Thursday, August 18, 2005

Forget Policy; Let's Talk PR With Nora O'Donnell

Cindy Sheehan’s protest against the Iraq war provides an opportunity for the press to ask substantive questions about the war in Iraq and about its impact on the home front. Do the Bush administration’s policies make sense? What are the alternatives? What went wrong? How do other military families feel about the burden that they are carrying?

But on MSNBC, they prefer to focus on different questions, questions relating to how the White House is or isn’t managing its public relations effort. On Hardball last night, the first segment was a taped interview of White House Communications Director Nicolle Devenish. Here are the first four questions that guest host Norah O’Donnell asked her.
  1. [Is] the president . . . concerned that Cindy Sheehan‘s cause has grown into a national movement?
  2. What would be the down side to the president meeting with her? He has met with her once before a year ago. Why not invite her in, pray with her or send First Lady Laura Bush to meet with her?
  3. The president plans to stay in Crawford for another three weeks to finish his vacation. And Cindy Sheehan said she is not leaving until she meets with the president. What will happen to Crawford? And you are the president‘s communications director. How do you deal with something like this when there is now this growing group of people in Crawford, hundreds, and now across the country. The media following her so closely.
  4. CNN, "USA Today" Gallup Poll shows 54 percent of Americans say the U.S. made a mistake by sending troops to Iraq. Is the White House, the president going to launch a new effort in the fall to help better explain to the American people why we’re at war in Iraq and when U.S. troops are coming home?
    (I have removed the preambles to some of the questions; the punctuation is the responsibility of MSNBC.)

Note that O’Donnell didn’t ask Devenish to explain why we are at war in Iraq or when U.S. troops are coming home. She asked whether there would be a new fall effort at explanation.

O’Donnell’s next question seemed like it might be about something substantive. But at the last moment, O’Donnell saved it. She veered away from the substantive question she was starting to ask, and veered back into her favorite subject– management of public opinion.

August was one of the deadliest months on record for National Guard and reserve troops. Americans want to know what is the strategy in Iraq? There was an interesting story in the "Washington Post" on Sunday which said U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad say the Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations for us in Iraq. Why are we lowering expectations?

Of course, Devenish never had to explain the strategy in Iraq. But she did have to address the question of whether we are lowering expectations.

In her final question to Devenish on this topic, O’Donnell again started with the suggestion of substance, then again quickly veered away.

Because a senior administration official was quoted in the "Washington Post" as saying, what we expected to achieve in Iraq was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground. This from an official who was involved in policy since the ‘03 invasion. Was that official off the reservation? Not speaking in tune with the rest of the White House?

Needless to say, this is turf that the White House communications director was happy to play on. Imagine her relief at getting such questions. Read the transcript. She did quite well. How well would she have done if O’Donnell had asked about whether the Bush administration is happy with the budding theocracy in Iraq, or about whether the Administration’s attempt to conduct the war with minimal resources has prolonged the conflict and increased the hardship for military personnel and their families? We’ll never know.

Having been such a gracious hostess to the White House Communications Director, O’Donnell introduced the next segment:

Is Cindy Sheehan‘s protest overplayed? And has she become a puppet of the left?
Coming up, we‘ll ask Pat Buchanan and former Senator John Breaux.

It got worse from there. Incomparably, Bob Somerby exposes O’Donnell’s "combative ridicule" of Sheehan and Iraq war protesters generally in her questioning of Buchanan and Breaux. We endorse Somerby’s words. But we draw your attention to another aspect of this horrific performance. First O'Donnell explores the White House’s communications strategy regarding the Iraq war generally and Sheehan’s protests specifically. Then she frames the following discussion as whether Sheehan "overplayed" her protest. Perhaps if Sheehan had focus-grouped it first she would have hit it just right. She might have distanced herself from the left, and avoided rhetoric shown to be unpalatable to five out of eight soccer moms.

O’Donnell, like most of her media star colleagues, shows little interest in policy or in foreign affairs, but she does show keen interest in the management of public opinion. She might have chosen to focus on how we might make the situation better in Iraq, or on whether U.S. presence is helping or harming the situation, or on the hardships of military families and how they might be alleviated. Instead, she preferred to explore ways that Presidents or protesters might market themselves better.

Is there a more serious issue than the war in Iraq facing us as a country? Is this really the best discussion we can have about it?