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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cheney Shooting is a Reality Check for the MSM

Vice-President Dick Cheney's decision to inform a local Texas newspaper instead of the White House Press Pool about his hunting accident sparked outrage in the daily briefing room and a flood of hot commentary in the mainstream media elite and the Left side of the Blogosphere.

On the Left and among top national Democrats, the most common and simplistic take on Cheney's actions following the accident goes something like this: The Bush administration hates the press, loves secrecy and abuses its powers against its perceived enemies, much like Richard Nixon did in the Watergate Era, so Cheney was simply acting in character by sticking a thumb in the eye of the White House press corps.

A much more sophisticated take on the significance of Cheney's post-accident media strategy is found on Prof. Jay Rosen's always entertaining PressThink blog. At the height of the Plamegate controversy, Rosen presented a theory in which he posited that Bush has consciously undertaken a "Rollback" strategy meant to isolate and discredit the national media.

Here's Rosen's thesis statement on the meaning of Rollback:

"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 ... 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."

Rosen goes on to list what he sees as the arguments underlying the strategy:

"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.)"

Put simply, according to Rosen, Rollback is designed to:

"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."

Rosen was ahead of many of the mainstream media's most perceptive political observers and analysts in seeing a White House media strategy that went way beyond simply spinning journalists to advance the Bush policy agenda.

Now, fast-forward to Cheney's post-accident media actions. How does Rosen see this controversy in the context of Rollback?

"The way I look at it, Cheney took the opportunity to show the White House press corps that it is not the natural conduit to the nation-at-large; and it has no special place in the information chain.

"Cheney does not grant legitimacy to the large news organizations with brand names who think of themselves as proxies for the public and its right to know. Nor does he think the press should know where he is, what he's doing, or who he's doing it with ..."

"The handling of the news that Cheney shot someone is consistent with many things we know about the Vice President - and about the Bush Administration's policies toward the press ... Cheney's methods after the hunting accident were classics in rollback thinking."

The good professor is right, there is clearly a more deeply thought-out communications strategy in the Bush administration than in any previous White House, including Mike Deaver's famous "Morning in America" campaign during the Reagan era.

But I think Rosen misses a critical element of the Bush strategy in a way that is exemplified in the quote immediately above. Note the first graph's reference to Rosen's bellief the White House sees no special place for the White House press corps. Then note the reference to "Bush administration policies toward the press."

Clearly, Rosen sees the White House press corps as synonymous with "the press" as an institution, just as do folks generally in the mainstream media. Rosen assumes the Bush people do, too.

Put another way, the meme goes something like this: If White House press spokesman Scott McClellan is anything less than obsequiously forthcoming in response to questions from David Gregory, it proves Rollback is aimed at repealing the "freedom of the press" clause of the First Amendment.

I haven't talked with anybody in the Bush White House and have only met Dan Bartlett once in my life (and I suspect he was not impressed!), so I don't claim any special knowledge here. But I'll bet dollars to donuts that Rollback has nothing to do with repeal of the First Amendment and everything to do with a hard-headed recognition of a new reality about the definition of "the press" and the communications strategy that follows from that definition.

Cheney called the local newspaper because, he said, he was more confident the resulting story would be accurate, based on an eyewitness account to a reporter with a history of playing it straight with that eyewitness.

"I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knows and understands hunting," Cheney told Fox News' Brit Hume. "Then it would immediately go up to the wires and be posted on the Web site, which is the way it went out. I thought that was the right call. I still do."

Unless one is prepared to argue a conspiracy theory - Cheney used the delay between the accident and when the call was made to the newspaper to shape what was said to the reporter and to local law enforcement authorities - it is clear Cheney thought a local newspaper was more likely to report the accident accurately than a confrontational, liberally biased White House press corps.

The context for that decision is simple: Like it or not, the mainstream national media long ago lost much of its credibility with the public and has for many years been losing great chunks of its audience to Talk Radio, cable news and the Internet. The MSM is no longer the mainstream or national.

Indeed, one can make the case that entirely apart from ideological considerations it is rapidly becoming possible to communicate effectively with the general public without according the shrinking mainstream media anything remotely like the respect it once commanded. And still demands.

And nobody in this or any other White House is naive or stupid enough to think they can silence Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly or Powerline. Or DailyKos, MyDD or Comments from Left Field. Or PressThink, Tapscott's Copy Desk or (Lord help them if they ever try) Jeff Jarvis!

Bottomline: Rollback means "reality check."


Mark in Mexico knows a lot about quail hunting. He also knows arrogant ignorance when he sees it, such as when Newsweek's Managing Editor Jon Meachum talks about the Cheney accident. Here's his summary graph on what he heard:

"So, on Monday morning, a full 16 or so hours after the story had come out and a lot more details were known as well as a lot that were still not yet disseminated, the managing editor of Newsweek on a nationally syndicated radio show demonstrates his ignorance of quail hunting outside the state of Tennessee with servants and Bloody Marys, insults the victim (twice) and slanders the vice president. Does one wonder why ad revenues are down at Newsweek and the magazine survives with pithy stories about Michael Jackson's sexual preferences for young boys and Janet's boob flopping? I don't."

Go here for the rest of Mark's fisking, which includes some interesting observations about campesinos and snake chaps.

UPDATE II: Karl Rove Knows

Turns out I was more right than I realized about the White House recognition of the declining importance of the MSM. Check out this story from Insight, including this observation:

"GOP sources said Mr. Rove and his team of White House strategists have determined that bloggers are more important than the mainstream media in shaping public opinion. They point to the turnaround in public opinion during the confirmation hearings of then-Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito."

Looks like at least some of Alito's enduring significance might be his (unintended) role in opening White House eyes to the power of the Blogosphere.