Episode 96, with guests Nancy Benac and Jeff Smith

Nancy Benac and Jeff Smith are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton.
Original Air Date: April 6, 2013 on SiriusXM “POTUS” Channel 124.
PoliOptics airs regularly on POTUS on Saturdays at 6 am, 12 noon and 6 pm.
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Show also available for download on Apple iTunes by clicking here

Jeff Smith

We had a fascinating conversation this week with Jeff Smith, a former teacher and Missouri State Senator who ran for Congress in 2004 in Missouri’s 3rd Congressional District. Running an upstart campaign, Jeff came in second in a 10-way primary to Russ Carnahan. Carnahan would eventually win and serve in the U.S. House until this year.

Before Jeff’s ultimate fate was known, his story was the focus of an award-winning documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore?

Despite defying expectations and nearly winning the race, Jeff made a major mistake. He lied in an affidavit to the FBI about his knowledge of a coordinated direct mail campaign with a third party against his opponent. He went to jail, served his time and is now teaching at New York’s New School how to win campaigns without breaking the law.

Jeff is a picture-perfect candidate with a great command of how to capitalize on PoliOptics on the campaign trail, but his is a cautionary tale. The end of the story is, I think, one of redemption, and it’s worth a listen.

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Nancy Benac

Many in the Twittersphere were drawn to this long AP piece by Nancy Benac, as was I. National Journal’s Ron Fournier, among others, weighed in.

Every once in a while, reporters tackle the quite complex topic of message control by the White House, whether it’s the White House of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. It’s a never ending story, with new chapters enabled by the advance of technology.

The title of Fournier’s piece was “From Lincoln to Obama, Presidents as Propagandists:President Obama is exploiting new technologies to burnish his image, but the strategy may cause mistrust.” Ron begins his piece with a comment he made to his nephew’s high school government class in Detroit: “I deal with propagandists every day.”

Back in the Clinton years, I was one of those propagandists that Ron and Nancy Benac dealt with. I created pleasant pictures featuring the president. But most of the pictures I created were done in partnership — they won’t like that word — with AP and other photojournalists assigned to the White House.

We created moments with newsworthy narrative. They took the access we gave them, stood where we asked them to stand, and used their equipment as they saw fit to cover the story. Sometimes they asked us for special camera angles. We negotiated, and obliged.

We often lit the scene for them and, from time to time, provided microphones that gave them sound for their news reports. Those pictures provided front page artwork for their newspapers. That video and that sound was fundamental to network and cable news packages, sandwiched between commercials. Partnership. We got stories about our issues, they got content for their moneymaking ventures.

Do I have a problem with propaganda? It depends. After writing about 25,000 words over a 10-part series in “The Story of Polioptics,” I used the last few hundred to wrestle with propaganda. I wrote:

There is a word we haven’t used yet in this narrative – “propaganda.”  It’s not a well-liked word.  Practitioners like Leni Riefenstahl are held in contempt as manipulators of image. But it works both ways. Without the ability to tell a story visually, lacking those shots of the liberated camps, the fight against Hitler would have been harder. Greenpeace’s work might go unnoticed. Al Gore’s truth would be less inconvenient.

The difference between the 1990s and today is that the Obama White House doesn’t have to fly to a local news market and expose the president to questions from an unscreened audience, as we did often in the Clinton years (remember “boxers or briefs”?). And in the arena of still photography, the White House photo office didn’t have — as it does now — a Flickr feed to make public behind-the-scenes imagery of the president and staff hours after events conclude. Plenty of time for enterprising newspaper photo editors to lay them out on tomorrow’s front page, to the chagrin of their staff or wire photographers. Most of those tens of thousands of Clinton images were destined for — and are still remanded to — the National Archives.

But here’s the other side of the coin.

Earlier this week, I was privileged to see a screening of the new Warner Bros. film 42 from writer/director Brian Helgeland. As part of the promotion of the film, Helgeland and members of Jackie Robinson’s family screened the picture for the Obamas and participated in a discussion in the East Room for an invited audience. I was interested in the Robinson story, even more so after watching the film. I wanted to learn more. But watching the evening news that night, the Robinson event was consigned to a “reader” — where the anchorman makes brief mention of the event over what’s known as “B-Roll” from coverage at the White House. I wanted to learn more. Certainly, I thought, it was worth a three-minute “news package.” But not on a night when another day of elevated tensions with North Korea filled the news hole.

Guess what — thanks to new technology — and what some would call “propaganda” (i.e. government-produced content), I can watch the whole thing given that I have, as Jay Carney said, “electricity and an Internet connection.” You can too!

All propaganda is not bad.

Like so many of his followers, I appreciate CBS’s Mark Knoller’s reporting and the information he provides on Twitter. He keeps us up to date on what the president is doing. He also has views honed over decades about limits that the White House places on coverage of events, particularly fundraisers. When President Obama went to San Francisco this week to raise money for Democrats, he reminded us of the coverage limitations.

Only one reporter, Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News, was allowed in, a pooled representative of the White House press corps. Though there was no sound or video from the president’s remarks, Gillman’s pool report was sufficient to launch the day’s metastasizing gaffe coverage: President Obama’s comment about California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Clearly, the White House didn’t plan for routine lunchtime fundraiser remarks limited to print pool coverage only to be picked up by the Telegraph with the headline: “Barack Obama in sexism row after praise for ‘best-looking’ attorney general.”

Did the president’s wayward remark really warrant all the breathless cable chatter and tweeting? Efforts to minimize moments like this, when the news cycle turns into chaos over some ill-considered lines, are why it shouldn’t surprise readers of Nancy Benac’s article that the White House limits access to fundraisers to print poolers, uses teleprompters to stay on script, hands out Pete Souza’s photos for front pages or produces its own television shows.

One way or another, for better or worse, the story got out. Was the story made worse, or better, by the presence of a single print reporter versus a full pool at the home of Levi Strauss-heir John Goldman? As a communications advisor, I’d have to take it on the chin that my trip to San Francisco earned a bruising Friday of coverage along with the fundraising haul. On the other hand, I’d have to be relieved that there was no audio, as in the “bitter” story, or video, as in the 47% story, in the public domain.

This debate will never end, nor will the march of technology that constantly changes the rules of the game.

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