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Spin Control: The White House Office of Communications and the Management of Presidential News.

Since the Clinton administration took office, it has used the White House Office of Communications to try and manipulate media coverage in many of the same ways as did the Reagan administration. In many respects it has succeeded, and in so doing, has raised longstanding concerns regarding the relationship between the media and the White House. In Spin Control, John Anthony Maltese offers an enlightening look at the issues surrounding presidential attempts to control the public agenda.

Some of the current administration's tactics have included restricting the access of the Whit!? House press, holding press conferences infrequently and circumventing the media through town meetings and talk shows. Indeed, the Clinton media team succeeded early in the term in sending unfiltered information to the public through the use of such sophisticated technology as electronic mail and satellite feeds. President Clinton may have best represented the current media-White House relationship when he unabashedly told journalists gathered for a radio and television correspondents' dinner: "You know why I can stiff you on the press conferences? Because Larry King liberated me by giving me to the American people directly."

Maltese effectively demonstrates that the new administration's tactics are, in fact, not new. The author, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, chronicles the evolution of the Office of Communications since its formation in 1969. Through extensive interviews with former media personnel and presidential image-makers, Maltese vividly recreates events with great attention to detail, producing an in-depth background that is invaluable in understanding the office's present-day efforts.

Maltese, however, fails to analyze adequately the broader issues attendant between the media and the president. The reaction of the media to White House attempts to dictate news flow and the impact of these efforts on democratic ideals either are glossed over or are conspicuously absent. The author exposes aspects of the modern presidency that are little-known to even the best informed citizens: He brings to light the concerns of every administration in dealing with the media and the White House's Machiavellian belief that tight control of information is essential for a stable term in office.

The Office of Communications is distinct from the White House Press Office, the latter of which facilitates presidential and Washington-based press relations. The growth of the broadcast media during the Kennedy administration and the subsequent White House ability to reach audiences directly contributed to the creation of the Office of Communications during the Nixon administration. It now performs strategic-planning and information-control functions and is primarily designed to take presidential messages directly to the public. The size and structure of the office has changed according to the needs of each president; during the Reagan administration, for example, it became an umbrella organization that controlled several entities, including the White House Press Office. The Clinton administration has largely retained this structure.

The book argues that, in an age of information, a strong hold over news can mean the difference between an administration's success and failure. Indeed, Maltese observes that it was Nixon -- a president wary of having his message filtered through the media -- who institutionalized and politicized the Office of Communications. Maltese points out that many of the most popular White House media tools -- the standard line of the day, the staging of photo opportunities and sound bites and the distribution of information to specialized media markets -- were formulated during the Nixon years. Consequently, it is not surprising that Maltese devotes nearly half of Spin Control to the Nixon administration. Such background is essential to understanding the subsequent use and evolution of these devices of influence and control.

According to Maltese, by the time of Nixon's resignation the Office of Communications had three main functions: to serve as a liaison with non-Washington media, to centralize control of information and to generate public support. The Ford administration, having come to power after the turmoil of Watergate and less interested in molding the president's image, tried to curtail the powers of the Office of Communications. However, Dick Cheney, Ford's chief-of-staff, recognized the importance of a disciplined approach to news management as the 1976 presidential campaign approached. The administration therefore revitalized the office and even expanded its functions, using it as a liaison with the press secretaries of Republican governors throughout the country.

Maltese details the important role played by the Office of Communications in helping Ford snatch the Republican nomination away from Reagan and in narrowing the gap with Carter during the 1976 presidential campaign. The role played by the office during the late Ford administration became the prototype for Reagan's successful communications operations. Indeed, the same man -- David Gergen -- ran the office during both the Ford and Reagan years. Gergen now heads up Clinton's communications efforts, demonstrating that control of the media, public opinion and presidential messages require no party allegiance.

In his book about the Carter administration, Maltese observes that Carter failed to use the Office of Communications adequately during the early years of his administration. There was no line of the day and no control over public statements by administration officials. In May 1978, Carter tried to cultivate a coherent administration image by recreating the Office of Communications under advertising executive Gerald Rafshoon. The White House, however, disbanded the office in August 1979, just before the start of the 1980 presidential campaign, because they preferred to use a more decentralized approach for their election. Maltese convincingly argues that this lack of media organization contributed to Carter's defeat. He writes that Rafshoon himself later admitted that it had been a mistake to go without a formal Office of Communications from the outset of Carter's term. And Carter's chief-of-staff, Hamilton Jordan, sent a note to Cheney expressing regret that he had ignored the latter's admonitions against losing control of the public agenda.

Yet Maltese does point out several breakthroughs made by the Carter administration in reaching the public directly. One innovation was the installation of a radio actuality service, which allowed radio stations to tap into audiotapes of statements by the President and senior officials through a toll-free telephone line. Many local radio stations could not afford to maintain Washington bureaus and depended on carefully scripted feed from the White House. The Carter administration was also the first to implement a video service that rushed videotapes of interviews to local television stations. Maltese correctly views this service as a "primitive precursor to modern-day satellite hookups."

The chapter on the Reagan years, appropriately entitled "Perfecting the Art of Communication," offers perhaps the clearest view of the Clinton administration, which effectively uses many of the tactics Reagan pioneered in orchestrating the public agenda. These tactics include the use of private organizations to reach the public directly, the interest in local media and the control over visual imagery and sound-bites.

Maltese shows that under Reagan, Gergen was instrumental in controlling the agenda, tailoring short- and long-term communications strategies to legislative plans, deflecting criticism from the president and, thus, creating the Reagan image. Maltese explores several aspects of the communications operations, including Reagan's emphasis on visual detail. The author correctly observes that the "emphasis on the visual was just another way of circumventing reporters and taking administration messages directly to the people." Maltese convincingly shows that the careful stagecrafting of the presidential image helped Reagan become the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to enjoy back-to-back landslides.

By the time George Bush came to power, the Office of Communications was an established and accepted entity. Maltese writes that Bush, attempting to distance himself from Reagan and to avoid charges of media manipulation, was more accessible to journalists and less stringent in controlling the administration line. According to Maltese, these tactics had somewhat disastrous consequences as We administration sent conflicting messages, appeared indecisive and demonstrated little control of As agenda. One wonders whether debacles such as the ill-fated nomination of John Tower and the failure of the Bush budget compromise in the House might have been avoided had there been a coherent communications strategy.

Overall, Maltese succeeds in conveying the sense that "manipulating the media and emphasizing style -- often at the expense of substance -- are now thought to be essential parts of modern presidential power." He also convincingly depicts the modern presidency as an ongoing political campaign relying on the orchestration of media coverage and the control over the agenda. Indeed, the reader can witness the ongoing political campaign in Clinton's Office of Communications, appropriately dubbed the War Room. The present administration not only uses its own strategies, but has refined those used by previous administrations. In this sense, Maltese has written a very timely book.

Maltese has provided the background for a deeper understanding of presidential power and the importance of controlling the public agenda. However, the book is greatly weakened by the absence of a thorough analysis of the larger issues surrounding the ability of the Office of Communications to shore up presidential power. Greater insight is necessary to contribute to the study of leadership and power; instead, Maltese devotes only two pages to both the impact on democracy of manipulating "popular passions" and the acquiescence of the media to the orchestration of these passions. The author should have explored these critical observations in a more comprehensive manner.

Despite scant attention to the media's response to White House control over information, Maltese concludes that journalists are "willing partner[s]" in the constriction of their own profession, since they rely excessively on the Office of Communications. This statement should have been better substantiated throughout the course of the book. A more thorough argument would require candid interviews with members of the media in order to understand their reactions: Were the media angry at these Presidential control tactics? Did they seek revenge? These questions are interesting ones and are hardly explored.

Maltese leaves the reader in a state of intellectual flux by concluding that the White House's current use of the Office of Communications will "lead to a less deliberative process in government and provide us with a citizenry that is inundated with the symbolic spectacle of politics but ill-equipped to judge its leaders or the merits of their policies." What will happen to this unenlightened citizenry? How will this affect the presidency? Maltese fails to answer these questions.

The very fact that all these issues are glossed over raises questions concerning the role of the media in society. I.F. Stone, the investigative editor, once said that the role of the press is to "afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted." Are these days over? Maltese leaves us to ponder this question.
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Author:Raghavan, Sudarsan V.
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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