POTUS Controls the Narrative

by Joshua H. Liberatore

Like it or not, when you’re in a position as singular and scrutinized as POTUS is, relations with the Media are a big part of your daily labors. The relationship is often collegial and symbiotic, at times jocular, at others contentious, and sometimes openly hostile. In any case, the newspapers and network broadcasters that once proudly called themselves “the government’s watchdog” – as we learned in high school government class, a concept that always confused me, since a watchdog’s job is to protect and guard – do achieve a kind of unprecedented access to POTUS, traveling with him around the country and world, waiting in the wings at each public appearance, and chomping at the bit for the occasional press conference. The skill with which POTUS and his communications team “handle” this relationship can make or break a reputation, sully or halo an entire administration. Let’s take a brief look at how our current POTUS is managing so far.POTUS made his prime time debut on the networks during none other than Super Bowl Sunday, for which he granted an exclusive interview with Matt Lauer of NBC’s “Today”. What did Mr. Lauer make of such a golden opportunity? It’s difficult to say. The raw numbers tell one story. The full transcript of their conversation, released by the White House Press Office after the interview aired, reveals a lengthy, wide-ranging dialogue, lasting a full 40 minutes. The version that NBC viewers received on their magical screens was just under 14 minutes, split into two, tightly edited segments. In the spirit of modernism, I offer you a sample of just some of the more salient “deleted scenes”.

When asked about his then apparent failure to achieve bipartisan support for the economic recovery and stimulus package, POTUS said:

Oh, listen, it’s only been 10 days. People have to recognize that it’s going to take some time for trust to be built not only between Democrats and Republicans, but between Congress and the White House, between the House and the Senate. You know, we’ve had a dysfunctional political system for a while now.

To NBC viewers, this might have sounded like a defensive posture, a disclaimer that lofty campaign rhetoric was falling flat amid the cold realities of Congressional negotiations. But in the unaired version that we published, POTUS offered a broader explanation, going on to say:

And the fact that we have been able to move what is by all accounts a historic piece of legislation through this quickly, and that the Senate is having a serious debate about it, and we still expect it to be on my desk for signature before President’s Day, is quite an achievement. But it’s going to take time for people to start getting used to the fact that we don’t have to score political points on every issue. Once in a while, we can take the politics out of it and just focus on getting the job done for the American people. (February 1, 2009)

Most of which, some two weeks later, turns out to be true. Another example on the same subject, which NBC’s editors gave pride of place, came in response to Mr. Lauer’s question about whether POTUS had an “exit strategy” for the government’s massive injections of capital into the private economy:

Look, I’m at the start of my administration. One nice thing about the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable.

But POTUS said a lot more than that. Before stressing his accountability with such terse confidence (as the aired version suggested), POTUS provided some policy details that are apparently too technical for television audiences – especially, on Super Bowl Sunday – to be trusted with:

Well, if we are doing things properly, then what you’ll start seeing is slowly trust get rebuilt, banks’ balance sheets will start to strengthen; they’ll start lending to each other; they’ll start lending to companies; they’ll start lending to small businesses. There will be some institutions that continue to be weak, and we’re going to have to do something with them. Over time, as the market confidence is restored, then what we can do is start getting rid of some of these assets, some of the stock the taxpayers now have in some of these companies start being worth more. We sell them off to private parties, and taxpayers can recoup that money. So, you know, it’s going to have to happen in stages. The key thing, I think, for the public right now is they have to know that I’m going to be spending all my time making sure that their money is not wasted, because I’m going to be, ultimately, accountable. (February 1, 2009)

A final egregious example involved the closure of Guantánamo Bay’s detention facilities, a subject whose details did not suggest riveting content to NBC’s editors. In the aired version, POTUS simply said, with admirable economy:

It’s the right thing to do. Ultimately, it will make us safer. You’ve already seen in the reaction around the world a different sense of America by us taking this action.

In the transcript, POTUS flanked the above sentences with the following meaty nourishment:

Let me say this. We had a long campaign between myself and John McCain. One thing we did not disagree on-in fact, something that John McCain was as adamant as I was, was that we needed to close Guantánamo.
[. . . .]
Now, is it going to be easy? No, because we’ve got a couple of hundred of hardcore militants that, unfortunately, because of some problems that we had previously in gathering evidence, we may not be able to try in ordinary courts, but we don’t want to release. How we structure that is something that I’m going to do carefully. Our lawyers are reviewing it. I have absolute confidence that, ultimately, we’re going to be able to find a mechanism, with the cooperation of the international community, with the cooperation of some very smart Republicans, like Lindsey Graham, a former JAG [Navy lawyer] who knows this stuff well. I have confidence that we’re going to be able to find a solution to this problem. (February 1, 2009)

Lighten up, Mr. Editor, right? After all, television viewers – and I am not one, so forgive my naiveté – are used to this kind of production. What we see is always a mash-up of what actually got taped. So what’s the big deal? Well, besides modifying the tone and nuance of what POTUS actually said, NBC’s chopped-down-and-rebuilt version, which sometimes broke POTUS off mid-sentence and patched in a later (or earlier) utterance, necessitated a strict limitation of content, narrowing the range of subjects considerably. From a conversation that surveyed Afghanistan and Iraq policy to the urgency of bipartisanship and economic stabilization to POTUS’s impressive knowledge of football (even this got cut!), television viewers were treated to a human-interest montage that dealt with the comparative advantages of living with one’s mother-in-law, Sasha’s peanut butter sandwiches, POTUS’s cherished BlackBerry, and the cover of US Weekly on which a husky Jessica Simpson replaces the cropped-out POTUS in the photo of the First Family. There’s a reason, it seems, that the White House released its own transcript, unusual in the case of network interviews.

On a final note, one of the subjects scrapped on NBC’s cutting room floor was the former “war on terror,” a designation that POTUS rightly eschews. Later that week, CNN’s Anderson Cooper – whom my coevals and I fondly remember from his pre-gray, early days at ChannelOne, the educational news network that began pumping into high school classrooms all over Freedom’s Land in the early 1990s – drew POTUS out on this notable change of diction.

Cooper: I’ve noticed you don’t use the term “war on terror.” I think I read an article that you’ve only used it once since inauguration. Is that conscious? Is there something about that term you find objectionable or not useful?

The President: Well, you know, I think it is very important for us to recognize that we have a battle or a war against some terrorist organizations, but that those organizations aren’t representative of a broader Arab community, Muslim community. I think we have to – you know, words matter in this situation, because one of the ways we’re going to win this struggle is through the battle of hearts and minds.

Cooper: So that’s not a term you’re going to be using much in the future?

The President: You know, what I want to do is make sure that I’m constantly talking about al Qaida and other affiliated organizations because we, I believe, can win over moderate Muslims to recognize that that kind of destruction and nihilism ultimately leads to a dead end and that we should be working together to make sure that everybody has got a better life. (February 3, 2009)

Even though CNN’s transcript was not an official White House release (and thus, we did not publish it), we dutifully took special notice of this colloquy. For the past eight years, our outfit has used, per obligation, “war on terror” in headings and indexes as a convenient (if inaccurate) shorthand for what the former POTUS was always struggling to describe with clarity. In deference to the subtler tones of the new POTUS, we have now forked the old lump designation into two separate categories: “global terrorism” and “military operations”. POTUS has given us license to pursue greater specificity, and we are grateful for the privilege. What’s in a name, you ask? As fair Verona’s “star-crossed lovers” learned the hard way, and as POTUS himself appears to understand, names can mean the difference between a plausible romantic adventure and a painful “plague on both [our] houses,” but only if you are in control of the narrative.

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