Even Presidents Make PR Mistakes
September 4th, 2010
George W. Bush was pilloried in the press for donning military gear and staging an overhyped photo op punctuated with the now-infamous words: “Mission Accomplished.” The mission was far from over, as we now know. And his administration was rightly criticized from all sides for their approach. At best, Bush’s communications advisers jumped to conclusions. At worst, they succeeded in helping him spin the reality in order to garner public favor.
Despite being an Obama supporter, I’ll call it like I see it, and unfortunately it’s clear to me that our current President has made a similar lapse in PR judgment. As Glenn Greenwald writes today in Salon, the Obama administration has deftly but irresponsibly used its friends in the media to trumpet inaccuracies related to the pulling out of troops in Iraq:
One of the few sour notes in this coverage came when [MSNBC's Keith] Olbermann briefly interviewed McClatchy‘s Jonathan Landay, and asked him what the 50,000 remaining soldiers would be doing. Landay explained:
“This is the great irony for me, Keith. The fact is that under the delusional plans that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had approved for the invasion of Iraq, they had intended to come down to 50,000 troops within three or four months of that invasion. . . . .That, for me, is the ultimate irony, is the fact that more than seven years later, we‘ve now gotten down to the 50,000 troops that they thought they could get down to within three months of the invasion. . . . . [T]hose 50,000 men and women include special forces who will be going out on counter-terrorism missions with Iraqi forces. That, to me, is combat. They’re armed. They’re going into combat. There will be American, quote/unquote, advisers going out with Iraqi forces on regular patrols. That to me opens the door to combat. So I don‘t think we‘re going to see the end of — we are not going to see the end of combat for American forces I don‘t think in Iraq.”
The 50,000 troops staying in Iraq were noted several times by the various MSNBC commentators, especially Maddow, but, other than the Landay interview, it did not detract from the repetitious claim that — to use Brian Williams’ formulation — “U.S. combat troops have pulled out of Iraq.” This, of course, was the same message touted in Barack Obama’s Oval Office address to the nation on Wednesday night…
“Whatever the subject, we should be correct and consistent in our description of what the situation in Iraq is….To begin with, combat in Iraq is not over, and we should not uncritically repeat suggestions that it is, even if they come from senior officials. The situation on the ground in Iraq is no different today than it has been for some months.”
It’s doubtful that any parent or spouse of a soldier currently serving in Iraq would think that 50,000 troops is a rounding error. But in the grand scheme of things, one may ask, 50,000 troops isn’t that big of a deal, is it? For those in doubt, Greenwald makes it crystal clear:
The ability of the Pentagon to shape coverage through controlling access, offering embedding, and doling out exclusives is too well-known and well-documented by now to require much discussion. The problem, however, is that it remains irresistibly enticing for many media outlets to submit to it. The fact that NBC/MSNBC was the only television news outlet with video of the “last combat brigade rolling out of Iraq” was a major coup. The only way that coup matters — the only way the journalists covering this event ”exclusively” can feel as though they’re doing something important — is if they vest the event with historic significance, accomplished by touting it as “the end of America‘s Iraq combat mission,” exactly the message the administration wanted disseminated.
The fact that this phrase — “the end of America‘s Iraq combat mission” — is more propagandistic than anything gave no pause. The withdrawal of 100,000 troops from that country since Obama’s inauguration is not insignificant, and it’s a good thing that he’s adhered to the withdrawal schedule. But, as Landay explained, 50,000 troops is a huge number — it’s what Rumsfeld originally envisioned as the occupying force to be used three months after the invasion — and it’s inevitable that they will be in combat.