Bush spins the media, slowly

Despite today's hyper news cycle, White House keeps attention on one theme a week by parceling out details.

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If message control is a true measure of success, the Bush administration is on a winning streak. From education to faith-based initiatives to tax cuts, policy positions have been wrapped in Hallmark-esque themes in these opening weeks and slowly trotted out for the public.

Yesterday the administration officially released its tax-cut blueprint, but by the time the president produced the specifics of the $1.6 trillion plan, it had already received days of coverage. From a press conference Monday featuring a blow-up of a mock check, through photo-ops with families and small-business people who would benefit, the White House produced a weeklong "narrative" that the media dutifully recounted.

The PR approach used so far by the Bush White House represents the latest refinement in a communications revolution that has reshaped the modern presidency.

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President Reagan pioneered the idea of a tightly controlled "message of the day." The Clinton White House expanded the concept to new media outlets - from the Internet to MTV. Now the Bush administration is creating its own variation of the all-on-one-page approach: the message of the week.

Ironically, the White House's attempt to linger longer on just one theme comes at a time when an infinite number of media outlets are increasingly demanding new information - 24 hours a day. So far, the Bush strategy seems to be working. But the question ricocheting from newsrooms to Capitol Hill is: for how long?

Experts attribute some of the administration's early success with the White House press corps to a combination of good-humored wooing and tightly parceled access. Meetings begin on time and reporters go in knowing what to expect, but actual sightings and open time with the president are rare. Reporter-inspired, off-topic questions are not a big priority.

"This is a group that understands that loose lips sink ships," says Roderick Hart, a communications professor at the University of Texas who has studied White House communications methods. "They have gone in with a corporate mindset. That's how they operate."

Learning from Reagan

Certainly some of the Bush approach is rooted in the Reagan tactics of 20 years ago. Key members of President Reagan's staff met every Friday in something called the Blair House group, where they plotted the message of the day every day for the coming three months. When they got within two weeks, they plotted the strategy by the hour.

"You have to explain something at least three times before the message sinks in," says Marlin Fitzwater, who was a Reagan press secretary. "What it requires is a president with a lot of discipline."

And something of a willing press. At the time, Reagan's approach to media spin worked in part because it was new and the Washington it operated in was home to fewer media outlets.

Bush's team is facing a much more complicated and sophisticated media environment. Yet it is succeeding not only by copying Reagan's approach, but also by a slow-down approach. Despite the endless news cycle, the administration has been garnering seven days' worth of coverage out of each topic in part by parceling out details bit by bit.

"There's a great deal of literature on how to run a transition, and it always seems that no one has read it. These guys have," says Mr. Hart.

But he says the president is also being helped by a Congress that seems to be lying low until Bush lays out specific plans. The press, he says, needs story lines in order to cover the news, and right now all the story lines are coming out of the White House.

And then there is Bush's temperament. "It's the nature of the creature we're talking about. He doesn't have a busy mind like Clinton, and I don't mean that in the pejorative sense," Hart says. "If Clinton and Bush were interior decorators, Clinton's wallpaper would be very busy. Bush's would have cleaner lines."

Clean lines or not, some think the media is acting too much as a White House marionette - not probing deeply enough behind the issues.

"It's a lot easier to cover the White House when everything is laid out for you," says Bill Kovach, a former New York Times Washington bureau chief and chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. "And the question is how many journalists in Washington are really covering a beat - we used to say covering a building. I think it has shrunk."

Increasingly news organizations are focusing on long-term projects to some extent at the expense of beat reporting, Mr. Kovach says, and that phenomenon, combined with general reductions in reporting staffs, may be producing coverage that is less trenchant and critical.

Indeed, The Washington Post's ombudsman recently took his own newspaper to task for devoting its first interview with Bush to a series the paper was doing on the Florida recount, instead of focusing on the transition.

Don't forget us

Still, some question whether Bush's go-slow approach is really a new way of communicating at all. Jon Katz, a media critic and Internet writer, calls it a "30-year-old media strategy." He doubts it can succeed in the long run. "All strategies with the press work briefly, but they are bound to fail," he says. "No reporter has ever written a book or won an award for being nice to a president."

By not paying attention to less mainstream outlets, like the Internet, Mr. Katz says Bush faces risks. If and when the president's relationship with the press sours, he may find it hard to get out the message he is pushing through the established media.

Jody Powell, press secretary for Jimmy Carter, says at some point all the good feelings will subside, and reality will set in when reporters develop sources within the White House. It's how Bush handles that world that will determine his coverage.

"Right now, it all seems interesting because we are trying to figure out what he's really all about," Powell says. "But as time goes by, it will become more and more difficult to find an event that will attract attention."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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