We’ve told you in recent months about the Obama administration’s disappointing tendency to mimic some of its predecessor’s more troubling war-on-terror tactics. But is the administration’s approach to public relations another area to add to the list?
Yesterday’s aggressive push-back against the Daily Telegraph report on torture photos suggests it could be.To recap: The British paper reported Wednesday that according to Antonio Taguba, the retired Army General who led an internal probe of torture at Abu Ghraib, some of the photos whose release the administration is fighting show US soldiers raping and sexually abusing Iraqi detainees, including at least one woman.
In response, the Obama administration didn’t just deny the story — it attacked the messenger. In fact, it atacked British journalism as a whole. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declared form the podium: “I think if you do an even moderate Google search you’re not going to find many of these newspapers and truth within, say, 25 words of each other.”
Gibbs went on to pull out what seemed like a carefully scripted line:
If I wanted to read a write-up today of how Manchester United fared last night in the Champion’s League cup, I might open up a British newspaper,” Gibbs said. “If I was looking for something that bordered on truthful news, I’m not entirely sure it’d be in the first pack of clips I’d pick up.
If Gibbs had ever before displayed an interest in European soccer, we missed it. (Man U lost 2-0 to Barcelona, by the way.)
Leaving aside the validity, or lack thereof, of Gibbs’ claim, it’s at the very least noticeable that the White House press secretary would go out of his way to slam the press corps of America’s closest ally. (In an email to TPMmuckraker, a British reporter based in the US called Gibbs’s attack “bizarre and revealing”, and the Manchester United reference, Britishly, “too clever by half.”)
That take-no-prisoners style — and reluctance to offer specific corrections, in favor of launching broad attacks designed to destroy an outlet’s credibility — is almost reminiscent of the Bush White House. Especially in their first term, when Ari Fleischer ran the show, the Bushies’ press shop set a new standard for going out of its way to bully and intimidate reporters, particularly when it came to the war on terror.
Indeed, though Gibbs has replaced Ari Fleischer at the podium, another key figure in the administration’s war on terror PR effort is a Bush holdover noted for his aggressive M.O.
The first person to push back against the Telegraph story yesterday was Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, who said the paper had shown “an inability to get the facts right,” and had “completely mischaracterized the images.”
Whitman, whose official title seems to be deputy assistant secretary for Public Affairs, played the same role when Donald Rumsfeld ran the Pentagon. As Scott Horton points out on the Daily Beast, it was Whitman who, in 2005, launched a theatrical attack on Newsweek, after the magazine reported that a Koran had been thrown down a toilet at Guantanamo. Newsweek, under pressure from Whitman and DOD, retracted the story and apologized — but it was later established to be true. Now Whitman is playing the same role for Bob Gates and Obama.
One doesn’t want to extrapolate too far from a few preliminary signs. And no one should expect complete transparency and straightforwardness from any administration — that’s the nature of public relations. But the bullying, reflexively political PR style — especially as regards the war on terror — adopted by the Bush White House and Rumsfeld DOD was one of the most damaging aspects of the Bushies’ approach to governing. So any sign that that’s continuing under Obama is worth noting.