by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 25, 2003
CONTROL THE PICTURES, CONTROL THE TRUTH
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- President Bush's "war on terror" has been a war that's been long on stagecraft and short on results. The recent terror bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the continuing civil chaos in Iraq and the resurgence of the warlords in Afghanistan are just the latest examples of this.
The Bush administration likes to preen before the television cameras and claim credit for anything that looks good. It also likes to disappear when the going gets tough. The laziness of the press allows the Bush administration to get away with this. You keep hearing about a 70 percent approval rating for President Bush, but you see precious little in the way of accomplishments to justify that figure.
You'd think that the May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh - the biggest terrorist strike against U.S. interests since the Sept. 11 attacks - would have been big news for days. It hasn't been. Why? Could it be because the Bush administration would rather not discuss the matter since it doesn't fit their master narrative of steady gains against the forces of evil?
You may have read the story that was in the May 16 edition of The New York Times on how the White House has so consistently been able to showcase President Bush in dramatic and perfectly lighted settings. According to Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, it's because the White House has assembled a formidable team with network television experience who know the importance of lighting, camera angles and backdrops.
Even Michael Deaver, who raised image manipulation to an art form working for President Reagan, marvels at the skill of the Bush administration. "They understand the visual as well as anybody has," Deaver told the Times.
The Bush administration also understands that most people won't bother to take the time to make sense of whatever the president says and whether it passes the smell test.
"We pay particular attention to not only what the president says but also what the American people see," White House director of communications Dan Bartlett told the Times. "Americans are leading busy lives, and sometimes they don't have the opportunity to read a story or listen to an entire broadcast. But if they have an instant understanding of what the president is talking about by seeing 60 seconds of television, you accomplish your goal as communicators."
That's why you see those backdrops behind President Bush emblazoned with whatever the message of the day is. A casual television viewer sees the president, sees the words "Helping Small Business" or "Strengthening Social Security" and then concludes that the president must be doing something to help small business or to keep Social Security from going broke.
It's almost useless for a reporter to point out that the president's message and motives are often completely the opposite of the visuals. President Reagan proved that people just pay attention to the pretty pictures and tune out whatever the press corps is saying.
Control the visuals, and you control the story. That's why President Bush is probably the most stage-managed president in history. His handlers have masterfully exploited the sad fact that most Americans get their news from television. Television demands dramatic pictures and simple narratives, and that's exactly what American viewers get from the Bush White House.
One can argue that Gulf War II was simply one big photo-op, or more accurately, an advertisement to the rest of the world of what will happen when the U.S. decides it wants "regime change." Without the presence of the television cameras, the expensive fireworks show over Baghdad in the opening days of the war probably wouldn't have happened. Once the visuals changed from triumphant conquering soldiers to wanton lawlessness, Iraq pretty much dropped off the television news radar. Explaining the messiness of being an occupying force was left to the newspapers; a news medium that fewer and fewer people rely on.
The central premise of the invasion of Iraq - besides getting rid of Saddam Hussein - was to ferret out his alleged cache of weapons of mass destruction because they posed a clear and present danger to the safety of America. That these weapons have not yet been found and may never have existed in the first place in the types and quantities claimed by the Bush administration seems to not to matter to the people who planned and promoted the invasion.
But if making Americans feel safer was the goal of Gulf War II, exactly the opposite happened. Jonathan Stevenson, senior fellow for counter-terrorism at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Toronto Star that the U.S. focus on Iraq gave al-Qaeda a chance to regroup and that invading Iraq encouraged more people to join al-Qaeda.
Did the Bush administration realize that attacking Iraq would increase support for al-Qaeda and increase the likelihood of more terror attacks? Stevenson thinks so, but that they estimated the long-term impact of setting up a democratic regime in Iraq outweighed the short-term threat of more terror attacks.
That's a good theory, but it doesn't look like Iraq will get a chance at seeing any sort of democratic government. The U.S. plans to be in control of Iraq indefinitely and won't leave until it has a pliant Iraqi regime that will do its bidding.
Alas, there are no great visuals to go with this story and the White House - which seems to be the ultimate arbiter of what's news these days - doesn't want to talk about it. So this story, like all of the other stories that have pointed out what has been happening in the aftermath of our "victory" in Iraq, get pushed to the margins where only the determined news consumer can find them.
And that's why President Bush still has a 70 percent approval rating. If most of what the average person who watches television sees and hears is controlled by the White House, that's the response you'll get when you take an opinion poll.
Control the visuals and you control not only the story, but the whole nation.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).