The truth of the matter is that with help from the news media, being able to "stay on message" is now considered a presidential asset, perhaps even a requirement. Of course, the "message" is the public relations spin that the White House wants to present and not what the President actually did that day or what was really going on inside the White House. This system reached its apex this year when the White House started to give "exclusives" -- stories that found their way to Page One, in which readers learn that during the next week President Bush will do a series of four speeches supporting his Iraq policy because his polls are down. Such stories are often attributed to unnamed "senior administration officials." Lo and behold, the next week those same news outlets, and almost everyone else, carries each of the four speeches in which Bush essentially repeats what he's been saying for two years.Today, at least, we saw news being made without a PR filter, when the president's ostensibly private conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair was caught on tape.
A new element of courage in journalism would be for editors and reporters to decide not to cover the President's statements when he -- or any public figure -- repeats essentially what he or she has said before. The Bush team also has brought forward another totally PR gimmick: The President stands before a background that highlights the key words of his daily message. This tactic serves only to reinforce that what's going on is public relations -- not governing. Journalistic courage should include the refusal to publish in a newspaper or carry on a TV or radio news show any statements made by the President or any other government official that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public.
This is the second time this kind of thing has happened in less than a month: Back in June, Condi Rice had her discussion with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over Iraq accidentally recorded in Moscow. Then today at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, President Bush was heard in private conversation with Blair and others – even using an expletive that brought back memories of when, thinking that his words could not be heard, Bush referred to New York Times reporter Adam Clymer as a "major-league a------" during the 2000 campaign.
Even though neither of these recent instances has generated much news of tremendous significance, there's something thrilling about them – they are, as journalists somewhat ruefully note, a "rare glimpse" of the goings on behind the PR curtain. News is so skillfully managed by presidential administrations that an instance of candor like these seems like a revelation. Pincus' call will likely not ever be taken up, both because determinations of what constitutes news are difficult in practice and because the competition inherent to a broad journalistic landscape means that there will likely always be someone willing to play by an administration's rules. But one wonders how the game might change if journalists treated PR statements as largely irrelevant to their goal of an accurate and complete accounting of the day's news.