President Bush has been selling his new Iraq strategy in all the traditional ways: A solemn prime-time speech from the White House; a “60 Minutes” interview at Camp David in an open-necked shirt; a visit to Fort Benning surrounded by cheering soldiers in camouflage uniforms.
It all looks and sounds so 20th century, and it’s not working. More than six in 10 Americans still tell pollsters the war is not worth fighting, and of course the main reason is the deteriorating situation on the ground. Even the president, after years of denial, admits that the catastrophe he created is “unacceptable,” and the new Democratic majorities in Congress now have far greater standing to voice their criticisms.
But one huge obstacle blocking the president’s media campaign is the changing nature of the media itself. The American president has always had the biggest microphone in the world, and using his “bully pulpit” to manage information and shape public opinion is one of the major powers of the office.
Since Bush took office six years ago, however, the rapid advance of smaller and cheaper communications devices – laptops, cell phones, handheld computers, digital cameras, satellite uplinks – have all accelerated what Thomas Friedman calls the “democratization of information.” The president’s power to shape what people know and how they think has been seriously eroded.
These innovations all intersect, amplifying the influence of each other. The hanging of Saddam Hussein was recorded on a cell phone, distributed on the Internet, and broadcast repeatedly on satellite outlets like al-Jazeera. Any attempt by the White House to control that information would be futile.
Of all these technological changes, the Internet is the most important. The Washington Post reported last week that Spc. Daniel Caldwell, stationed in Iraq with the 23rd Infantry Regiment, received an instant message from his wife just before going on patrol in Baghdad, telling him the president was sending in 20,000 more troops.
That news triggered an immediate response from Caldwell, whose view of the war was far darker than the president’s: “They’re kicking a dead horse here. The Iraqi army can’t stand up on their own.”
Two active duty Navy men have established the Web site AppealforRedress.org, where soldiers like Caldwell can voice their complaints. More than a 1,000 signees have endorsed a petition, calling for a pullout of American troops, and one of them, Sgt. Kevin Torres, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, was quoted in the Post: “I felt like with our being here, we were making more enemies. The people hated us.”
The video of Saddam, taunted by sectarian enemies as he faced execution, is only the latest example of how digital images – captured by amateurs on handheld devices – can undermine even the most assiduous White House public relations campaign.
Several Marines are charged with killing 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha in 2005, and the evidence against them includes dozens of gruesome photos taken by fellow soldiers, traded electronically, downloaded to personal Web sites and e-mailed to civilians back home. These images have the same effect as earlier pictures shot inside the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib prison: they aggravate the public perception that the war is not worth fighting.
One Marine who photographed the victims at Haditha, Lance Cpl. Andrew Wright, told the Post: “Even though there was no investigation at the time, I felt that the photographs would be evidence if anything came up in the future. In my opinion, the people I photographed had been murdered.”
Pictures like the ones taken by Cpl. Wright are fodder for the Arab-language satellite outlets that view the Middle East through a very different prism than the one used by American TV. The Arabic stations are far more likely to show civilian casualties, which is exactly why Hezbollah guerillas in Southern Lebanon placed their training camps and weapons depots right in the middle of inhabited villages.
Israel, and its American ally, suffered a severe public relations setback when images of innocent Lebanese killed by invading Israeli troops were recorded by Arab stations and broadcast worldwide.
Technology has also provided a platform for Osama bin Laden, who is apparently hiding in a remote mountain region of Pakistan but still reaches an international audience through videotapes recorded on portable equipment and distributed by outlets like al-Jazeera.
The president still has his pulpit, and his microphone, but new devices have crowded the media marketplace and amplified his critics, and that’s one key reason why his selling campaign is not working.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.