James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Archive for July 24th, 2008

Managing the message

Posted by James McPherson on July 24, 2008

Barack Obama is drawing some criticism for “posing” and “message management” on his ongoing world tour, with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell quoted as saying “We’ve not seen a presidential candidate do this, in my recollection, ever before.” Obama obviously is using the media well, but Mitchell’s statement is absurd.

As the wife of Alan Greenspan, who bears a substantial part of the responsibility for the the current economic mess in the U.S., Mitchell can hardly be considered impartial, and an anti-Obama bias on her part seems apparent to many (yet another part of the so-called “liberal media”?). More importantly, however, her recollection demonstrates the lack of political and historical context for which television journalism has become famous.

One need only look back four years to the most recent Bush campaign. As I noted in my recent book:

Bush, who defined himself as a “war president” and who held fewer news conferences than any other president of the television age, also largely managed to bypass negative publicity during his campaign. Those who refused to voice support for the president were blocked from Bush campaign appearances, and sometimes arrested if they managed to get in, despite the fact that the rallies typically were held in public settings. As a result, when each network news program produced a short nightly news segment on each candidate’s activities, viewers saw the president—who almost never spoke directly to the news media—addressing crowds of cheering followers. Few stories in the mainstream media pointed out or questioned the remoteness of the president.

Or Mitchell could have looked to the campaign and presidency of Ronald Reagan–the guy who first hired her husband as Federal Reserve chairman–who was famous for developing the modern television campaign. About Reagan, I’ve previously written:

Reagan’s key staffers, especially aide Michael Deaver, were masters at presenting presidential politics through the media, with their techniques adopted by every successful candidate and president since. Reagan and his people tried to adhere to a “theme of the day,” and the press mostly went along. Reagan demonstrated mastery of what became known as the “pseudo-event” and the “photo op”—staged events that attracted news photographers, who were directed where to stand as if they were playing a part in a film.

Others have written much more about Reagan’s press management. Of course Bill Clinton did the same thing, though not as well as Reagan or perhaps even Bush. Even John F. Kennedy was criticized for similar attempts–and probably should have been criticized for more. But if Mitchell doesn’t remember any of that, perhaps it’s time for her to join her husband in retirement.

Friday update: Glenn Greenwald reminds us that it’s not just Bush folks who arrest people at rallies; McCain’s people do the same.

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