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Master Media Manipulations and the Art of War(-selling)

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The news cycle is notoriously ADHD, rushing with the excitement of a six-year-old kid from one story to the next to the next in a relentless barrage of sound and light and, occasionally, genuinely important information. The tragedy of this (one of many, really) is how quickly most stories die, and the even bigger tragedy is that the important-but-boring ones (habeas corpus? Yawn!) tend to get buried alive beneath the shallow but flashy ones (did you know there were at least five cans of Slim Fast in Anna Nicole Smith's death fridge?).

While I'd by no means compare the relevance of the coronation of the Democratic nominee to the relevance of famous cleavage forever lost (though they are both huge stories . . . haha, get it?), the fact remains that the story of Obama's victory has and will continue to drown out all the other recent news. And boy, was there some big news made by Scott McClellan this week. And it deserves to be kept alive.

I did an interview earlier this week for al Jazeera English's Listening Post, a weekly media review show (tune in to the live streaming vid at 14:30 GMT on Friday to watch me say "um" 157 times in three minutes, or catch it after on YouTube), to discuss McClellan's accusations about the media and the media's subsequent responses to him. One of the questions I was asked was, "In what ways did McClellan say the Bush White House controlled the media," and it got me thinking that even though McClellan listed several shameful tactics, there were many, many more he'd neglected to mention--things the Bush administration did to sell the Iraq war, and things they're still doing even now. Those stories are too important to be forgotten, too important to be swept away on the rush of the 24/7 news stream. So like Keith Olbermann in his absolutely fabulous nightly segment "Bushed!" where he keeps the news of past Bush scandals alive (and believe me, he could fill a year without ever repeating himself), I'd like to take today to remind you of Bush's many past attempts, and successes, at media oppression.

Let's begin with what McClellan copped to. First and foremost, he admitted to the Plame/Wilson affair. Old news, you say? Yes, except for the part where a Bush insider bluntly states that the leak of Plame's identity as an undercover CIA agent was either to discredit or punish Wilson (at the end of the book, he clarifies that he doesn't believe it was the latter but can't be sure). Yes, okay, that's still old news, but it's Admitted Egregious Abuse #1: the use of intimidation and mudslinging to discredit or frighten any members of the media who dared to challenge the party line.

Admitted Egregious Abuse #2 was the daily communications gathering, wherein senior Bushies would get together each morning to shape what McClellan openly referred to as propaganda (totes illegal, btw), deciding on their message and making sure that everyone stayed on point. When the press got wind of this, the backlash was such that the meetings were de-formalized -- reduced to a very small and intimate handful of staffers who would discuss their media narratives in a hallway or an office as they passed each other by -- but never suspended. Pushing the idea of WMD in Iraq was a decision made in such meetings, chosen not because it was the administration's prime desire for invading Iraq (the prime desire, McClellan states, was to reshape the Middle East via the spread of democracy), but rather because it was the one thing all senior staffers could agree on as the surefire sell to the American public, who'd had quite enough of empire-building at least a century ago.

Admitted Egregious Abuse #3 was restricting press access to senior administration officials and filtering all information requests through McClellan. This might not have been so bad if McClellan had actually been informed about anything at all ever, but he was left deliberately and routinely ignorant, and therefore so was the Washington Press Corps.

Admitted Egregious Abuse #4 was the selective declassification of information from the National Intelligence Estimate. Though McClellan says Bush claimed to hate selective declassification (and McClellan himself still claims to hate it), Bush obviously had no qualms about picking and choosing which facts would best help him to sell his pet war. In this way, the media were kept in the dark about little things like Iraq having no discernible connection to al-Qaeda, but were drilled endlessly with statements like "Iraq has WMD," even though the full line on the NIE probably looked more like this: "We have found no proof that Iraq has WMD."

And while that alone is probably enough to curdle your milk, let us not forget all the other Egregious Abuses, the ones McClellan didn't talk about, that happened during and after his tenure in the White House.

For starters, there was all the intimidation and corporate pressure that went unmentioned in McClellan's book. Like Ashleigh Banfield, whose post-9/11 meteoric rise at MSNBC came to an abrupt and fiery end when she criticized the blindly patriotic war coverage in April of 2003 by talking about "cable news operators who wrap themselves in the American flag and go after a certain target demographic." NBC publicly rebuked her for being too critical of the war and then fired her shortly after. Phil Donahue was also fired from his top-rated show on MSNBC for being "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war," i.e. "too combative," often saying things that were considered "almost unpatriotic."

And when terrorizing individual reporters didn't shut them up, Bushco simply took away their access. Katie Couric, for instance, in her (really quite excellent) interview with McClellan last week, recounted a story where she claimed McClellan called NBC and threatened to deny the network access after she asked him a tough question. The Bush White House controlled -- and still controls -- access in other ways, as well. Ever wonder why Americans never see pictures of a bazaar after a car bomb goes off inside? Photographers aren't allowed on scene to shoot them. Embedded reporters are controlled even more strictly by their military minders. Most controlled are the soldier bloggers, whose posts are carefully vetted for any information that might be found "unseemly" or against the administration's message.

Another access-restriction tactic was Bush's gutting of the Freedom of Information Act, not once but twice in his tenure in the White House. And here's one you might not even have heard of when the news broke the first time around: BushCo frequently orchestrated presidential press conferences, calling on reporters in a pre-selected order with a pre-approved set of questions, rather than choosing at random from the sea of raised hands. This may have neutered the WH Press Corps more than anything else, since the only way to get called on, ever, was to show them the softball you planned to lob and then lob it according to script.

But hey, why bother with those pesky reporters at all when you could just buy your own experts? Armstrong Williams, a prominent right-wing pundit, was paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars to tout Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation on his television show. Of course he talked about the legislation, but not the money. (Pesky Congress with their pesky anti-propaganda laws!) The same trick was repeated again by the Pentagon with their "message force multipliers" in a recently broken but virtually ignored story (except you, New York Times; we still love you). Who, after all, wants to admit that they'd been so epically careless as to allow retired generals with ties to defense contractors sit as "experts" on their panels and spew Pentagon talking points? Yet in this particular case, the mainstream media were as complicit in their manipulation as the Bush administration was, and not just because they fell down on their background checks; by not blasting this outrageous propaganda effort across the airwaves, they increase the likelihood of it happening again, now that BushCo has gotten away with it not just once but twice. And in an even more brazen attempt at propaganda, the Bush administration ordered up video news releases, promoting legislative changes to the health and education systems with a pretty face disguised as a real journalist, never bothering to tell the viewers that she wasn't.

I've no doubt there's more, but I've spent the last two hours throwing up a little in my mouth and by now you've surely gotten the point anyway. So, what's the lesson from all this? Firstly, don't believe everything you hear. Just because someone said it on the teevee does not make it true; it doesn't necessarily even make it real news. Always question your source, always question what they have to gain or lose by telling the truth or bending it (or outright breaking it), and always seek sources that don't simply echo your own opinion. Republicans should watch a little MSNBC and democrats should watch a little Fox; see what the other side is saying with an open mind and try to expand your worldview a little. Secondly, old news is not necessarily no news; just because something's no longer on the front page doesn't mean it doesn't affect your life every single day. There is no consoling the families of the 4,100 Americans and 1 million Iraqis who've died since 2003 as a direct result of the Bush media machine and its ability to sell his shameful war. The least we can do is remind the world of what he did and how he did it, lest we allow it to happen again.

(Some research cred for this piece goes to my friend Eliza, who stayed up all night helping me prep for the interview and routinely snarks her own way through the CNN nightly news here.)