The shoot-the-messenger mood

New White House spokesman Tony Snow may already be changing the way the Bush administration communicates with the American people.

New White House spokesman Tony Snow may already be changing the way the Bush administration communicates with the American people.

At the beginning of the week, President Bush made a rare nationwide address from the Oval Office on immigration reform. Simply making a nationwide address on a domestic issue was a dramatic change for a president who has previously reserved such events for matters of war and peace. The way the speech was packaged for the public also broke new ground.

Traditionally, the text of a presidential speech is distributed to the press only hours, sometimes only minutes, before it is given. On Monday, however, we were treated to a full day of previews fed by a series of “leaks” to the press corps. By the time the president actually spoke, at 8 p.m. Eastern time, he had nothing to say that any news junkie had not already heard. The result was a greatly extended news cycle for a speech that really had no news in it.

The technique allowed the White House to dominate coverage for the day, spur discussion on hundreds if not thousands of talk-radio shows, make certain that the Republican conservative base got the message that their leader is putting thousands of armed troops along the border with Mexico and that moderates heard his call for a reasoned approach to immigration legislation. There was something for everyone and time to say it again and again.

While I’m not privy to White House strategy discussions, it is interesting that this first event on Snow’s watch took a press-friendly turn. Snow is clearly off to a good start with his former colleagues. We’ve had at least two favorable feature stories on Snow played widely since he first stepped behind the podium. He was welcomed to the job with softball stories in print and broadcast media about his candor, comfort and even his stumbles in his first appearance before the media. This week we were treated to heart-warming stories about his battle with cancer and his humility and humanity as he slid smoothly into his new job. Clearly, he starts his tenure with a lot of goodwill.

Whether this honeymoon will last and whether it will do his boss any good is, however, an open question. A fascinating study conducted by longtime pollster Peter Hart for the Council for Excellence in Government finds that Americans are not only very cynical about the messages they are getting from their government, they don’t have a lot of faith in the messengers either. Only 11 percent of those surveyed expressed confidence in the media, ranking the press at the bottom of eight public institutions tested. Just four years ago 30 percent trusted the media, and back in 1991 37 percent had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the fourth estate.

This precipitous slide seems to be driven by the perception that an unproductive partisanship has come to dominate the government in Washington, especially the Congress, and that the media only contribute to the problem. While not specifically asked in this survey, it is logical to assume that the growth of sharp-tongued, highly opinionated talking heads on cable and broadcast television as well as the growth of print publications with an ax to grind is feeding this lack of respect for journalists and journalism. Voters now see the press as partisan players rather than independent observers.

I would argue that there is a bit of a shoot-the-messenger effect to these findings. An overwhelming majority of Americans, fully 75 percent in the Hart study, see Republicans and Democrats bickering and maneuvering for political advantage rather than trying to solve America’s problems. Only a little over a quarter of the public trusts the government in Washington to do what is right. That is the lowest number since a 1994 study found only 21 percent believing their government would do the right thing. (Let’s see … wasn’t 1994 the last election to produce a landslide of change in the Congress?) Clearly, to the degree press coverage has emphasized a poisoned environment in Washington, the media have suffered along with the Congress.

Americans, it seems, are in the mood for bipartisanship. They don’t think they are getting it from their elected officials or from the media. With voters in this sour mood, the next six months look to be tough ones for incumbents. Those who cover the news should be glad they are not on the ballot with those who are making it.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.