March 16, 2005
The New York Times story in last Sunday’s newspaper about the Bush Administration’s production of canned television “news” reports is bad news, and sensible people of all ideological stripes should be worried about it.
One of the first things you notice when you travel to most of postcolonial Africa is the creepily amateurish and cheesy way that official propaganda operates in the officially dominated public sphere. I don’t think it looks that way just to outsiders: just about every local I got to know, from the guys at the local bar to colleagues at the University of Zimbabwe, found most of this propaganda laughable and obvious. If the government was able to manipulate people successfully, it was usually way through mechanisms and channels way off the public stage, away from the masks of power. The more tinpot the autocrat, the more tinpotted his attempts to control his image. Occasionally there have been autocrats with a certain style, with the grand vulgarity that Achille Mbembe has written about: Mobutu had a craft about his obscene grandiosity. Occasionally you get dictators with a gift for signifying the insanity of unconstrained power: Sani Abacha’s sunglasses, Idi Amin’s deliberate absurdities, Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s performative cannibalism. But it’s all tinpot, even the relatively bland stuff like putting the head of state’s portrait in every nook and cranny of public space or using the state-run media for banally crude repetitions of everyday official falsehoods.
That’s the way I feel about the Bush Administration’s media efforts. Before I get to any grand concerns about the nature of “objectivity” or “bias” in the media or the expansion of federal authority, I just feel a more visceral, emotional disgust at this shift. Sure, the US government has always made propaganda of some sort or another, and sure, most Presidential Administrations since 1960 have had complicatedly collusive relations with the press at times, but this just feels different. Whatever larger issues it raises, it first and foremost seems to lack class. To be tinpot. To make the United States feel less like a place that is unlike everywhere else in the world.
And that is a practical problem that goes well beyond my own discomfort. The Bush Administration continues to flail around about trying to improve the image of the United States abroad, particularly in the Arab world, now turning to Karen Hughes as the latest in a spectacularly inept selection of personnel and strategies for coming to grips with that problem.
You want to know how to improve America’s image abroad? To sell our policies? You want to know how the Bush Administration should promote its policy objectives, whether domestic or foreign? Here’s a different solution: don’t produce canned news reports. Prepare a digest of articles about a particular issue from ten major media outlets across the ideological spectrum, from National Review to The Nation. For extra credit, throw in some blog entries. Release it to the world. Do it every week on every major initiative. Put together a package of major American voices on political questions and send them on a tour. Send Juan Cole, Paul Berman, Leon Wiesieltier, James Fallows, Katha Pollitt, Fareed Zakaria and Paul Wolfowitz abroad as a group to talk about the war in Iraq, doing panel discussions and individual lectures.
Do the same for any major initiative, even domestic ones. Collate what we already have to say as a nation and people and make that digest available for any who seek it.
That’s the opposite of tinpot. It’s what officially dominated public spheres in autocratic societies don’t do. It’s what a government unafraid of the freedom and diversity of its own citizens would do, should do.
Failing that, stay out of the business of manufacturing news. It’s not as if there is any shortage of media support for the Bush Administration: why manufacture news when there’s Fox? Once upon a time, when the United States government blasted the United Nations’ truly horrible plans for a New World Information Order, it was pretty easy to do so in a principled way that carried credibility and authority. Now I wonder. Stay out of the business of making puff-piece “news” about controversial policies not just because it’s a dangerous intrusion of the federal government into alarming terrain but also because it lacks class, at a time when the success of American policy abroad right now depends being a class act.