Governor Sarah Palin wants “to talk to Americans without the filter” of the “media elite.” As she explained in the vice-presidential debate, she aims to cut out the middleman in conveying information to the public: “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you [Senator Joe Biden] want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.”
Those statements reflect a radical challenge to our American system: the elimination of an institution—the press—that has traditionally been championed as a vital check on the abuse of power and distortion of the truth by politicians. In the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, historically, “[t]he free press meant organized, expert scrutiny of government. The press was a conspiracy of the intellect, with the courage of numbers.” For Palin and her coterie, it is simply a conspiracy: a loose amalgam of distorters, liars, and opportunists.
It is tempting to see the Palin proposal as a tailored response to a particular set of circumstances—after recent criticisms from the press and in the context of declining poll numbers for the Republican ticket, attacking journalists might seem to be nothing more than an isolated political expedient. In fact, Palin’s call for a purge of the “media elite” is a central part of a broader project of knowledge management that has been practiced for decades and perfected during the Age of Rove.
That expansive approach has borrowed tactics directly out of the playbook of some of the most successful corporate campaigns of the last half century or so and has allowed the Bush administration to forge ahead on weak policies—like the war in Iraq—while stymieing potentially strong ones—like a coordinated effort to fight global warming—by controlling the information the public receives.
For many years, the cigarette industry made billions selling a product they knew to be dangerous to human health, while evading costly regulation and litigation. They accomplished this improbable feat by keeping information necessary to make educated choices out of the hands of the public, while convincing individuals that they possessed all the relevant data and were, in fact, coming to freely made decisions. Thus, big tobacco hid evidence of the negative health effects of smoking and spent millions on selling the image of cigarette smokers as empowered, independent-minded, sovereign consumers. Marlboro Men didn’t need scientists or bureaucrats telling them what they needed to know to adequately assess risks; they had their common sense and their freedom to guide them. When cancer deaths and outside studies began to suggest the great danger of smoking, cigarette companies fought vigorously in court to prevent insider documents that revealed the full extent of the problem from being released.
The McCain-Palin ticket has taken just such an approach.
Although understanding the sources of a candidate’s income is critical to assessing whether that candidate has acted independently in the past or may have vested interests going forward, for months, Cindy McCain refused to disclose key information about the McCain’s family’s wealth. In May, after serious criticism from the media concerning the lack of transparency, she finally released part of her 2006 tax returns. However, only her IRS Form 1040 was released, so there was no reference to the sources of her income. And even this information was disclosed in a way meant to avoid its dissemination to the public: the release was put out on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. As Republican strategist Dan Schnur joked, “Christmas Eve would have been ideal, but that would have been a problem given the election calendar.”
Moreover, the ticket has denied members of the media access to the McCain and Palin, except in prepackaged snippets, and has ensured that both of them stick to their vague talking points. When Palin went to New York City in September to meet with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the campaign initially refused to permit any producers or reporters to go along with the network pool camera recording pictures of the meetings and, after strong objections from the press, relented only slightly, allowing extremely limited and superficial coverage. McCain, who once decried “stale soundbites, staged rallies, and over-managed messages,” now marches to a metronome. Between mid-August and the end of September, he went over five weeks without holding a single press conference.
The aim has been to limit severely the information that voters encounter about the candidates and their policies. Speaking in generalities in the lead up to a general election is standard practice and, in many ways, the Obama campaign provides no exception; yet, the McCain team has taken the practice of evasion and distraction to new levels. As Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, explained in a moment of candor: “This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.” In the wake of the global financial debacle, a top McCain aid made a similar point to the Daily News: “If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we’re going to lose.”
Preventing the public from having the details necessary to make an informed decision has occurred at the same time that the campaign has emphasized how accessible and open it is—and how it remains utterly committed to “straight talk.” Indeed, in the October 16 presidential debate, McCain went to great lengths to portray Obama as the remote and opaque candidate, emphasizing how Obama had rejected “his urgent request to sit down, and do town hall meetings, and come before the American people.” Just as with big tobacco, the message from the Republican campaign has been twofold: first, that the campaign has been completely forthright in providing voters with all the information they need to make a knowledgeable choice; second, that Americans are empowered, independent-minded individuals with common sense who don’t need middlemen—like the press—to tell them which way the wind blows.
The strategy has a proven pedigree. It worked, not only for the tobacco industry, but also, more recently, for the Bush administration, as it duped the American people into invading Iraq by failing to provide the public with the whole picture concerning the potential risks and costs of the war, while acting as if the calculus were utterly clear and that people knew everything they needed to know to make an informed decision. Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and we would be embraced by the Iraqi people as liberators. The conflict would be cheap and largely bloodless and would help stabilize the region. Only fools and cowards would wait to act.
The same was true with respect to the administration’s approach to global warming: as Bush appointees publicly declared that they were being utterly candid and that the setting of environmental policy by the administration was transparent, they denied the public access to the facts it needed to assess the causes and destructive effects of climate change and the information concerning the impact of industry lobbying efforts. Key reports were sanitized of language affirmatively declaring that human activity was causing global warming; administration lawyers battled in court to prevent access to records of energy executives’ private meetings with government decision-makers. As with efforts to prevent the disclosure of documents in the context of the war on terror (including administration policies on torture, extraordinary rendition, and wiretapping), the Bush team couched its withholding of key information in terms of executive privilege and argued that, regardless, the implicated information was not relevant to anything that the public actually needed to know.
Those who said otherwise, were attacked as not only wrong, but biased and a direct threat to our country: wacky tree huggers who would hurt small businesses and destroy American competitiveness; out-of-touch liberals willing to put American lives at risk in their misguided mission to protect terrorists bent on our destruction; ardent ideologues recklessly disparaging government policy during time of war without a concern that it might endanger our troops.
The strategy of denigration of adversarial information sources in the administration’s management of public information was another proven technique borrowed from big tobacco. For many years, the industry worked hard to cast public health advocates offering evidence of the destructive nature of cigarettes as meddling nannies who wanted to take away the freedoms of regular Americans. Similarly, plaintiff’s-side lawyers pushing for disclosure of internal company documents were cast as malingering schemers willing to do anything for a buck.
These accounts of corrupted dispositions and grave consequences had a profound impact on the way that the information coming from these sources was viewed, a lesson that the McCain-Palin ticket has taken to heart. By repeatedly assailing the “liberal media” as unfair and unbalanced, the campaign has both called into question each and every story critical of the Republican candidates and has forced journalists to be more cautious in their criticisms, even where they are extremely well founded. The claim of ideological distortion on behalf of the media has also served as an excuse for the McCain campaign to refuse to participate in more open forums, which has proven to be a great boon for the campaign, given that Palin is unprepared, at this point in her political career, to answer unscripted questions where outright evasion is foreclosed.
After Palin’s devastating interview with Katie Couric at the end of September, the McCain campaign realized that they could not afford another free-form session with the press. Thus, as both a means of damage control and a way to defuse future criticisms of the governor, they had Palin go on the offensive against the CBS News anchor: “I did feel there were a lot of things she was missing in terms of an opportunity to ask what a VP candidate stands for, what the values are that are represented in our ticket . . . . I guess I have to apologize for being a bit annoyed, but that’s also an indication about being outside that Washington elite, outside that media elite also . . . .” Because Palin is just like you, Joe Six-Pack Hockey Mom, when the biased media attacks Palin, they are really attacking you. As Steve Schmidt, one of McCain’s senior advisors, put it, “She’s not part of the Washington, D.C., cocktail circuit. Elite opinion looks down with contempt at people who are not part of their world.”
Another central lesson of knowledge management coming from the tobacco industry is that truth and accuracy are irrelevant if what you primarily—or exclusively—care about are “ends.” You do not have to prove your position; you only have to move the needle enough to make things look like a debate. Where no information exists to support your position, you simply create it. Thus, cigarette companies funded rival studies to draw into question arguments that cigarettes were addictive and harmful and hired experts to ensure that there was “credible” counterevidence.
The Bush administration has masterfully followed suit. With few expert pundits supporting the Iraq war efforts, the administration simply went out and got its own to offer seemingly objective—and uniformly positive—analysis on news programs. The “message force multipliers” or “surrogates,” as they were referred to in internal Pentagon papers, were used to amplify successes, downplay mistakes, and refocus debates for millions of Americans. When a study by Seton Hall University School of Law and two lawyers who represent detainees at Guantanamo Bay was published, finding that just eight percent of detainees were classified as al Qaeda fighters by the military and a majority had not been found to have perpetrated any acts of hostility against American targets, the Pentagon sprung into action, commissioning a counter study from a terrorism research center at West Point that, unsurprisingly, offered a frightening portrait of a detainee population made up of dangerous jihadists. Explaining the motivation for the rebuttal report, one of the authors offered a candid summary: the Department of Defense “had been getting a lot of inquiries related to this previous study. They had a lot of concerns with the conclusions, but they did not have another study.”
Just as with the tobacco industry, the benefits of such an approach in the context of the war on terror were to forestall any action: with the ultimate verdict still out, it seemed ill-advised to change course or break from the status quo. Since there was a debate over the dangerousness of the detainees, Guantanamo had to be kept open. Since there was not utter consensus that coercive interrogation methods amounted to torture, they had to be continued. Since there was an active dispute over the legality of government wiretaps, they had to remain undisturbed. Making things look like a debate meant that feet could be dragged for months, if not years.
Nowhere was this truer than with respect to the administration’s policy on climate change. The aim for the Bush appointees at the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and elsewhere was never to prove that global warming had its origin in natural causes, but rather to sew a seed of doubt so that inaction could take root. In February 2007, when a report by top climate scientists from 120 nations was released explaining that global warming was unquestionably real, man-made, and required immediate responsive action, Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a response worthy of an expert defense lawyer for Philip Morris: “We’re going to see a big debate on [climate change] going forward . . . the extent to which it is part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which it’s caused by man . . . [It’s] not enough to just sort of run out and try to slap together some policy that’s going to ‘solve’ the problem.”
For the McCain-Palin campaign, the goal has been to move what should be settled points of fact into the realm of confusion and dispute such that existing negative stereotypes respecting the Democratic presidential candidate can persist. That status quo is that a black man with a name like Barack Hussein Obama is going to be viewed by many with suspicion, fear, and distrust. Hence, you don’t have to conclusively prove that Barack Obama is a Muslim; you only have to allow your surrogates to repeatedly raise such a claim. Nor do you need to prove that Barack Obama is an al Qaeda operative; you only have to emphasize, at rallies and in television commercials, that he pals around with terrorists. You don’t have to prove that Barack Obama wants to mandate teaching kindergarten students how to use a condom; you just have to insinuate it enough that it sticks. If we aren’t absolutely sure that Obama isn’t an Arab spy bent on corrupting our children, we can’t possibly elect him president.
The same is true with respect to attacks by the McCain campaign playing on existing notions about “tax and spend” Democrats and elitist, leftist professors. You don’t actually have to prove that Obama would raise taxes; you just have to assert again and again that Obama wants to spread the wealth around, pitting the haves against the have-nots and favoring the latter. You don’t have to prove that Obama is out-of-touch with mainstream America; you just have to hammer on how he held a campaign event with celebrities in Hollywood and how he believes that rural voters cling to guns and religion out of bitterness. Given the dire economic situation, if it is an open debate whether or not Obama will take more out of our pay checks, voting for him would be reckless; if there is a chance that he doesn’t understand us, our beliefs, and our struggles, it would be foolish.
As a number of writers have pointed out, this strategy of muddying the waters has been especially effective because of the press’s tendency to try to appear balanced: when pointing out untruths propagated by the McCain campaign, many writers and commentators have felt compelled to also mention significantly less-erroneous claims by Obama. The result being that members of the public are liable to come away mistakenly convinced that both sides bend the facts equally to suit their needs.
To its credit, in recent weeks, the press has been far more disciplined in calling out McCain and Palin for their deceptive claims and pressing for more details, but much damage has already been done. With one-third of voters, in a recent survey, sure that Obama is a Muslim or open to the idea that he could be, and over fifty percent believing that he would raise their taxes (despite the fact that his tax plan would reduce taxes for 95% of Americans), Palin’s proposal to excise the media from the presidential election conversation is particularly disturbing.
We deserve to know what our candidates think so that we can determine what types of leaders they will be. Despite Palin’s arguments to the contrary, we are not going to learn those critical facts if we just listen to what they want to tell us. Filters keep us safe and healthy. Sure, you can have a drink right out of the East River, but in the end all you’re going to get is a bad pain in your gut.
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To read some related Situationist posts, see “A Convenient Fiction,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” “The Situation of University Research,” “The company “had no control or influence over the research” . . . .,” ” Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Industry-Funded Research,” and “Industry-Funded Research – Part II.”