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April 20, 2006

The Jerk at the Podium: Scott McClellan Steps Away

"McClellan, Bush, Cheney, and Rove proved there were other ways. Replace news management with press nullification. Drop the persuasion model, in favor of the politics of assent. Choose non-communication to demonstrate that you ought not to be questioned (it only helps our enemies.)"

(New post following news of McClellan’s book, May 29, 2008. See What Happened to Scott McClellan in Longer Perspective: 100 Years of the White House Press.)

Scott McClellan was a different kind of press secretary, sent to do a different job than the one people had done from that podium before. Instead of grouping him with a succession of other White House spokesmen, a line to which he does not belong, we have to take McClellan’s job, call it a piece of the puzzle, and place it alongside other pieces until we recognize the larger political strategy he was a part of.

He’s gone; the policy—strategic non-communication—may still be in place.

First, McClellan was a necessary figure in what I have called Rollback— the attempt to downgrade the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country. It had once been accepted wisdom that by carefully “feeding the beast” an Administration would be rewarded with better coverage in the long run. Rollback, the policy for which McClellan signed on, means not feeding but starving the beast, while reducing its effectiveness as an interlocutor with the President and demonstrating to all that the fourth estate is a joke.

As Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun wrote this week, “No matter what the question, the president, his press secretary and other officials usually manage to deliver their position of the day without obstruction.” That’s part of Rollback.

“Back ‘em up, starve ‘em down, and drive up their negatives” is how I summarized it in my post, Rollback (July 16, 2005). “I believe the ultimate goal is to enhance executive power and maximize the president’s freedom of maneuver— not only in policy-making, and warfare, but on the terrain of fact itself.”

And I still believe that. So this is the first thing to understand about McClellan and the job he was given by Bush. He wasn’t put there to brief the White House press, but to frustrate, and belittle it, and provoke journalists into discrediting themselves on TV. The very premise of a White House “communications” office gets in the way of understanding the strategy that prevailed from July 2003, when McClellan took over from Ari Fleischer, until this week, when he announced his resignation.

McClellan’s specialty was non-communication; what’s remarkable about him as a choice for press secretary is that he had no special talent for explaining Bush’s policies to the world. In fact, he usually made things less clear by talking about them. We have to assume that this is the way the President wanted it; and if we do assume that it forces us to ask: why use a bad explainer and a rotten communicator as your spokesman before the entire world? Isn’t that just dumb— and bad politics? Wouldn’t it be suicidal in a media-driven age with its 24-hour news cycle?

You would think so, but if the goal is to skate through unquestioned—because the gaps in your explanations are so large to start with—then to refuse to explain is a demonstration of raw presidential power. (As in “never apologize, never explain.”) So this is another reason McClellan was there. Not to be persuasive, but to refute the assumption that there was anyone the White House needed or wanted to persuade— least of all the press! Politics demands assent, on one hand, and attack on the other. (And those are your choices with Bush and Rove: assent or be attacked.) The very notion of persuasion conceded more to democratic politics than the Bush forces wanted to concede.

The same goes for spin. Anyone who talks about McClellan “spinning” the press has got the wrong idea. The premise of spin is that by artful re-statement the facts can be made to look better for the President. But McClellan’s speaking style is artless in the extreme. He’s terrible at spin but it didn’t detract from the job he was there to do.

While claiming to hate spin, journalists grasp that the very practice of it is an implied credit to their profession; it means they’re important! By sticking someone up there who is inept at it, you downgrade the press to unspun: why bother?

McClellan went through the motions of spin sometimes. But he was far more comfortable with robotic repetition of some empty formula he had decided on in advance, like “We are focused on the priorities that the American people care most about and getting things done…” His favorite word was “again,” as in, “Again, David, the President is focused on…” That isn’t spin. That’s running out the clock.

Spinning is improvisational. It requires you to think on your feet. McClellan was terrible at that too: wooden and unconvincing. He was not a phrase-maker; and he had no natural eloquence. Grace under pressure? No, that would concede that the reporters pressing their questions are legitimate actors. And so under pressure McClellan got more excruciatingly thick-headed and often belligerent, provoking belligerence back.

In what sense are these qualifications for the job of press secretary? Well, McClellan was there to make executive power more illegible, which is the way Bush, Cheney (especially Cheney) and Rove want it. Being inarticulate in public is basic to that goal. Bush himself is that way when he’s not reading from a script. And as Madigan noted, Bush’s “aversion to detailed questions is palpable.”

Michael Wolff, in an effective profile of McClellan for Vanity Fair, noticed this. “Because Scott couldn’t talk, he wouldn’t be able to say anything for himself,” Wolff writes. “His lack of verbal acumen, his lack of dexterity with a subordinate clause, becomes another part of the way to control the White House message in a White House obsessed with such control.”

As Wolff notes, “He wouldn’t be able to cozy up to the press. That requires a serving-two-masters deftness. A special tonal range. A wink. A nod. An emphasis. A surgical use of modifiers, so that I say what I have to say in such a way that we all understand what I mean to say. A little Kabukiness.” There has been none of that “tonal range” under McClellan. The results are ugly, but the public ugliness is a clue.

McClellan himself, as though having some terrible social disability, has, standing miserably in the press briefing room every day, become a kick-me archetype. He’s Piggy in Lord of the Flies: a living victim, whose reason for being is, apparently, to shoulder public ridicule and pain (or, come to think of it, he’s Squealer from Animal Farm). He’s the person nobody would ever choose to be.

Right, the jerk at the podium. Ari Fleischer could stonewall with ease, but he wasn’t willing to be that jerk. (Plus, he had a twinkle in his eye when in a tough spot: no good.) And so the full development of Rollback and the illegible White House had to wait for McClellan, the true blue Texan and total Bush loyalist— considered “family” according to Time’s Mike Allen.

Now all this is humiliating for the press to have to endure but here the architects of rollback made a shrewd bet. This is how I explained it to John Harris, political editor of the Washington Post, in our aborted interview on these subjects: “In my view, the White House withdrew from a consensus understanding of how the executive branch had to deal with journalists. It correctly guessed that if it changed the game on you, you wouldn’t develop a new game of your own, or be able to react.”

And of course they didn’t.

The era of news management lasted 40 years— from 1963, when the networks first began their 30-minute nightly broadcasts, to 2003, when McClellan, Bush, Cheney, and Rove proved there were other ways. Replace news management with press nullification. Drop the persuasion model, in favor of the politics of assent. Choose non-communication to demonstrate that you ought not to be questioned (it only helps our enemies.)

Bush made no secret of his preference for government-by-assent. That’s why he created the Bush Bubble, a remarkable practice in which the White House routinely prevented non-believers from attending the President’s speeches and asking questions of him in public. (It’s now being relaxed somewhat.)

Other parts of the Bush presidency that fit in the puzzle with McClellan’s hapless style:

Put it all together and what do we have? In calling recently for Watergate-style Senate Hearings on the Bush Presidency, Carl Bernstein (also in Vanity Fair) wrote as follows:

“The first fundamental question that needs to be answered by and about the president, the vice president, and their political and national-security aides… is whether lying, disinformation, misinformation, and manipulation of information have been a basic matter of policy—- used to overwhelm dissent; to hide troublesome truths and inconvenient data from the press, public, and Congress; and to defend the president and his actions when he and they have gone awry or utterly failed.”

It’s a good question. But I don’t think its fundamental enough. McClellan was a cog in a machine for making the executive power more opaque, and the presidency itself less dialogic. (Fewer questions, no answers unless under subpoena.) We have to understand how this system works, and why it’s appeared now.

Bush and his staff did something new, I would even say visionary when they decided to “manage” the news by shutting down those portions of the presidency where the President can be asked the difficult but necessary questions he loathes so much. Scott McClellan, I believe, was sent into the briefing room to shut off that tap even while he stood there and took the beatings.

The intended result: a presidency that is less questioned in the eyes of the world. That’s not news management; it’s a new balance of power between them and us.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Dick Polman, until recently chief political writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, adds his testimony to Rollback. “McClellan’s mission was not to merely evade or spin information in the traditional sense. His core purpose was to be the point man for an assertive, even revolutionary, White House effort to delegitimize the mainstream conveyers of the news.” The key to assessing McClellan: “His job was to contest or deny the ‘terrain of fact,’ the empirical evidence, as traditionally defined.” Polman gives some examples of just that.

Now this is interesting. Mark Hamilton says that there are signs that Rollback is being tried by the new Canadian prime minister, conservative Stephen Harper. (A CBC radio journalist told me the same thing during an interview this week.) Here’s a run-down of developments that suggest something’s up. More on this from Fine Young Journalist and Salmon Arm up north.

The Soundtrack: Got this note from Brendan Greeley, blogger-in-chief and sound wiz for Open Source Radio, Chris Lydon’s show. (Now on WNYC.)

Jay - Read your post on strategic non-communication, and I thought I’d buttress your claim with some sound files.Two years ago I became obsessed with Scott McClellan and started

editing his briefings down to just the sound bites, the One Right

Thing that he repeats fifteen-twenty times a briefing. The

administration’s recognition, in effect, that you don’t even have to

look like you’re trying to answer the questions, you just have to get through twenty-seven minutes without getting caught on tape saying

the wrong thing.

So here are five McClellan briefings from early 2004, all edited down to just the talking points he repeats verbatim.

Fantastic, what a document. Thanks, Brendan.

Over at MetaFilter, the poster digaman (who is Wired writer Steve Silberman) says another piece belongs in my rollback puzzle. “Donald Rumsfeld’s bold, frequent, and rarely-challenged assertions that the American press is being expertly ‘manipulated’ by Al Qaeda ‘media committees’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.” He has in mind statements like this from Rumsfeld on the radio with Neil Boortz:

SEC. RUMSFELD: …The only way we can lose this is if we lack political will to see it through. The terrorists, the violent terrorists, the enemies of the Iraqi people and the legitimate Iraqi government and the new Iraqi constitution, they know that. They know precisely that their battle is not in Iraq. Their battle is here in the United States. They have media committees, they calculate how they can have the greatest impact on the media in the world, and they are very skillful at it and we’re not.

Crooks and Liars has Keith Olbermann’s video tribute to Scott McClellan.

CNN’s John Roberts thinks Scott McClellan is a “truthteller,” and he thinks he will get in trouble with liberal blogs for saying it. (via Media Matters)

Recommended: A Tomdispatch Interview with Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation. The description of what her day is like is fascinating in itself. In it she says PressThink is part of her daily routine, which is nice to know.

Kurtz: “He was painful to watch at times, gamely repeating the same stock phrases under a barrage of hostile media fire, grasping for new ways to deliver the same non-answers…” Also: “McClellan did not wink, nod or freelance, sticking closely to the day’s script.” Aye.

Dana Milbank tells us that when McClellan announced his departure most of the White House press corps was 30,000 feet in the air, on a charter flight to Tuskegee, Alabama, scheduled to land at 10:05 a.m. for a Bush speech later in the day. Graceful, huh? McClellan’s job was “made particularly challenging by Bush himself, who undermined his press secretary by arming him with little information to share with the public.”

Blogometer by National Journal has a good sampling of McClellan commentary from bloggers.

Stephen Spruiell at National Review’s Media Blog: “It’s not that Scott McClellan was a bad press secretary. It’s that he is not the right press secretary right now. A White House press corps this hostile and guileful calls for a press secretary who’s equally tough.”

Gerard Baker, Times of London: “At his daily press conference Mr McClellan conveyed a terror of speaking off the narrow line of his talking points that left the powerful impression of a man incapable of the most elementary of independent thought.” Which is the way Bush wanted it.

Ankush Khardori at Huff Post: Feel Bad for Scott McClellan. “Yes, he was routinely sent to the briefing room with half-truths and lies, but McClellan’s tragic earnestness revealed that, on most occasions, he actually bought the spin that the White House was putting out. Flawed and inept as McClellan was, his obliviousness was ultimately his most consistent feature.”

His post has this observation from Christopher Hitchens during a radio interview: “I’m not the only person in Washington who wonders every day how that guy got that job. I mean, it’s an insult to the intelligence of everyone who has to listen to him.” Well, yeah, Hitch. That’s how he got the job! Bush decided to insult anyone who came looking for answers to questions.

Elizabeth Bumiller in the New York Times reports: “Mr. Bolten, who has been given a free hand by Mr. Bush to make changes, has told associates he wants to change the White House communications operation and is interested in press officers who have longtime contacts and ties with reporters in Washington.”

Julie Hirschfeld Davis of the Baltimore Sun:

Since he came to office more than five years ago, Bush has placed a premium on secrecy.His team had, until recently, excelled at promoting a carefully honed message with a united voice. That often forced McClellan to go before reporters armed with talking points that bore little relation to reporters’ questions and sometimes to provide answers that turned out to be inaccurate.

Those talking points that “bore little relation to reporters’ questions?” That’s what I called non-communication. She has some other choice quotes. Like Ron Nessen, press secretary under Gerald Ford: “Part of this administration’s problem is it’s not been able to explain its policies and actions very well.” Nice try, but no. Not explaining very well isn’t a management foible. It was a strategic choice for the White House, part and parcel with the inexplicable actions themselves.

Recovered Comments

I don’t know if this falls under “running out the clock” or something else, but another common McClellan tactic has been to insist that uncomfortable questions have already been answered. (Almost invariably they have not, of course.) My frequent perusal of gaggle and briefing transcripts suggests that the press calls him on this tactic about … well, pretty much never, actually.

Posted by: Lex at April 20, 2006 10:31 AM | Permalink

One of the more interesting tipoffs to how McClellan has been managed has been the revelation of talking points from Scooter Libby, in the form of verse, with line breaks and enjambment.

In other words, even the caesuras may have been scripted.

From the NYSun:

“People have made too much of the difference in

How I described Karl and Libby

I’ve talked to Libby.

I said it was ridiculous about Karl

And it is ridiculous about Libby.

Libby was not the source of the Novak story.

And he did not leak classified information.”

It is exactly in McClellan’s diction.

The question is, is it McClellan’s diction, or is it a short-lined, sound-bite verse form that was proscribed.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at April 20, 2006 11:41 AM | Permalink

I’ve been wondering how on earth you’d follow Scott’s act. What self-respecting journalist would take it? What kind of career move is this for a PR professional?

In other words, will a qualified candidate come in and say to the chief of staff/president, etc.: “You tried this rollback strategy, but I don’t think it has been successful and I can’t take the job if that’s what you’re going to expect from me.” The WH seems to be willing to loosen up a bit more recently (the president has been less scripted), but are they willing to change their tactics?

I think that might be a good move on their part, but I have a hard time imagining that they’d see it that way. If they “stay the course” on rollback, things could get very ugly.

As Olbermann said last night about the Tony Snow rumors: “If he gets the job, will Snow ask for back pay?”

Posted by: Daniel Conover at April 20, 2006 11:54 AM | Permalink

This is an excellent analysis of the deliberate demotion of the press by this administration.

The one thing it leaves out is the press’ complicity in it. The White House could not practice “press nullification” by itself. It requires the press to participate. And the press does so willingly. They are more concerned with access and appearances than with news.

The media is not a victim in this. It is a partner.

Posted by: Mark Howard at April 20, 2006 12:37 PM | Permalink

I don’t know that Tony Snow is inarticulate enough to fit the job description.

But I suppose he could learn …

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at April 20, 2006 12:57 PM | Permalink

How can not giving information NOT be ‘news management’? It is also called giving someone just enough rope to hang themselves.

President has gotten away with dissing the press, though the installation of a non-communcative press secretary. It has created a new balance of power between the president and the press,

However, maybe the power change was not a reaction to the president’s change in policy or personnel, but reflective of the change in power.

Posted by: Tim at April 20, 2006 01:06 PM | Permalink

The WH Press Corps didn’t change to counter the new treatment from this malAdministration. I’d love to see a few ideas from someone on what to do now that the game is uncovered.

Posted by: mommybrain at April 20, 2006 01:28 PM | Permalink

Sidney Blumenthal on Scotty

McClellan is a flea on the windshield of history. On the podium, he performed his duty as a slow-flying object swatted by a frustrated and flustered press corps. Inexpressive, occasionally inarticulate and displaying a limited vocabulary, his virtue was his unwavering discipline in sticking to his uninformative talking points, fending off pesky reporters, and defending the president and all the president’s men to the last full measure of his devotion. Inside the Bush White House, he was a non-player, a factotum, the instrument of Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political strategist and deputy chief of staff. McClellan played no part in the inner councils of state. He was the blank wall erected in front of the press to obstruct them from seeing what was on the other side. McClellan’s stoic façade was unmatched by a stoic interior. He was a vessel for his masters, did whatever he was told, put out disinformation without objection, and was willing to defend any travesty. He is the ultimate dispensable man.

Posted by: steve schwenk at April 20, 2006 01:33 PM | Permalink

This piece is now live at Salon, too.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at April 20, 2006 01:50 PM | Permalink

This is rehashing old territory I’m sure, but - re what countermoves the press could make, in response to this shift -

Mark said

> “It requires the press to participate. And the press does so willingly.

mommybrain said

> “I’d love to see a few ideas from someone on what to do now that the game is uncovered.

Who would have such ideas?

(a historian? given that “history is all the data that we have so far” (Paul Graham) this can’t be the first time in human history that this situation has come up; how has it been handled before, and with what success?)

And what would the ideas be?

(“not attending” is one, but voting with one set of feet doesn’t seem like a particularly effective way to change a situation; and “unionizing” (voting with many feet, or any other group strategy) isn’t likely to hold up…)

Some comments bearing on this, from Jay’s Rollback post:

“The press, even functioning at its “best,” simply isn’t configured to be a catch-all balance for all branches of government. It’s legal to lie to us, and reporters cannot force anyone to present their evidence.

I think we could improve our performance as journalists and this basic equation still would not change…”


“Perhaps the news media are like the military: the generals fight the new wars with the old tactics. Until they learn better.

I’m not sure the media are learning.”


(I think possible strategies were mentioned in some other past PressThink comment threads, but can’t recall where.)

“Don’t attend, since it’s useless; instead, get your info from informative sources” was the best strategy mentioned, as I recall.

But would there be a way to attend, and still make it into something of value?

(Greeley’s “McClellan sound bites” collection that Jay links to is one answer; are there others?)

Posted by: Anna Haynes at April 20, 2006 02:31 PM | Permalink

Excellent summation as usual, Jay. Like Tim upthread, I latched onto the word power, and it appears like others are picking up the theme. In your Bush Thesis post, you called it “muscle.”

Could you be bit more explicit on how the press could and whether it should flex its muscle and push back?

Posted by: Sven at April 20, 2006 02:52 PM | Permalink

“… Rollback— the attempt to downgrade the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country.”

Never before has a White House been so closely scrutinized by the press, and never before has a White House been so busy getting its message out through the press. The Bush White House hasn’t “rolled back” the press — but it has rolled back its willingness to communicate its messages solely through limited (or “elite”) press outlets. The Bush Administration gets the word out though conduits demonstrating a less antagonistic view the Administration’s policies and players.

“In my view, the White House withdrew from a consensus understanding of how the executive branch had to deal with journalists.”

Do tell, whose consensus was it? I suspect a good amount of the public would disagree that the old arrangement was in the Administration’s interest — or the public interest.

Posted by: Adam White at April 20, 2006 02:57 PM | Permalink

The consensus in Republican and Democratic White Houses during the age of news management, 1963 to 2003.

Sven and Tim: No time to answer now, but there was a PressThink post on it: To Liberate From the White House the White House Press.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at April 20, 2006 03:05 PM | Permalink

“… starving the beast, while reducing [the press’] effectiveness as an interlocutor with the President …”

I’d turn that around, or at least rewrite it to say “while further reducing”.

The role of interlocutor implies a conduit. The ineffectiveness of the press conduit to the people belongs to the press. It’s that ineffectiveness that makes “starving the beast” not only possible, but effective.

Posted by: Sisyphus at April 20, 2006 03:10 PM | Permalink

Rollback worked as long as public opinion was on Bush’s side, or closely split. But now that he is nearing Nixon terriroty in the polls, and now that Republicans are jumping ship in large numbers, it is no longer viable, at least as blatantly as Scotty played it. And I think that’s why the WH saw that Scotty had to go because he was no longer a tactic that worked. (It also sounds like Rove could be indicited real soon, further rendering Scotty a liability.)

Check out the new Fox poll numbers:

President Bush’s job approval rating slipped this week and stands at a new low of 33 percent approve, down from 36 percent two weeks ago and 39 percent in mid-March. A year ago this time, 47 percent approved and two years ago 50 percent approved (April 2004).

Approval among Republicans is below 70 percent for the first time of Bush’s presidency. Two-thirds (66 percent) approve of Bush’s job performance today, down almost 20 percentage points from this time last year when 84 percent of Republicans approved.

Posted by: steve schwenk at April 20, 2006 03:45 PM | Permalink

“The consensus in Republican and Democratic White Houses during the age of news management, 1963 to 2003.”

The major press, from 2001-current, has been startlingly antagonistic toward this Administration. Do you really expect the White House to not break from a (vaguely-stated) pre-existing “consensus” when there’s no such consistency on the other side of the table?

There are plenty of reasons to criticize in the White House message machine, but the failure to play nice with David Gregory, Dan Rather, and those similarly-situated is not one of those reasons.

Posted by: Adam White at April 20, 2006 03:49 PM | Permalink

The president didn’t disgrace or dis the press—the press has done that for itself. Very few people in America take the press seriously any more, and McClellan was an intentional thumb in your self-obsessed noses.

Stop trying to be the story and simply report it, and you might get some small modicum of respect back.

Nah! Too Late….

Posted by: DamnWalker at April 20, 2006 04:10 PM | Permalink

… and McClellan was an intentional thumb in your self-obsessed noses. — Posted by: DamnWalker


Mr. Walker:

I think that was exactly Mr. Rosen’s point.

Posted by: Ann Kolson at April 20, 2006 04:33 PM | Permalink

“When I hear people complain about the elite, I always ask them if they’d like to apply their principle to sports…”

- Samuel G. Freedman, from here

Posted by: Anna Haynes at April 20, 2006 04:40 PM | Permalink

Fried Green Al-Qaidas mashes up McClellan and E.T..

Brendan at Radio Open Source has funny McClellan clips.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at April 20, 2006 04:51 PM | Permalink

Let’s not forget that this move was preceded by Bush’s off-the-record outreach to journalists.

Mirroring the greater White House shakeup, this could very well be an actual shift in how this Administration does business (which would be good for the country), or it could be an illusion … which would fit the previous pattern, and which would therefore be not good for the country.

It certainly seems that a newly-energized White House Press Corps could take the opportunity — this briefing room power vacuum — to try to influence the direction of the Administration’s communications policy.

(BTW, Adam White said: The major press, from 2001-current, has been startlingly antagonistic toward this Administration. Maybe from August 31, 2005 or thereabouts — but this Administration enjoyed a pretty free pass between 9/11/01 and “Mission Accomplished”. You might want to go back and actually read some news reporting from that period, especially the runup to the Iraq War. A few newspapers have apologized to their readers for NOT having been critical enough in that period.)

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at April 20, 2006 05:14 PM | Permalink

… but this Administration enjoyed a pretty free pass between 9/11/01 and “Mission Accomplished”. You might want to go back and actually read some news reporting from that period, especially the runup to the Iraq War.

— Richard B. Simon

You are too kind, Richard. “A pretty free pass” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

With a very few exceptions, watch dogs became lap dogs.

“Gee, isnt it exciting ?!? We’re going to war

It’s an embarrassment that most of the Washington press corps will spend a lifetime living down.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at April 20, 2006 07:11 PM | Permalink

Do we even need a White House Press Corps anymore?

As each administration gets more adept at rollback, the value, not to mention the ‘prestige’ of a press gaggle assigned exclusively to the White House appears less useful. Each spokesman using more words to say less - or in McClellan’s case, say nothing at all.

When was the last significant news report that came out of that captive market of the Press Corps? Other DC-based or national reporters seem more capable of digging through the piles of information and by-stepping the gate guards.

Mind you, I’m still a little woozy from post-surgical pain meds, but I can’t really remember the last news break from the White House gang.


Posted by: Dave McLemore at April 20, 2006 08:24 PM | Permalink

It will be interesting, though, to see who the replacment will be.

— Rove — who crafted Rollback in the first place — has been demoted.

— McClellan has been sent packing.

— And Bolten, who seems really in charge, has, as Jay noted, ” told associates he wants to change the White House communications operation and is interested in press officers who have longtime contacts and ties with reporters in Washington.”

Suddenly, it looks less like rollback and more like faux engagement. The question remains: Is there any difference ?

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at April 20, 2006 09:00 PM | Permalink

The role of interlocutor implies a conduit. The ineffectiveness of the press conduit to the people belongs to the press. It’s that ineffectiveness that makes “starving the beast” not only possible, but effective.

I agree; The press has itself to blame. They did not really need to be at the white house (or at the Pentagon) to do their jobs. They are attracted to power and cannot seem to wean themselves away from the addiction. For example, Jason informs us that Mr. Rumsfeld gets the reception of a rockstar when he visits troops in the field because he treats the Pentagon reporters as “drooling morons”, and the troops apparently like this because they hate the reporters so much. Combine this with the fact that nothing useful (that could not have been covered by a single pool reporter) ever comes out of these get togethers other than face time with the powerful, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that most press organizations do not respect themselves or their mission. So for the most part, they deserve the scorn that they get.

For all the talk about rollback, the near absence of a cohesive response from the press is very telling, and ultimately more interesting ….

Posted by: village idiot at April 20, 2006 09:05 PM | Permalink

turd blossom, you don’t have policy anymore, just politics? what the diff?

McLemore, the WH beat is a strange prize. I can’t think of the last major story broken by a WH reporter. Don’t know if it’s possible from that beat.

Having cameras in the briefing room is a mistake. Being observed changes any situation, the people in fishbowl. Do we really want full transparency?

From a review of Russell Baker’s book, which I’ve linked to before:

Offered the job of White House correspondent, Mr. Baker accepted. He had been in London only a year, and he was not yet 30 years old. But his eyes were on larger things, and nothing was larger than the White House beat, Happy Valley on journalism’s long march. He discovered at once that the White House was barren, a place where you sat around listening to people breathe.

And covering Congress?

If I could get close to Russell Baker, I would know what was going on and I would not embarrass myself and the mighty news magazine I worked for … I did not know that Russell Baker of The New York Times, ornament of the reporter’s trade, 36 years old in 1961, wanted to bail out - tired “of sitting on marble floors, waiting for somebody to come out and lie to me.”

It takes drive and talent to become a DC journalist. But they need something else to stay around. I think McClellan and Rollback are/were a Bush, Rove isolated event. We will never see it again. No other WH will be so displined and not leak. It goes against human nature.

Posted by: bush’s jaw at April 20, 2006 09:47 PM | Permalink

Never before has a White House been so closely scrutinized by the press….

How true. Bob Woodward, Judy Miller, Adam Nagourney, Nedra Pickler, Fred Haitt, etc., they all tore Bush to shreds. Clinton, meanwhile, got the kid glove treatment.

Posted by: steve schwenk at April 20, 2006 10:17 PM | Permalink

For example, Jason informs us that Mr. Rumsfeld gets the reception of a rockstar when he visits troops in the field because he treats the Pentagon reporters as “drooling morons”, and the troops apparently like this because they hate the reporters so much. — village idiot.

Village, don’t get sucked in by Jason’s fantasy world. The troops in Iraq may hate the straw man of obtuse Pentagon reporters that Rumsfeld erects, but they welcome those reporters who actually venture into Iraq — especially now that so many news outlets have cut back on their presence in Iraq.

I sent a very good reporter, Paul McLeary, to Iraq for the month of January, and wherever he went — and he went to some pretty scary places — McLeary was welcomed by beleaguered soldiers eager to have someone tell their story.

Which, God bless him, he did.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at April 20, 2006 10:58 PM | Permalink

George Orwell on Scotty:

Though you could not actually hear what the man was saying, you could not be in any doubt about its general nature. He might be denouncing Goldstein and demanding sterner measures against thought criminals [the press] and saboteurs, he might be fulminating against the atrocities of the Eurasian army, he might be praising Big Brother or the heroes on the Malabar front — it made no difference. Whatever it was, you could be certain that every word of it was pure orthodoxy, pure Ingsoc … The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.

Thanks to Billmon

Posted by: steve schwenk at April 20, 2006 10:59 PM | Permalink


He’s obviously comfortable as just a cog in the greater machine. After all, the briefing he presides over is, as much as anything, a ritual (you can more easily explain how it got to be here than why it continues to exist) and a sideshow. (“One thing that the live briefings did,” McClellan says about the introduction of live broadcasts during the Clinton administration, “was attract a lot of colorful characters,” by which he means, without particular rancor, flaky people and media hounds.) In this and in other recent ad-ministrations, the high-end White House media and communication functions have been moved out of the traditional press office into a larger political sphere (Karl Rove is the real press secretary—or media general). What’s more, the Bush administration has taken a further step to downgrade the operation: it’s practically Bush policy to see the press corps as irrelevant and out of step with the American people.

The diminished role and stature of the place can’t be missed: the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room is gross—there’s the smell of disinfectant or long-lingering chlorine, broken seats, grungy carpets, harsh lighting, buckled acoustic tiling, shabby draperies (“Somebody fix the curtain—stage right, a white spot,” an exasperated cameraman kept yelling, at nobody in particular, on one of the recent days when I was in the room).

Posted by: steve schwenk at April 21, 2006 08:30 AM | Permalink

I think one important and devastatingly effective tactic for responding to the willfull, robotic, anti-democratic noncommunication of rollback has already been worked out—the videotape montage.

This is one of the keys to the Daily Show and has been used increasingly by Keith Olbermann. The samples of core talking points Jay refers to above are an audio version of this strategy. When you put together the clips of six different administration officials repeating “before the smoking gun becomes a mushroom cloud” it is exposed as the transparent, ludicrous script that it is. The speakers discredit themselves as robotic, focus-grouped mouthpieces.

Similarly with video clips juxtaposing on-the-record statements with later blatant lies about these same statements. It doesn’t take all that much commentary past letting liars hang themselves with their own lies. It’s usually right there on the tape. It would be a cinch to get five to ten minutes of Bush administration bald-faced lies juxtaposed with their previous statements to the contrary on the news ALMOST EVERY NIGHT. Why don’t we see it more than a couple of times a year, maybe in the week before an election? The broadcast media have been effectively censoring this stuff for five years. They are worse than partners in this dance of willfull deception and disinformation—they continue to enable fantastically distorted caricature to pass as foreign policy gravitas, most recently with the memory hole in which the media and the press have continued to leave the Bush administration refusal of Iranian diplomacy that has nearly demanded Iranian belligerence.

All a lot of this takes is the will to step out of the media/press deference to the king’s prerogatives and tell the truth. It’s not that hard to tell the truth.

What’s hard is to get the corporate courtiers running the media conglomerates to allow the truth to be told on the front page or in prime time. Spitting in the face of the king generally leads to a lower position in the oligarchy if not downright banishment. It is particularly unhelpful for receiving congressional earmarks and selective deregulation (what were the Indian bribes to Abramoff for if not selective regulation/deregulation?) in favor of your own particular interest. Selective deregulation has been the GOP’s ace in the corporate hole. In other words, telling the truth cuts media corporations out of the K Street auction of special interest legislation the 21st century Republican Party has built itself around. Rather than a marketplace of ideas, we have a marketplace AGAINST ideas.

What we need are press editors and broadcast media producers and ownership who don’t identify with the king and don’t take the approval of authority as the last word in news legitimacy regardless of whether the powers-that-be routinely lie or not. Producers and ownership who occasionally put the survival of the nation and the security of their families ahead of rigged competition and quarterly earnings. All they really have to do is stop pretending.

Bush is not Tinkerbell. All the media have to do take on rollback is just. stop. clapping.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at April 21, 2006 09:52 AM | Permalink

A few comments on what is generally a very interesting, insightful post by Prof Rosen.

First, Vanity Fair is not exactly what I’d cite for a creditable source on matters political. Fashion, yes. Celebrity gossip? Maybe (if I cared). But, citing VF on politics really diminishes one’s credibility.

Next, none of these stories are even remotely civil. There was a time in this country one could disagree without name calling (“jerk”). The question isn’t “who started it” (I neither know nor care) but whether we’ll take the responsibility for restoring a sober, rational tone to political dialogue. If a journalism professor is incapable of that, I’m afraid we’re in even worse shape than I thought.

Posted by: adr at April 21, 2006 10:17 AM | Permalink

Bush radicalized me, adr. And yes, we are in much worse shape than you thought.

I received this by e-mail and got permission to post it from the author. It’s one of the best notes I have gotten from a reader in three years of doing PressThink.

Dear Jay Rosen,

I really liked your post on Rollback, because it made me feel like you assembled nonsensical actions I have observed many times into a coherent, and convincing, story. It made me want to shout and say “Thank goodness somebody sees what’s happening!”

I also really liked Gwen Ifill’s question about AIDS to the vice-presidential candidates in the 2004 debate. It made me jump up and yell at my television because I was so happy that a moderator actually asked a personal, pointed question. (Too bad they didn’t answer it.)

So when I had the opportunity hear Gwen Ifill speak at the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church (near Philadelphia, PA) tonight, I decided to ask her about the issues you have identified.

My question was written on a cue card and was actually one of the two dozen or so chosen to be answered. I wrote: “[In your speech tonight], you said ‘The media is born to be adversarial.’ But the current administration responds to adversarial questions by deflecting them. The media has been trying the same strategy for 5+ years. What responsibility does the Washington media have to try a NEW strategy?”

I wrote down her answer, but I did not capture it verbatim… I don’t mind if you want to quote what I say, but please don’t quote her since I don’t have 100% accuracy in my notes.

She said (paraphrasing Gwen Ifill)

I covered Bill Clinton, and HE spent a lot of time deflecting questions. What the meaning of ‘is’ is. [laughter] Let’s go back to LBJ, to Nixon and his enemies list…. There is such a history of this that saying this administration is worse than any other is not true.


On live TV, they can spin out the answer [until time runs out] and you [just end up] saying “But Secretary Rice, you didn’t answer my question.” In print journalism, you can try to come at the question in several different ways [and sometimes get a better answer].


There has been a breakdown in agreement between journalists and the people they cover, where we know it’s their job to answer our questions, and they don’t.


What I found maddening about her answer was the initial total denial that anything about the playing field has changed. The “everybody evades” answer, is probably partly my fault because I did use the word “deflect” in my question but I was writing quickly and couldn’t think of a better word.

As she went on, she addressed the common (real) problem of how to get a professional politician off the track they want to go down. Which is fine, it’s a perfectly legitimate problem for journalists, but it wasn’t my question.

And then at the very end, she started to touch on what you have articulated so well. The administration does not accept the rules of journalism as (unconsciously) shared by the full-time, high-profile journalists working in Washington today. And the few journalists that recognize this seem just to be whining that “They’re not playing by the RUUUUULLLES”.

OK! They’re not. Meantime, decisions are being made that imprison people without trial, subject them to torture and death, and otherwise reshape the river channel that’s been guiding the progress of our republic for the last 225+ years.

Am I crazy to be so angry at journalists for this? I don’t watch television but I read widely and voraciously and I give money to the League of Women Voters and I write letters to the editor and I always, always vote.

I know journalists face pressure to be commercially appealing and pressure in a lot of other directions too, but — who was it that said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? It feels like that’s what the journalists who have the most visible daily access to the federal government are doing. Why aren’t they trying something different? And if they won’t or can’t, why can’t I fire the White House press corps and send in some people who will?

Sorry for ranting at you when you are just the person who has most successfully framed the problem. I did think you might want to know that there is a nonpartisan, non-journalist reader of your blog who loves what you have to say and is trying to take it out into the world.

-Amanda Bergson-Shilcock

That sentiment from Ifill—“We know it’s their job to answer our questions, and they don’t”—says it all. As I told Harris: They changed the game on you, and they knew you wouldn’t react.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at April 21, 2006 11:03 AM | Permalink

From Canada, evidence that Rollback is being tried by the new government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper, Press Gallery row intensifies.

Canadian J-professor Mark Hamilton comments:

Canadian Conservatives are not, on the whole, the equivalent of that part of the American Republican Party that is currently wielding power. But the parties do share a deep distrust of the “liberal” media. And evidence is mounting that suggests control of message is a priority for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. As the situation in the states appears to be showing, nullifying the press works as well as — or perhaps better than — spinning it.

It’s not “control of message.” Every government wants that. It’s control by nullifying the press. Not every government has tried that.

Fine Young Journalist has more on the Canadian connection.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at April 21, 2006 11:30 AM | Permalink

So the administration is rolling you guys back? Or at least the WH press corps.

So? Your job is to find out stuff and present it fairly and objectively. Complaining that it’s harder to do in the WH press room than it used to be is juvenile.

I don’t talk to many people about the traditional news, but I will say that nobody has ever started a conversation with, “Did you see at the WH briefing….?” except for one guy who did, referring to that jerk Gregory.

Whether it’s McClellan or somebody else, the WH press secretary’s job is to give the WH press corps what the administration wants the WH press corps to know. That’s not new and it’s not a secret. They may as well hand out sheets of paper with the information on it. The hope of the journos there, apparently, is to spook the press secretary into saying something he’d rather not have said. The secretary’s job is to not do that.

What a barren, sterile, impotent and useless exercise.

To consider this a plum job is breathtaking. It ought to be considered demeaning. Tell me. If there were no cameras there, would we have anybody who had the clout to be assigned to, say, Omsk and Tomsk instead, allowing himself to be stuck in that room?

Get over this and do some reporting.

I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t say that the rollback

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 20, 2006 9:36 AM