Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Can You Hear Me Now? Marketing the War With Iraq

By Miriam Schulman

Am I the only one who's queasy that the Bush Administration has quite publicly announced plans to sell us on war with Iraq the same way a soda pop company might hype a new soft drink? A New York Times article quotes White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. as explaining the post-Labor Day roll-out of the administration's Iraqi War PR campaign this way: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

The Bush minions have been busy scoping out the proper backdrop for the president's new product introduction, set for his September 11 remarks. They have selected Ellis Island. It conjures the vision of Bush standing with the Statue of Liberty behind him and a cell phone at his ear, saying, "Can you hear me now?"

I'm all for public discussion of this critical issue--it sure beats the administration's original tack, when the White House lawyer declared that the president did not even have to consult Congress before he sent in the marines. But if these staged set pieces are what passes for discussion, our leaders are losing track of the distinction between public discourse and marketing.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Last year the Pentagon actually hired a public relations firm, the Rendon Group, to help bolster the nation's image, especially in the Arab world. Apparently the theory was that rage against the United States is primarily a spin problem.

This PR approach probably began with Ronald Reagan's so-called "Blair House group," key staff members who met regularly to develop a message of the day--sometimes even a message of the hour--for media consumption.

The PR approach to public debate is not confined to the Republicans. In fact, it was most beautifully described by Joan Didion in "Insider Baseball," a description of the 1988 presidential campaign. The baseball of the title was a staged game at various airports played by Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis and his press secretary Jack Weeks.

This "spontaneous" game was so predictable that television crews described it as "tarmac arrival with ball tossing." It was designed to show both Dukakis' toughness and his regular-guy qualities. And yet, although every member of the press corps knew that the game was a setup, they reported it as though it was a real event.

Typical was USA Today's story, "Is Dukakis Tough Enough?" which read in part, "It was under a noonday sun in the desert that Michael Dukakis was indulging his truly favorite campaign ritual--a game of catch with his aide Jack Weeks." Didion points to the truly pernicious aspect of this trend--the collusion of the press in presenting PR moments as news.

I'm hoping that such blurring of journalism and marketing does not occur on September 11. We deserve a better memorial that a lead sentence I can write at my desk in California on September 9 before the president has even spoken: "With the Statue of Liberty glowing at his back, President Bush today outlined a rationale for a U.S. attack on Iraq...."

September 9, 2003

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