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The Communications Game : Exactly Who Is Being Manipulated?

July 18, 1993|SUZANNE GARMENT | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — President Bill Clinton got some great press coverage at the economic summit. There he was, in our newspapers and on our TV screens, look ing like a benign and bouncy Gulliver among the Lilliputians of the Western alliance. Yet the same news coverage dripped with resentment at the way Clinton's aides were said to be manipulating reporters who accompanied the President to Japan. "We're in the country of suspended disbelief," one newsman complained from the press briefing room in Tokyo.

Those offended souls should grow up. Yes, White House manipulation of the press is a problem in a democracy. But, these days, it is less vexing than the problems caused by journalists who are miffed, and think the country should be as well, whenever a President tries to sell himself or his programs.

In public life there is virtually no such thing as a message presented straight, without manipulation or spin. To move people, a politician must use art. He or she must construct a narrative framework for the audience. He must omit some things to make the story intelligible and conceal what is inconvenient.

Such manipulation does not make a leader's message false or worthless. Think of a movie. It is shot out of sequence and later made into a coherent story by editors. Yet we do not say that, because of these manipulations, film has no lessons to teach us about real life.

Or take the example of the ceremony that presidential aide Michael K. Deaver staged in France to mark the 40th anniversary of the Allied landing at Normandy. Every piece of the exercise was an artifice, from choosing the telegenic spot to writing a sentimental script to importing veterans of the landing to display their emotions for the TV cameras. Yet when President Ronald Reagan finally gave the Normandy speech, he expressed real emotion that moved his viewers to real tears.

There is no contradiction here. If we think a message is genuine, we do not object to devices that magnify it. Only when we think we are being sold a false reality do we accuse the communicators of being spin doctors--or, more plainly, liars.

Over the past 30 years many citizens, especially journalists, have come to think that almost all political messages are false and almost all politicians are lying much of the time. Journalists want to show in their stories that they have not been deceived. They deride government's sales techniques and call our attention to its sneaky motives. We have come to see the very existence of a communications strategy by a politician as a sign that his message is a mendacious one.

To cope with this escalating cynicism, politicians increasingly speak to the press in a cynical language, thinking it's the only way journalists will believe them.

At the recent economic summit, let us allow that--for better or worse--not much happened. The meeting produced supportive words about the multinational trade talks now in progress but did not address the issues, like agriculture, that threaten to block an accord. The United States and Japan signed a market-opening agreement, but it did not include specific numbers by which Japanese compliance can be judged. The G-7 ponied up more aid for Russia, but much less than Washington had tried to extract.

Still, most news stories saw the summit as a personal and policy success for Clinton. We read that Hillary Rodham Clinton charmed the Japanese with her careerist chic but kept quiet and left center stage to her husband. We learned about the President's masterful leadership and the new respect he was getting from the Europeans. We heard the dramatic tale of how near-failure became success in our deal with Japan.

What the stories complained about was not a dearth of policy accomplishments, but the fact that the summit had been so elaborately staged. Articles said that new Counselor to the President David R. Gergen was omnipresent, even answering journalists' questions that were not asked. Other accounts revealed the Administration's clever, Gergenesque press strategy. The President cut out his usual jogs because the resulting heavy-hipped photos might divert attention from Clinton in a statesmanlike suit and tie. The White House--it was noted sarcastically--carefully scripted "spontaneous" events for the President. Clinton was keeping ostentatiously in touch with the flooded Midwest so as not to seem overly engrossed in foreign policy.

Most insulting, the huge briefing room in Tokyo was said to be mind-numbingly oppressive. A pundit compared Gergen to EST guru Werner Erhard, who brainwashed people by locking them in a room and making them totally dependent on him for their survival.

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