Spin Cycles: a century of spin
Reporter's interview transcript: Jay Rosen
Feb. 23, 2007
IB: What is the difference between the Bush approach to news management and previous administrations?
JR: Well from about 1960 to 2000, a certain pattern held in White House press relations in which it was assumed that these two institutions had to deal with one another and that access to the great audience or the American public was to be found through the news media and therefore the White House had to try and control and manage the news but also had to deal with journalists because they were there, because they were a kind of gateway to the larger public and now, since 2000, a different set of rules has taken over. But that was one era and I think now we're in another era.
IB: What are the characteristics of this new era?
JR: Well in the second era you don't necessarily have to deal with journalists at all. You can marginalize them, you can try to discredit them and score political points that way or as I've said, decertify the press. And the whole notion that the press has a permanent place within the presidency is been questioned and I think that premise is no longer operative for the Bush people. In addition to that, besides just the way that they're handling journalists, the Bush White House has asserted its right to go unquestioned in a number of different ways. One thing is has purged the cabinet and the White House staff of anybody who is willing to question the president. And meetings are scripted—Paul O'Neil, the former treasury secretary, tells us in his books that he was told what to say at cab meetings. For a while the president in every public appearance he made did not permit into the hall anyone who was not already a Bush supporter. Therefore when it came time for questions from the audience it was always from Bush supporters. That's extraordinary in and of itself. And so the pushing back of the press is related to this larger thing of trying to establish executive power that cannot be questioned by congress, by the American people, by journalists, by loyalists, by anyone.
One of the extraordinary things about this shift has been that part of it is very open, very openly acknowledged. The Bush team has said that they don't accept the idea of the press as a fourth estate, sort of a semi-permanent part of government. They reject the notion that reporters and their questions represent the public. Bush has said openly, “I don't think you represent the public… at all.” And they don't necessarily agree that the interlocutor's role, which had been established over a period of time, is a legitimate one for the press to play. And they have not tried to make a secret of that; they have said that our philosophy is different and that's very striking.
IB: Is that what is really different?
JR: Well, there's always been attempts to go over the heads of the press and speak directly to the American people; there's nothing wrong with that. There's always been attempts to manage the news and manipulate the press to some degree and spin, as we say today. But this is a different thing entirely. This is trying to push journalists out of the frame. And to break a kind of consensus that has held in White Houses for at least 40 years and to actually reverse something that goes back even further to the White House of Theodore Roosevelt when journalists were first allowed into the White House and given a special room—the press room—before that time, you'd find reporters on the street trying to buttonhole visitors to the White House as they came and went, hoping to get some clue as to what went on in their meeting. And Roosevelt saw them and said, “Well, why don't we give them some place to work.” And that era, which basically is a hundred years old, is what is being challenged. I believe, for example, that the White House has decided to shut down the briefing room more or less closed it down, though you still have briefings and you still have the White House press secretary and you still have the daily ritual—Scott McClellan, the president's former press secretary, not only didn't answer questions but replied in a way that doesn't even admit the legitimacy of questions to start with. You couldn't even make sense of most of his answers—linguistically, they didn't scan; you couldn't even paraphrase them. And it wasn't that he didn't answer questions, he kind of refuted the whole idea of asking the White House a question. And that I think is the equivalent of shutting down the podium, it's just that they haven't announced that they've done it.
IB: Isn't that just them spinning?
JR: Anyone who says that the Bush WH is expert at spin doesn't understand what is happening. Spin is not what they are good at. McClellan was not particularly skilled at spin, his answers were not very convincing, they certainly weren't subtle or a sort of artful reinterpretation of administration policy. Usually, they were inept and completely failed as responses but it's precisely that that they were trying to establish; we can give you a non-response and it won't matter. We can ridicule your question and what are you going to do about it. So spin would be the previous era. This is way beyond spin.
Spin would start from the premise that it's important that the press have a good impression of our answer and that it feel were trying to reply and I don't think the Bush White House cares about that, at all. He who talks of spin has been fooled.
One of the most amazing things about the Bush White House is that it does things that we don't have a ready, political vocabulary for. And this is one of the most effective things they do. They change the game—you actually need a new language to talk about the new game but all you have is the old language, so people continually describe it in the old language as with spin. And this itself is helping them.
IB: Why hasn't the press fought back?
JR: Well, it's been successfully marginalized, it was drawn into the web of deceit and evidence manufacture during the run up to the war. It completely failed in its watchdog duty, utterly. And that has taken a toll on public confidence. And it's been put in a position where the only way it can respond to what's been done to it is to become in essence, more partisan, more political but it's prevented from its own codes from doing that. So it's very powerless in this situation. And I think it's been tremendously damaging.
IB: And they have found ways to simply by-pass the press.
JR: Yeah, I call this from Meet the Press, to Be the Press. I think there's a fundamental insight there that the White House has had which is that the media world has expanded and there aren't just a few channels, a few news organizations anymore. And White House.gov which is the web page for the White House is in a way a broadcasting platform. If the White House can communicate itself to the relevant audiences then why does it even need journalists in the first place. I think changes in the media system are not just in presidential politics but throughout the American scene are placing more power in the hands of news sources, in the hands of those who have inside knowledge, and they don't necessarily have to deal with journalists anymore. They can go public themselves.
So the WH has a lot of ways of, not just going around the press, but of placing it to one side. And maybe it will be replaced by something new or maybe it'll just disappear. And in that sense I think we have greater exec power that is more and more unquestioned. And that can't be good.