President Bush can’t seem to pedal fast enough to outpace his plummeting poll numbers, while the left speaks hopefully of a tipping point in the national debate on Iraq. Though, quietly but persistently, one thing remains the same and should never be, as our feckless leader might say, “misunderestimated”: the marketing prowess of Karl Rove and its influence on the mainstream media.
The man who brought you such Trojan Horse pieces of legislation as “No Child Left Behind” and the “Clear Skies Act,” and whose directive of subliminal, and not-so-subliminal, repetition masterfully linked Saddam Hussein to 9/11 in the minds of more than half of Americans, continues to be the filter through which we receive much of our news. From cowing the mainstream media into lazy or misleading reporting to feeding them talking points they can run with and do his bidding, he still has them eating out of his hand.
Take, for instance, a recent Reuters article about President Bush facing more anti-war protesters while speaking at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the second to last paragraph, Caren Bohan, the journalist who penned this piece, writes:
“Critics say Iraq had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks and that the administration has tried to tie Iraq to terrorism since the war to justify its actions.”
It’s mentioned in such a matter-of-fact manner that, if the statement wasn’t so outrageously erroneous and misleading, it would be easy to overlook. First, it has long been common knowledge, confirmed by the 9/11 Commission, that Saddam Hussein had no connection to September 11. Fact. Not conjecture. Not a result of a partisan divergence in viewpoint. So, on its face, this statement is false, and this reporting is irresponsible at best and propagandistic at worst.
The effectiveness of this specious reporting hinges on the words “Critics say,” which brands any disbelievers of the bogus Saddam link with the culturally pejorative “critic.” As in, nobody likes one. The subtext is also clear: labeling such people critics of the President during wartime inevitably calls into question their patriotism. Is this journalist allowing George a mulligan to soften the blows that Cindy Sheehan has landed, or is she simply lazy? Is this the best we can do: propaganda or incompetence? How much more of a mirror can the mainstream press become of the administration itself?
Then there was Norah O’Donnell, filling in last week for “Hardball” barker Chris Matthews. Speaking with Coleen Rowley, the Minneapolis-based 9/11 FBI whistle-blower and Democratic candidate for Congress who recently visited Crawford to show her support for Cindy Sheehan, O’Donnell wastes no time giving credence to new right-wing talking points:
O'DONNELL: You're a Democrat running for Congress. It was reported that Republican leaders in your state were just thrilled that you had decided to align yourself with anti-war extremists. Do you think that this could affect your race for Congress?
ROWLEY: Well, I will quickly correct the record, that they are not anti-war extremists. The majority of the people I saw down in Crawford were actually veterans groups.
O'DONNELL: But, Coleen, they do oppose the war in Iraq, do they not?
Oh yes she did. O’Donnell, in one broad stroke, not only runs with this McCarthyite terminology to describe anti-war protesters but also gives context to and extends its definition. You need not protest the war to be an anti-war extremist; you merely have to be opposed to it. Subliminal message to middle America: Even your dirty little thoughts of opposition can land you in the unpatriotic camp. So watch your step.
Then O’Donnell cuts to that day's tape of the Bush address where, for the first time, he actually mentions the number of soldiers who’ve given their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a somber message, of course politically motivated, intended to rally support with such sentiments as, “Each of these heroes left a legacy that will allow generations of their fellow Americans to enjoy the blessings of liberty.” O’Donnell picks it up from there.
O'DONNELL: The president also said today, Coleen, that the war in Iraq must be won and that a policy of retreat and isolation will not bring us safety from terrorism. Do you disagree with that?
Subtext: How can you disagree with that? O’Donnell speaks as if it’s incumbent upon those who oppose the President’s failed policy in Iraq to explain themselves, while the President, the creator of this mess, gets a rhetorical pass. You can almost hear Rove chuckling behind the curtain.
In one of the most egregious examples of political branding, the Associated Press reports that “nearly all Arlington National Cemetery gravestones for troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are inscribed with the slogan-like operation names the Pentagon selected to promote public support for the conflicts.” Though reported by the AP, this news item was too unseemly for the networks and cable news to focus on. Meanwhile, graphic pictures and detailed accounts of the BTK Killer’s victims – death porn – continue to draw their journalistic eye.
Yes, the military is going full-bore to get the word out now that more teenagers would rather play military video games than actually sign up with Uncle Sam. Operation names on gravesites are merely outdoor branding. For the shock and awe marketing blitz, the Leo Burnett advertising agency has been charged to create a recruitment campaign - for a healthy $350 million - that avoids mention of Iraq. When asked about their new contract, the agency had this to say:
"Leo Burnett USA creates ideas that inspire enduring belief for many of the world's most valuable brands and most successful marketers, including McDonald's, Disney, Procter & Gamble, Marlboro, Altoids, Heinz, Kellogg, Nintendo and the U.S. Army."
All of this must make the man behind the curtain proud.