Selling the War

SELLING THE WAR…..Today the New York Times tells us the story of the Bush administration’s ingenious media strategy for selling the Iraq war back in 2002. The key innovation was to bypass traditional journalists and instead focus their attention on military analysts, who turned out to be outstandingly pliable as regurgitators of Pentagon talking points:

Torie Clarke, the former public relations executive who oversaw the Pentagon’s dealings with the analysts as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, had come to her job with distinct ideas about achieving what she called “information dominance.” In a spin-saturated news culture, she argued, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent.

….In the months after Sept. 11, as every network rushed to retain its own all-star squad of retired military officers, Ms. Clarke and her staff sensed a new opportunity. To Ms. Clarke’s team, the military analysts were the ultimate “key influential” — authoritative, most of them decorated war heroes, all reaching mass audiences.

….The Pentagon’s regular press office would be kept separate from the military analysts. The analysts would instead be catered to by a small group of political appointees, with the point person being Brent T. Krueger, another senior aide to Ms. Clarke….Over time, the Pentagon recruited more than 75 retired officers, although some participated only briefly or sporadically. The largest contingent was affiliated with Fox News, followed by NBC and CNN, the other networks with 24-hour cable outlets.

…. At the Pentagon, members of Ms. Clarke’s staff marveled at the way the analysts seamlessly incorporated material from talking points and briefings as if it was their own.

“You could see that they were messaging,” Mr. Krueger said. “You could see they were taking verbatim what the secretary was saying or what the technical specialists were saying. And they were saying it over and over and over.” Some days, he added, “We were able to click on every single station and every one of our folks were up there delivering our message. You’d look at them and say, ‘This is working.’ “

Later, after the war had begun and the insurgency was in full swing, the analysts were invited on a trip to Iraq that was “scripted to the minute” in order to present a relentlessly sunny picture. “Inside the Pentagon and at the White House, the trip was viewed as a masterpiece in the management of perceptions, not least because it gave fuel to complaints that ‘mainstream’ journalists were ignoring the good news in Iraq.”

Indeed. And of course, all these retired generals made sure to keep up the happy talk because they didn’t want to lose access — access that was vital not just to their network gigs, but also to their primary jobs as defense industry consultants. Say the wrong thing, and perhaps your client doesn’t get that $10 million contract they were hoping for.

But it turns out that at least a few of them rebelled. Not many, but a few. For the whole grim story, click the link.