March 4, 2005

Hip-Hip-Hurray for Oscar Goodman

I have to hand it to Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman he's no one's bitch. When asked why he told a class of 4th graders that he'd want a bottle of gin with him on a desert island, he replied " I answered the question honestly and truthfully... I'm not going to lie to children. I'm not going to say I would take a teddy bear or a Bible or something like that." Zap! He knows that by picking these hypothetical alternates it will keep the spin going on this harmless Mc-controversy. Free publicity for him and his city -- not only free publicity: publicity that revives a bad boy image for an increasingly Disney-fied city. His multi-tiered jape is at once fun and utilitarian and perhaps sincere and right-thinking politicians everywhere should learn from it.

Though frequently cited, the end of the Fairness Doctrine is not the source of the cultural divide. The source is that the majority of Americans get their information in the form of new coverage of Mc-controversy and the Bush team are the Algonquin round table of the Mc-controversy. Witness the heart-wrenching account (via Digby) of the early days of Bush/Cheney '04 relayed in the New York Review of Books letters section:

On March 5, for example, The New York Times published a piece headlined "Bush Campaigns Amid a Furor over Ads," about a supposed controversy over the campaign's first television ads, which offered a glimpse of a dead fireman being carried out of the World Trade Center site. In the article the Times reporters revealed that the campaign was "scrambling to counter criticism that his first television commercials crassly politicized the tragedy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks." Indeed, the controversy was so serious, according to the Times, that it had "complicated efforts by Republicans to seize the initiative after months in which Mr. Bush has often been on the defensive." Newsweek, for its part, in an article headlined "A 'Shocking' Stumble," reported that the ad controversy "threw campaign officials on the defensive—and raised questions about the Bush team's ability to effectively spend its massive $150 million war chest, some GOP insiders say."

Seven months later, and two weeks after the election, Newsweek published another and very different "inside account," this one based on exclusive access to the campaigns which was granted on the understanding that nothing from this reporting would be published until after the election.[*] Here is what Newsweek's writers now told us about what "two Bush strategists" really thought of their campaign's "shocking stumble":

McKinnon and Dowd were ecstatic. At a strategy meeting the next day—the same morning the Times headline appeared—they joked about how they could fan the flames. Controversy sells, they said. It meant lots of "free media"; the ads were shown over and over again on news shows, particularly on cable TV. The "visual" of the rubble at the World Trade Center was a powerful reminder of the nation's darkest hour—and Bush's finest, when he climbed on the rock pile with a bullhorn. What's more, the story eclipsed some grim economic news....

At that Saturday's Breakfast Club, they were still laughing about the ad flap.... Dowd told the group they had received $6 million to $7 million worth of free ad coverage. "Unfortunately, we've been talking about 9/11 and our ads for five days," Dowd deadpanned at a senior staff meeting. "We're going to try to pivot back to the economy as soon as we can."

There were chuckles all around.

So much for the "inside story." As so often in journalism, the source offered the reporter access and the scoop; in exchange, the reporter in effect granted the source— in this case, the Bush strategist—the power to shape the storyline. The reporter thus publishes a supposed "inside story" about "scrambling" within the campaign that is in effect a kind of "false bottom" constructed by the campaign itself and intended to "fan the flames" of what is in fact a largely bogus story. The deeper reality—in this case, the determination to focus relentlessly on September 11 and the President's "leadership" role in it ("the nation's darkest hour and Bush's finest") and thus to emphasize the "masculine" values of steadiness, forthrightness, and strength that this role exemplified—may have been plain to those political professionals who were looking closely but it was much less clear to voters relying on the press for the supposed "inside story" of the campaign. The Bush campaign's "shocking stumble" was, in Daniel Boorstin's term, a "pseudo-event"; indeed, our political campaigns are built largely of such pseudo-events and rely fundamentally on the press and the commentariat to play their necessary part in constructing them and conveying them to the public. Both sides are immersed in this language, of course, and it is hard to see, given the terms of the game, how Democrats could "challenge the Republican story directly"—or even what "directly," in this context, might actually mean.

This manipulation of journalists is probably a dangerous threat to a free and independent press, but it is effective and is probably the only way to get an idea across. When this power is used for good it can prevent us from waking up morning in the nineteenth-century.

In general a Mc-controversy is invited one draws a conclusion that is a reinforces a brand. Thus, the mayor of Vegas admits about liking to drink and makes jokes about the Bible. Conclusion: Vegas must really be sin city! People in the Western U.S. are straight-shooting mavericks! Bush uses ads featuring him with a megaphone in the ruins of 9/11. Conclusion: Bush is a fearless leader! People in the Western U.S. are straight-shooting mavericks!

It is totally frustrating that people who are disgusted by the use of this mechanism for evil are turning their backs on Michael Moore. The only criticism that I have about Fahrenheit 9/11 is that it was too monolithic to sustain it's ideas very long in the public circle. Moore found major weak points in the Bush brand. Frat-boy, boy-in-a-bubble, compulsive-vacationer, all-talk, Orwellian, peevish, aggressive, rich, friendly to Arabs, tongue-tied. It might not have been enough if all of these characterizations were re-enforced throughout the year by Mc-controversies rather than in one spectacular burst with the movie's run (Kerry would have needed to build a brand image with Mc-controversies simultaneously), but who knows it was never given a try.

Posted by Spicolli' at March 4, 2005 3:57 PM