The New Yorker piece makes clear that Whitaker and Baxter wrote the bible that pols and their advisers read today. To me, their simple rules for political effectiveness suggest why fact-checking operations, which point out this lie or that—as admirable as that is—may have little impact in changing voters’ minds and not pack the same persuasive wallop as Whitaker and Baxter’s admonition to clients: Say the same thing over and over again.
“We assume we have to get a voter’s attention seven times to make a sale,” Whitaker said. Baxter advised: “Words that lean on the mind are no good. They must dent it. A wall goes up when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.”
Which has more effect?—an 11-graph story from Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler, explaining whether or not Medicare is going broke, or an ad from Marco Rubio who simply says “Medicare is going broke. It’s not politics. It’s math.” The gospel according to Whitaker and Baxter preaches that Americans remember that kind of short, pithy phrase, not Kessler’s discussion of what the word “depleted” means in government-speak. It explains why the GOP keep claiming Obama cut $716 billion from Medicare, as Mitt Romney did Sunday on 60 Minutes after many outlets including CJR have shown that the construction is highly misleading.
To show where a claim falls short requires more explanation and a lot of words, as fact checkers know. But Whitaker and Baxter have instructed their disciples, “Never explain anything. The more you have to explain, the more difficult it is to win support.” Perhaps that explains why Romney and Ryan are vague on details of their voucher plan, or why Obama isn’t explaining where he might cut Social Security.
And it explains why he didn’t tell Americans much about the individual mandate and penalties in his health reform law, an omission that has come back to haunt him when the Republicans used it against him. Discussing it might have turned the public against the law even before it passed.
There’s a message in Lepore’s piece: journalism versus the spin machine can be a long war. Writing one true story on Social Security cuts or Medicare vouchers, climate change, or any other issue doesn’t do the job. We have to do more, and just as important we have to understand the communications dynamic around us. In an interview in the 1960s, Baxter was asked, “Does political public relations actually transfer political power into the hands of those who exercise it?” Baxter replied that the profession “must be in the hands of the most ethical principled people or else it will erode into the hands of people who have no regard for the world around them. It could be a very, very destructive thing.” No kidding.