Sunday, March 13, 2005

The CEO president

Back in the 2000 campaign, we heard a lot about George Bush being the first Presidential candidate with an MBA, and about how he planned to remodel the governance of the Executive Branch along the lines that had made corporate America great. A lot of this was said with an obviously invidious (and not unfair) nod at the Clinton White House's indiscipline and lack of strategic vision. It was also a sign of the times that comparing the President to a CEO went over well with Main Street.

For obvious reasons, Republicans have discarded the "CEO Presidency" line in recent years, not just because it soon became clear that Bush as a businessman had governed over only failures (except where his family connections handed him sweetheart deals) or because it soon became clear that Bush himself was incapable of doing the first thing a decent CEO needs to do, which is fire subordinates who fuck up, but more importantly because Ken Lay and the Boys took the shine off corporate America.

Nonetheless, as a narrative about this Presidency, the "CEO President" does have some merit, especially with regards to the way this President regards the function of the press. In a nutshell, the Bush regime rejects the notion that the democratic governments ought to be transparent in principle. It regards the news media's self-definition as a "Fourth Estate" to which the government should answer as at best sentimental nonsense and at worst self-dealing deception. Rather, like corporate communications executives, the Bushies regard the press merely as a communications channel that can and should be controlled and manipulated in any way one can get away with.

The Bush regime's "corporate" approach to PR is not just a matter of principles, it's also a matter of specific techniques, as this long New York Times article explains:
Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production.
The larger point about this is that the Bush regime fundamentally doesn't understand that "freedom of the press" is not just a matter of not censoring people, but about permitting enough transparency so that the press has access to facts that are open to multiple interpretations. Non-partisans, incidentally, agree:
In three separate opinions in the past year, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress that studies the federal government and its expenditures, has held that government-made news segments may constitute improper "covert propaganda" even if their origin is made clear to the television stations. The point, the office said, is whether viewers know the origin. Last month, in its most recent finding, the G.A.O. said federal agencies may not produce prepackaged news reports "that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials."
This is not to say that the line is absolutely clear. No one says that government agencies shouldn't put out press releases, or try to present whatever they are doing in the best light. Moreover, there are all sorts of different levels at which the line between reporting and spin can be hard to define, and communications professionals have developed all sorts of terms to describe these hybrid categories: infomercials, advertorials, docudramas, soft news, and so on.

But two points need to be made. The first is rather simple: whatever the status of one's communication, it should be clear. Insofar as possible, opinions should be presented as such, as distinct from reportage. For example, if an article is written or produced by an industry or government insider, that person's identity should be clearly and prominently displayed.

The second point is more subtle: what is (quite rightly) acceptable in the private sector is often (quite rightly) not kosher in the political arena. Profit-seeking businesses owe it to (and indeed are often legally obligated to) their employees and shareholders to put forth whatever message best serves the interests of the company itself. Businesses don't owe their competitors, their industries, or even their customers anything other than what the contracts they have signed state. (With that said, it's usually in a company's best interest to be as transparent and honest as possible.) However, the moral obligation of the government to citizens goes beyond promoting the interests of the government, as liberals and conservatives can surely agree.

This is where the metaphor of the citizen as a customer of the government breaks down. Companies don't owe customers anything--the officers of a company can choose to enter and exit markets as they see fit. But the government does owe the people something. You don't have to sign up to some kind of Lockean social contract theory of government to agree that if the state doesn't maintain a bedrock of openness with the people, then democracy will quickly cease to have any functional substance. In this sense, it is not at all unfair to point out that a regime that attacks and undermines the notion of government transparency is, at bottom, conducting a covert war on one of the implicit substantive bases of functional democracy.

And these people want us to believe they stand for promoting liberal democracy?

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