THE BLOG
07/16/2005 12:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rollback

The brutalizing of Scott McClellan at the White House podium on Monday is a development with long roots. They stretch well beyond the particulars of what McClellan earlier said about Karl Rove and the use of Valerie Plame to discredit Joseph Wilson. Frustrations roared to life that day from hundreds of briefings prior:

MCCLELLAN: If you'll let me finish.

Q: No, you're not finishing. You're not saying anything. You stood at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved. And now we find out that he spoke about Joseph Wilson's wife. So don't you owe the American public a fuller explanation. Was he involved or was he not? Because contrary to what you told the American people, he did indeed talk about his wife, didn't he?

MCCLELLAN: There will be a time to talk about this, but now is not the time to talk about it.

Q: Do you think people will accept that, what you're saying today?

MCCLELLAN: Again, I've responded to the question.

QUESTION: You're in a bad spot here, Scott...

And so he was. The immediate cause for Monday's events, where the press finally held McClellan in contempt of country, was an old-fashioned breakdown in official credibility. It happened when statements from the podium were rendered inoperative by Michael Isikoff's report for Newsweek, posted Sunday, July 10.

The press attacks when it feels openly lied to. (Emphasis on "openly.") Also when it senses weakness, which of course means it's safer to attack. Dana Milbank spoke for most of the reporters when he said to McClellan: "It is now clear that 21 months ago, you were up at this podium saying something that we now know to be demonstratively false." (See also David Corn.) The press secretary and the White House didn't try to contest it, choosing silence until the prosecutor is done.

Lying to the press--though a serious thing--is what all administrations do. In Washington leaking to damage people's credibility or wreck their arguments is routine, a bi-partisan game with thousands of knowing participants. I rarely see it mentioned that Joseph Wilson (who is no truthtelling hero) began his crusade by trying to leak his criticisms of the Bush White House. When that didn't work he went public in an op-ed piece for the New York Times.

But business as usual is not going to explain what happened in the Valerie Plame case, or tell us why its revelations matter. For that we need to enlarge the frame.

My bigger picture starts with George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Andrew Card, Dan Bartlett, John Ashcroft plus a handful of other strategists and team players in the Bush White House, who have set a new course in press relations. (And Scott McClellan knows his job is to stay on that course, no matter what.) The Bush team's methods are unlike the handling of the news media under prior presidents because their premises are so different.

This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called "feeding the beast"--because it has a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country, but also less of a wild card in fighting enemies of the state in the permanent war on terror.

Depending on audience and situation, rollback is seen as:

  • newly necessary (terrorists exploit the weaknesses of an open society, and a headline hungry, exposure-minded, irresponsible and unaccountable press gives the bad guys too much of an edge);

  • long overdue (the "liberal media" is thought to be the opposition's camp, and culture war demands that it, like the others, be routed);

  • well-suited to George W. Bush (who is impatient with critical questioning, and not good at sparring with the press without misspeaking);

  • in tune with Americans (who don't buy the heroic image the press has of itself);

  • a consequence of a more disciplined and loyal White House (which stays on message and doesn't leak without authorization);

  • payback for Watergate (among some Republicans with long memories.)
  • Back 'em up, starve 'em down, and drive up their negatives: this policy toward the press has many strengths as a working piece of politics, and supporters of it abound within the Bush coalition. 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.

    This is why Bush the Younger's political project inevitably collides with journalism, a conflict that has largely been won by the Bush forces. They have succeeded in changing the terms of engagement with journalists. Monday's evisceration of McClellan happened only because a third party--the prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald--altered the power equation. At Whiskey Bar, the astute Lefty blogger Billmon wrote about this (July 13th):

    Spinning unfavorable media stories is easy; deflecting accusations from the hapless Democrats easier still. But the Rovians are dealing with a prosecutor and a grand jury who mean business, and a set of federal judges who appear to have found the evidence presented to them rather compelling... they face the possibility that whatever story they try to peddle could be quickly and definitively proven false by hard legal evidence -- just as the carefully constructed non-denial denials [from] Scotty McClellan were blasted to bits by Matt Cooper's e-mail.

    His point: The brutalizing of McClellan was no recovery of courage by a suddenly-awakened press. It was the Bush team's bald assertiveness coming into conflict with truth collection in the criminal justice system, which has exposed a seamy story that journalists themselves would have kept hidden because it involves their confidential sources. (See Howard Fineman's very different analysis.)

    In the normal conduct of McClellan's briefings, the non-answer (a refusal to engage a question, or even grant it validity) has become the standard answer. "Why bother asking...?" then arises as a problem in professional conscience. It involves trying to estimate the value of having another empty reply in the record of what the White House spokesman said. As Fineman wrote:

    The deliberately colorless Ari Fleischer raised the content-free “briefing” to a dismal high art; Scott McClellan... is if anything, even less communicative and, unlike Fleischer, who once worked on the more media-friendly Hill, never betrays the slightest sense of guilt about saying nothing.

    And that guiltlessness is a critical factor in his success. The very art of "spin," which we still talk about, is the old model speaking. The original logic of spin assumed the story the press told was a kind of base line in the public narrative. Therefore you had to win the spin by playing the game of interpreting events with journalists. Bush has challenged that assumption.

    Of course Bush spin is still around-- lots of it. But notice: Scott McClellan isn't particularly good at spin or telling the President's side of the story. That's not the game anymore. His are the skills of non-communication; he was hired to absorb questions and let no light escape through his non-answers. Beyond that he repeats a pre-determined White House line in rote (many say robotic) fashion.

    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. (See my earlier posts here and here on it.) They have moved on, and take it for granted that adversaries will not be as bold.

    The old notion (still being taught in J-school, I'm afraid) had the press permanently incorporated into the republic as one part of the system of checks and balances-- not a branch of government, but a necessary, vital and legitimate part of open government and a free society. The First Amendment was interpreted as protection for that part of the system, and this is the grand thinking behind which Judy Miller has gone to jail.

    Within government, a representative figure for the pre-rollback era is David Gergen, the consummate insider who served as White House advisor to Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. He preached to both parties, the press, and television audiences a cautious realism in White House media relations. It's long gone now but (in my paraphrase) it went something like this:

    "The White House has a right to get its message out. The press has a right to question and probe. There are going to be conflicts (and during scandals much worse) but they ought to remain within bounds. The press needs the Administration, it's number one source. The Administration can be hurt by bad press, and helped by good relations with reporters. So calm down and let's get on with producing White House news together."

    Or as Larry Speakes, fomer press secretary to Ronald Reagan, once put it: "You don't tell us how to stage the news, and we don't tell you how to report it." It's no surprise that Gergen moved easily from one Administration to the next, and from government into journalism and back. He had the insider's consensus narrative in his pocket. But what if one party unilaterally withdraws from Gergen-style managerialism? There's nothing in the press playbook about that.

    Ken Aueltta of the New Yorker was one of the first to notice the shift and try to describe it. (See Fortress Bush and this interview.) In January of 2004 he wrote: "For perhaps the first time, the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders - pleaders for more access and better headlines - as if the press were simply another interest group, and moreover, an interest group that's not nearly as powerful as it once was."

    Not as powerful, and unsure of what to do about it. In switching from news management (think Gergen) to roll back (think John Ashcroft) the Bush Team was recognizing certain weaknesses in its adversary. Not only could it count on culture warriors to drive up the negatives of the liberal elites in journalism, but also on broader trends reducing the size and influence of the Legacy Media, therefore weakening the Washington bureaus from without and above. The simple fact that the public can download the Administration's story from whitehouse.gov (a media page) is part of the change. The Economist described it well in March:

    Behind all this lies a shift in the balance of power in the news business. 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.

    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. Rove and company understand this. They know the press can be done to. It rarely knows how to "do" back. (Here is Milbank's 2002 effort in the Washington Post: "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable." He barely gets any traction.)

    "Executive freedom on the terrain of fact itself" is my way of describing what the Downing Street Memo said: "facts were being fixed around the policy." Which is also what author Ron Suskind was getting at in a celebrated passage from his 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine, "Without a Doubt." Today it is mocked by the Right as crackpot realism. I think the passage, which adds little to the documentary record since the official who speaks is unnamed, is a parable about recent innovations in executive power.

    Suskind, as you may recall, wrote of a meeting with a "senior adviser to the President," who expressed his displeasure with an article Suskind had written about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes (one of the architects of rollback.) "Then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend-- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency." The parable:

    The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''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.''

    Today the prosecutor is studying what they do, and there's no way to roll that back. In a Salon interview after the Times article came out, Suskind (whose sources were mostly Republicans) was asked whether the Bush forces were indeed trying to "eliminate a national point of reference on facts."

    Absolutely! That's the whole idea, to somehow sweep away the community of honest brokers in America -- both Republicans and Democrats and members of the mainstream press -- sweep them away so we'll be left with a culture and public dialogue based on assertion rather than authenticity, on claim rather than fact.

    No more honest brokers; claims take the place of facts. Disguised by the culture war's ranting about media bias, these very things are happening all around us today. Limits on what liberties could be taken with the factual record without triggering a political penalty are being overcome. Joseph Wilson interfered with this, forcing the White House to pay a penalty: the so-called sixteen words in the State of the Union speech that had to be withdrawn after his op-ed. So he had to pay. And that's how rollback, freedom over fact, culture war, and the naming of Valerie Plame connect to one another.

    I should add that rollback intersects with trends in journalism that, as Tom Rosenstiel notes, are promoting a "journalism of assertion" (cheap, easy, safe) over the discipline of verification (expensive, hard, and certain to spur more attacks as the culture war wears on.)

    Also, Team Bush has been aided immeasurably in its strategy by various lapses and excesses in journalism, including major breaches in public trust like Dan Rather's Sixty Minutes story about Bush's military service, and faulty reporting during the build-up to the war in Iraq. When the press is damaging itself in the eyes of the public, and under automatic attack, it's hard to recover any lost ground. Writing in the New York Times May 22, reporter Patrick Healty said:

    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.

    When "no unified front" meets "roll back the press" and the discipline of the Bush White House, it really is no contest.

    A PressThink reader pointed me to this testimony at a public hearing organized by Senate Democrats on the Valerie Plame disclosures and the effect of outing an agent (Oct. 24, 2003). (Also discussed by Talk Left.) The speaker is Vince Cannistraro, former Chief of Operations and Analysis, CIA Counterterrorism Center, and now a terrorism consultant. His is one of the better descriptions I have found of that strange feature of the Bush governing style Suskind called "a retreat from empiricism."

    CANNISTRARO: ...There was a pattern of pressure placed on the analysts to provide supporting data for objectives which were already articulated. It's the inverse of the intelligence ethic. Intelligence is supposed to describe the world as it is and as best you can find it, and then policymakers are supposed to use that to formulate their own policies. In this case, we had policies that were already adopted and people were looking for the selective pieces of intelligence that would support those policy objectives.

    This ethic in government (stating that the White House is entitled to its own facts, and what are you going to do about it?) has brought the Administration into conflict with the CIA, with the press, and now with Republican prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. All are engaged in empirical work--truth collection and verification--of one variety of another.

    My final thought: "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages," said Ronald Reagan on March 4, 1987. "My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not." I wonder what caused him to say that, because whatever it was seems to be much weaker today.
    This originally appeared at my weblog, PressThink, where you can find additional material, including reactions from bloggers and, of course, comments.