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Spin Doctors Throw Curves at the Media : Public relations: As usual, the U.S. plays down prospects for a treaty, and Moscow plays them up.

July 17, 1991|JACK NELSON | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

LONDON — U.S. and Soviet officials at the economic summit have been playing their usual "spin control" games with the news media, trying to influence the tone and tenor of news reports--especially about the likelihood that the two nuclear superpowers will reach final agreement on a strategic arms reduction treaty here.

White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater has been unusually cautious in his predictions, saying the Soviets really don't want an agreement announced in London for political reasons and that chances of one being reached here are no better than 50-50.

His Soviet counterpart, Vitaly N. Ignatenko, has been much more optimistic, telling reporters that "big news" will be made when President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev hold a joint press conference today.

So what gives? The way an unusually candid Fitzwater explained it Tuesday, both sides are just pursuing the spin strategies they almost always use. Washington generally tries to play down expectations of what will be accomplished, he said, while Moscow usually works to play them up.

"The Soviets are promising big news tomorrow, but their spin doesn't always match with reality," Fitzwater asserted.

Reminded that the White House spin on the news also doesn't always track with reality, Fitzwater smiled and said:

"Well, we tend to play down expectations and then, if things work out, we claim the credit. They tend to play up expectations, and if things don't work out, they blame the Americans."

Fitzwater, who used to play the same expectations game with Gennady I. Gerasimov when the latter was Gorbachev's spokesman, recalled a time during talks on intermediate-range missiles when Gerasimov told a press briefing that the United States and the Soviet Union had just reached agreement on how bombers should be counted in a treaty.

At the same time, Fitzwater was telling reporters, "We made no progress."

When it turned out that the two sides had failed to reach agreement, Gerasimov, sure enough, told the press, "The Americans are to blame."

At the present summit, Fitzwater has pursued the lowering-expectations gambit so energetically that he has sometimes seemed in conflict with other U.S. officials--including his boss, the President.

Fitzwater was still insisting as late as Tuesday afternoon that chances of there being an agreement are problematic and that the Soviets themselves are none too eager to have Bush and and Gorbachev announce it here--because it might look as if the Soviet leader had compromised on arms reductions as part of a deal to secure Western aid for the deteriorating Soviet economy.

By contrast, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft was declaring himself "optimistic" about the negotiations and saying it was "quite possible" that the treaty could be finished in London.

And Bush, in brief comments to reporters Monday morning, said the progress on the treaty was "encouraging," although one point--"an important one"--remained to be resolved. Bush has counted heavily on being able to announce agreement on a treaty before the summit ends here today.

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