I’ll Take Transparency Over “Messaging” Anytime!
I’m all for “messaging” when running a campaign for elected office. The idea of having surrogates and your supporters parroting the talking points consistently, with no room for wedges to be inserted and breaks to form in the message is a noble goal. That is kind of the game that is played between the press and a campaign, staying on message, pounding home your themes and not getting distracted from the “message” of the day, week or entire campaign. I’m totally down with that concept. When it comes to governing a country, I’m not such a huge fan of that process. Ronald Reagan and his puppet-masters had it down to a science and in my idealistic head, it was maddening. There was no transparency, there was no window into that administration, only what we and the media were spoon fed. Some in the media pushed back against it, pointing out to their readers and viewers that it was happening. But those were much different times in the media.
Candidate Clinton adopted a lot of that mentality even with all the distractions he had to fight back. They stuck to their “It’s the economy stupid” theme and just kept driving it home to a big win in 1992. The comeback kid confirmed that in elections, you have to stick to your message and pound it relentlessly. In thinking back to the Clinton presidency, it occurs to me that they, like Reagan and Bush 1, brought that into the Whitehouse with them.
The Obama campaign and candidate Obama showed great discipline with their messaging during the campaign, but promised an era of transparency in the Whitehouse. The two concepts don’t necessarily go hand in hand. The recent “messaging” problem that many in the press and blogosphere are accusing the Whitehouse of in the wake of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday, to me is because of that transparency. I’m glad that the Whitehouse didn’t clamp down and make everyone come out like robots and repeat the same “message”. Instead, the Whitehouse released an intense and not necessarily flattering photo of the situation room during a very tense moment. We saw a room full of people who were all watching the same thing, but not necessarily all seeing the same thing or interpreting it the same way.
Each one of the people in that room and then their staffs have different perspectives and perceptions of what happened. With transparency in the Whitehouse and nothing to hide, these people were allowed to talk to the media. Why are the details so different depending on who said it? I equate it very much to someone whispering something at one end of a table and by the time it makes it to the other end, the story has changed wildly. That’s what happens when humans share information. It’s why outlets like Fox News purposely feed misinformation into the public to be spread around, they understand that idea and use it for their evil purposes.
So as I watch the details of the operation get revised and corrected, with one person contradicting someone else and no clear, repeated message coming from the Whitehouse, in many ways I’m glad. If we just look at one instance in the Bush administration that backfired on them monumentally, partly because of the “messaging” idea and partly because they were fucking propagandists trying to justify their stupid fucking wars and keep the cheerleaders for their venture on the sidelines with their pom poms. The instance was the killing of Pat Tillman. If you want to know the history of that one, go here. The Bush Administration picked their message, a manufactured cover story, and they ran with it. As anyone with a brain knows, lies beget lies. One lie usually leads to many other lies to cover the first one.
Now, with a situation that is developing, with details being revealed from many sources, would it be better for the Whitehouse to immediately concoct a “message” for the masses, even as the details are still emerging. Or how about clamping down on anyone saying anything until those details are clear, then the press would spend their time pounding on the door of the press room, writing conspiracy stories about why they aren’t telling us the details and thus tainting any “message” that eventually comes out. Transparency is a messy business, folks. Letting officials and staffers speak out with all their flaws in perceptions and interpretations will cause some contradictions, revisions and people walking back things when the actual details and evidence comes along. It may look haphazard and incompetent, but as someone who likes the idea of the Whitehouse allowing information to flow to the public, I’ll take that confusion in a heartbeat over the lock-step messaging that took a brave man like Pat Tillman and used him for a “message” that was consistent at first, but went on to hurt a man’s family and our country for years to come.
I’m glad that information is flowing about the operation to capture/kill Osama bin Laden, even if it isn’t so neat and tidy and wrapped up with a nice bow.