the graying fogies reveling in Vietnam/Watergate glory; and a newer, more acute crop of newshounds. He thinks the old boys and girls will have to retire before the templates go. I think —given the intricate and deadly global war— we don’t have that luxury.
Jay says the Bush Administration has declared the Fourth Estate and the “watchdog” press model invalid.
If there’s been a declaration I missed it. Jay’s rhetoric is a bit edgy here, but that’s the nature of blog debate. Let’s consider the core of his contention: the “watchdog” model. “Watchdog” (forgive me) begs a number of questions, including questions about the watchdog. Who does the watchdog watch? How does it watch? How does it bark? At whom does it bark? Like the dog Sherlock Holmes found strangely silent, how often does the watchdog not bark? Does the NY-DC-LA watchdog bark at Democratic and Republican presidents with equal ferocity? Is it even a watchdog, or is it a watch-pack, or watch-herd. (Herd is a more apt description of the press descending on Aruba to report on a missing tourist or hanging out in Santa Barbara while Michael Jackson faces a jury.)
Which leads to another point where Jay and I agree: The Bush Administration despises the “national press.” Key members of the current group despised the press prior to 9/11. I’ve presented the argument that “rollback” or “containment” by the Bush Administration, in the context of the War On Terror and 21st century information technologies, makes a kind of strategic sense. The “Vietnam” and “Watergate” templates distort. The White House leads the war effort, not a press clique dedicated to “playing gotcha” and/or “setting the agenda.” However, lurking behind the “rollback/containment” policy is a deep, abiding anger—and an anger that isn’t in the best interest of America.
Let’s not totally disparage anger as an emotion. The KosKidz at the DailyKos thrive on anger. Jay’s Rollback post displays an occasional flash of anger; and from the perspective of a journalism professor who knows, personally and professionally, that honest reporting protects and strengthens our democracy, his anger is just. The reporters snapping at Scott McClellan during the press conference Jay analyzes are angry; they believe they’ve been misled or lied to.
Key members of the Bush Administration believe they have been the victims of lies or victims of a relentless, decades-long selective reporting and commentary by members of the big media axis. Are Republicans ticked at Ambassador Joe Wilson’s truth challenged New York Times essay? One reason they are ticked is because they have seen this same kind of canard before. Recall Gary Sick and his nut-case story that George H W Bush flew to Paris on an SR-71 to negotiate with Iran? (See this, and Daniel Pipes with his Wall St Journal response; this link shows the conspiracy theory Sick pushed was first “reported” by Lyndon Larouche.)
The 1983 “Euro-Missile Crisis” is another bitter memory: the rhetorical hokum that Bush is “more dangerous than bin Laden” is 1983 recast. Oh, the accusations of 1983! Ronald Reagan was stupid. Reagan was a dangerous cowboy, a warmonger seeking the nuclear destruction of the USSR. Reagan was — good heavens — a unilateralist. In 2003 the Mayor of London called Bush “the greatest threat to life on the planet,” but then Ken Livingstone isn’t called “Red” because of his hair color. Hollywood also repeated a refrain. In 1983 ABC TV produced “The Day After,” a lousy piece of video propaganda that basically argued US nuclear forces would inevitably destroy the planet. In 2004 Michael Moore produced “Fahrenheit 911,” an even more explicitly anti-American film asserting Bush conspired to launch the 9/11 attacks.
Ironically, the Euromissile Crisis proved to be the last big political battle of the Cold War. In 1989, the Berlin Wall cracked, and the communists’ workers’ paradise was exposed as the Red Fascist gulag it always was. The repetition of 1983’s political scams by Democrats and their media allies—political scams that events would prove to be strategically foolish and historically wrong— receives little media attention outside of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times and Fox News Network.
Republicans look, listen, and remember with chagrin. And chagrin—in the George W. Bush White House—has turned to disdain. At the human level it’s understandable. Why give such a biased, and myopic bunch a break?
Here’s a good reason: America must win the War On Terror, and the poisoned White House—national press relationship harms that effort. History will judge the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the War On Terror. A key strategic issue for the current White House—perhaps a determinative issue for historians—will be its success or failure in getting subsequent administrations to sustain the political and economic development policies that truly winning the War On Terror will entail.
The Bush Administration needs the dying, withering, but still powerful press axis to do this.
Four: Bridging the Political Cycle
Jay’s post quotes an unidentified Bush Administration minion who says:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality, judiciously, as you will, we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
I think Jay includes this story for several reasons. The man’s arrogance is supposed to indict the administration, and to a degree it does. His demeanor reminds me of the snooty, brat presumptiveness of George Stephanopoulos during his stint at the Clinton White House. (And for that matter, his continued brat act at ABC.)
If America is an empire it is an empire without precedent, which suggests the word is at best an inadequate description. America is a creative idea that defies geography, but I doubt this Bush minion understands that.
I also doubt our minion has ever served in the military; certainly he never served under fire. His are the words of a third-order actor. The minion’s soliloquy is a decadent and degraded version of Teddy Roosevelt’s critique of the critic. TR wrote, and I quote at length:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of the cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, a fop, or a voluptuary.
This is how the Administration’s raconteur casts himself, as a man “in the arena,” though I strongly suspect his arena of conflict is the Beltway, not in Baghdad or Al Anbar Province. It is the United States of America, however, that is actually “in” the arena. The Bush Administration knows this. Here’s how I put it in the recent Weekly Standard article:
Al Qaeda’s jihadists plotted a multi-generational war in the early 1990s our enemies began proselytizing London and New York mosques and in doing so began planting cadres throughout the world. If the US leads a successful global counter-terror war many of these cadres will turn gray, get fat, and rot. But that must be a multi-generational war, which means a multi-administration war, which means bridging the whipsaw of the US political cycle.
The Bush Administration has not done that, at least not in any focused and sustained fashion.
9-11’s strategic ambush sought to force America to fight on Al Qaeda’s terms, to suck the United States into a no-win Afghan war, to bait the United States into launching a “crusade against Islam.” Osama bin Laden believed he possessed an edge in ideological appeal, “faith based” strength against what he perceived as U.S. decadence. U.S. failure in Afghanistan would ignite a global “clash of civilizations” pitting all Muslims against America.
Toppling Saddam and bringing the hope of democracy to the Middle East strategically changed Al Qaeda. Time is now turned against Al Qaeda, in the form of a New Iraqi Army, in the political shape of a new, pluralistic Iraqi government, examples of what General Abizaid calls Iraqis taking control of their own lives.
So the rats have come to Iraq to fight. Building a New Iraq and defeating those who would destroy it is the grand strategy, but the Bush Administration didn’t make that case explicit. It suggested the case but not at the center of its public diplomacy. In retrospect that was a long-term political mistake. The Bush Administration must revitalize its public diplomacy, and that means “rolling forward” and establishing a new, more mature relationship with the press. Someone much higher up the food chain than Mr. Empire Creating His Own Reality has to make that call.
But the NY-DC-LA axis must also “roll forward.” It’s in their institutional interest as well as simple survival. Joe Wilson hasn’t gotten away with the game as cleanly as Gary Sick did, and Dan Rather, well, he’s like Conrad’s Mistah Kurtz, only he doesn’t know it. The Internet is doing precisely what Jay says it’s doing. Here’s Jay’s quote from Patrick Healty writing in the May 22 edition of the NY Times:
Scrutiny is intense. The Internet amplifies professional sins, and spreads the word quickly. And when a news organization confesses its shortcomings, it only draws more attention. Also, there is no unified front - no single standard of professionalism, no system of credentials. So rebuilding credibility is mostly a task shouldered network to network, publication to publication.
Network to network, publication to publication. No, the big city press axis is no single outfit, but it is a club. There may be no single standard, but there are club leaders. So let’s pick on the leaders.
Here are a few things The New York Times can do to heal itself and set a new standard for White House-press relations in the midst of war. (And don’t say I’m confusing reporting with the editorial page. Joe Wilson and Gary Sick began on the editorial page, and their allegations fed national reporting. As I recall, Sick ended up on The PBS News Hour, chatting with Jim Lehrer.)
First off, Fire Paul Krugman and replace him with a real economist like Arnold Kling or Walter Williams. Krugman’s been predicting economic doom for four years. He needs to get a sign and walk the streets, not write a newspaper column. Turn Maureen Dowd into a gossip columnist. Replace Dowd with someone like Froma Harrop (a New Yorker who has moved to Providence). The Times could also fire the op-ed editor who inserted Bush Hate into Phil Carter’s column. (See my post for the details.)
Here are a few other suggestions for The Axis:
Jay, pass the ideas on to your Axis buddies. Tell ‘em it’s for starters. Ending rollback means rolling forward by both the Administration and The Axis.
Austin Bay copyright August 11, 2005
Jay Rosen replies:
Well there’s a lot that I don’t agree with in Austin Bay’s post, just as I’m sure there’s a lot he would dispute in my various posts on Bush and the national press. This is normal. (Right?) I reserve the right to amplify those points of diagreement later on.
The headline for me is that Austin Bay, proud Republican, friend of the Administration’s project in Iraq and a veteran of the war, believes the clever people in the White House are making a mistake in their policy of rolling back the press, which he prefers to call “containment.” He does not deny that the push back happened, and he says it made a certain sense to Republicans tired of the gotcha games and 70s frames.
Still, it’s dumb policy, he says.
Why is it dumb? According to Austin, it’s dumb because if you’re serious about a war on terror you know that it will have to be fought consistently and well across Administrations. This means that several waves of “players,” who are likely to be from both parties, will come in and out of policy-making before the war can in any sense be put to rest, or won. Each new generation has to understand what United States policy is, and continue on the path Bush the Younger set. This is a path Bay himself supports.
How is the strategy going to work if it shifts with each new cast of players? Austin says it can’t. Al Queda, a global information power, will be waiting on any wavering American governments show. Thus a key factor in winning the Big One is the Bush Administration’s “success or failure in getting subsequent administrations to sustain the political and economic development policies that truly winning the War On Terror will entail.”
For this, he says, the Bush team “needs the dying, withering, but still powerful press axis.” As far as I know, this has never occured to anyone in the White House.
What can the press do? (Here I am adding my own sense of what Austin was getting at.) For a long time the Washington press corps was considered part of the “permanent government.” There was a reason for that: Tim Russert and Jim Lehrer don’t leave, but Administrations come and go. This is exactly what drives people nuts about the big media establishment (how do we vote these guys out of office?) but Austin makes a different point.
Like it or not, journalists “carry” institutional memory. They port the story and its premises over from year-to-year, government to government. The press can create expectations of continuity by the way it looks at policy. It can treat as “surprising news” any plan to depart from principles established in 2002-03. At presidential debates it can ask the questions that would expose a shift in strategy. But will it? Not the way things are going, he says.
“The Bush Administration must revitalize its public diplomacy,” Austin writes. (I think the “re” is a bit much. This has never been a vital part of the White House’s approach.) “And that means ‘rolling forward’ and establishing a new, more mature relationship with the press.” What he means by more mature is found, I think, in this observation:
Ike knew the Cold War would be a long, tedious test of wills, and he agreed with the Truman Administration’s assessment that the social, political, and economic vitality of the U.S. would be very effective tools in that struggle.
A mature view would be that a weakened, timid or corrupted press, discredited and marginalized, under constant attack from office holders, or imploding from its own mistakes, is no sign of a strong and vital polity.
To me this was a key passage: “Key members of the Bush Administration believe they have been the victims of lies or victims of a relentless, decades-long selective reporting and commentary by members of the big media axis.” I think he’s exactly right. Once upon a time, Republicans had a more suspicious ear for the victim’s mentality.
“Why give such a biased, and myopic bunch a break?” writes Austin. But giving the press a break is not the way I see it. I don’t think chief-of-staff Andrew Card should do that— give reporters a break. But he could ask himself this: In the global arena where the war on terror is actually being fought, in what sense is a weakened, discredited, co-opted, or truth-starved press in the strategic interests of the United States?
I will be interested in hearing your reactions here and at Austin Bay’s blog.
My thanks to Austin Bay. The discussion has continued at a new post, An Open Thread after a Closed One. To comment go here.