Media Strategy Memo to George, Dick and John

Norman Solomon’s Column

Damage control efforts are on track after those rough days in mid-May.

First, let’s note a silver lining. John’s move to prosecute Arthur Andersen pushed Enron off a lot of front pages, and the recent media commotion about “advance warnings” has helped too. However, complacency would be unwise. For instance, George’s mash letters to Ken Lay are posted on Internet sites. Reporters could get tired of the raw meat thrown from the Andersen case. Fortunately, they’re more like kitty-cats than lions.

To facilitate the purring, stroke as desired. Do what works. Avoid foot in mouth. Friendly pundits will float trial-balloon excuses. What doesn’t get shot down is worth repeating.

Dick, you’ve been magnificent on the Sunday shows. That grim Edgar Bergen look is a knockout — just don’t tell anyone George is your Charlie McCarthy. (Joke.) The main thing is, stay on message. Change the subject whenever necessary. At this point, do FDR one better: The only thing to fear is not enough fear.

If journalists want warnings, you’ve got an unlimited supply! Can’t lose — you’ll end up seeming either prescient or successful at thwarting the terrorists. But see if you can put a clamp on the bragging. For maximum effect, impress on staffers the importance of resisting the temptation to boast.

It didn’t enhance the damage-control counteroffensive when the Associated Press reported on May 21: “There is an element of politics to the administration’s warnings, officials acknowledged.” Or when, on the same day, the Globe and Mail informed Canadians: “White House officials told reporters that the blunt warnings issued yesterday and Sunday do not reflect a dramatic increase in threatening information but rather a desire to fend off criticism from the Democrats.”

When in doubt, scare the stuffing out of the public. Especially if fearful, they want father figures running the show in Washington, protecting and defending. In the future, the administration could benefit from a bit more Reaganizing. In retrospect, George probably missed an opportunity with the Berlin visit; he might have tried something like “Mr. Saddam, tear down this terrorist pall.”

As George’s dad can tell us, the “what did he know and when did he know it” thing is liable to wear quite thin, with the Washington press corps losing interest. And from the looks of initial staffing, the congressional investigations are likely to be circumspect. The Iran-Contra hearings showed that if you blow enough smoke while reporters search for a smoking gun, pretty soon they’ll be going around in circles.

Uncle Sam’s military attacks in Afghanistan are providing a healthy flow of proud bang-bang on television. But there’s a need to maintain high creative standards in the Pentagon’s media ops. Remember — it takes some flash to be noticeable above the baseline network sizzle, especially during sweeps.

George, don’t hesitate to get on your high pony. Talk about executive privilege, the sanctity of the presidency, your abiding faith in the goodness and courage of the American people. The flag pin on the suit lapel still looks great, by the way. But maybe it was a flub to wear the polo shirt with the alligator again. We’re awaiting focus-group results on an alternative; if the meter pins, we’ll cut out the gator and have a small Old Glory stitched in.

Top national security officials ought to step up the pace of sit-down TV interviews, so schedule more softball sessions on the networks. And if Larry King can tear himself away from Chandra’s remains anytime soon, maybe he’d like to have Dick and the wife on again — if so, the V.P.’s flacks should brainstorm themes, perhaps along the lines of “the family that fights terrorism together draws strength from God and country together.” Lynne could hawk her new patriotic book in the process.

The FBI deserves back-channel encouragement for going public with uncorroborated warnings about New York landmarks the other day. Mentioning the Statue of Liberty was a nice touch. It left a feeling of Lady-Liberty-vs.-terrorist-perfidy in the air, with a fine media mist of fear. And we can never have too much of that.

Background links about Bush-Lay letters:

* Photocopies —

* Summary of correspondence —

Norman Solomon’s latest book is “The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.” His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

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The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media : Decoding Spin and Lies in Mainstream News by Norman Solomon