Consider the worst of recent examples. I believe the Bush administration sold the March 2003 invasion of Iraq to the American people beginning with a public-relations campaign that started in August 2002. Vice President Dick Cheney kicked it off with a series of speeches on the growing threat from Saddam Hussein, and it continued almost daily, with key members of the administration giving speeches, statements, or press conferences. The result was that the threat from Saddam Hussein—his alleged nuclear weapons, the idea that he would give chemical or biological weapons to terrorists—dominated news coverage right up to the time the first missiles hit Baghdad on March 19, 2003.
Manipulation of the media was taken to its highest form by George W. Bush’s administration. It built, however, on what went on before.
In 1922, Walter Lippmann, in his book Public Opinion, wrote:
The enormous discretion as to what facts and what impressions shall be reported is steadily convincing every organized group of people that whether it wishes to secure publicity or to avoid it, the exercise of discretion cannot be left to the reporter. It is safer to hire a press agent who stands between the group and the newspapers.
In 1968, Joe Alsop, discussing the Vietnam War, wrote that “facts influence events.” The increasing reports by war correspondents of U.S. failures in the war gradually undermined public support for the fighting. Five years later, facts presented by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and published day after day in The Washington Post proved Alsop’s words in dramatic fashion. The Post’s newspaper stories led to the resignation of a president.
Watergate, I believe, was the high-water mark for newspapers as vehicles for bringing the public previously unknown information about serious matters. But I also think that, in many ways, it has been downhill ever since.
The celebrity of Woodward and Bernstein, along with financial rewards that accompanied Bob’s continued hard work, set new goals for others in the profession. At the same time, the impact an aroused press could have on government and politics was not missed by conservative supporters of the Nixon administration. Their response was twofold: demand more conservative columnists on newspaper op-ed pages and equal treatment in news columns for politicians and experts from “both sides” of issues. It was an informal way of applying the fairness doctrine, which was required of the electronic media, to print.
In 1981, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, Michael Deaver—one of the great public-relations men of our time—began to use early-morning “tech” sessions at the White House, which had been a way to help network producers plan the use of their camera crews each day, to shape the television news story for that evening. Deaver would say that President Reagan will appear in the Rose Garden to talk about his crime-prevention program and discuss it in terms of, say, Chicago and San Francisco. That would allow the networks to shoot B-roll. The president would appear in the Rose Garden as promised, make his statement, perhaps take a question or two, and vanish.
After a while, the network White House correspondents began to attend these sessions, and later print reporters began showing up, too. On days when the president went off to Camp David or his California ranch, Sam Donaldson, the ABC News White House correspondent, began his shouted questions to Reagan, and Reagan’s flip answers became the nightly news—and not just on television. The Washington Post, which prior to that time did not have a standing White House story each day (publishing one only when the president did something newsworthy), began to have similar daily coverage.
At the end of Reagan’s first year, David Broder, the Post’s political reporter, wrote a column about Reagan being among the least-involved presidents he had covered. In response, he got an onslaught of mail from people who said they saw Reagan every night on TV, working different issues. It was a triumph of public relations.