This is ‘New Media’ Advice? It’s SO Last Century

Hugh Hewitt, the articulate Republican cheerleader, syndicated radio host and blogger, portrays himself as consultant to all "center-right conservatives" in their battles against enemies in the media, politics and academia. He writes at least one book a year, in which he provides unsolicited advice to Republican candidates, conservative activists, high-school students and born-again Christians. He's been on the radio somewhere or another for at least 15 years, and spent time as co-host of KCET's "Life and Times." He flogs his books so mercilessly on the air, it's apparent that he believes his book sales figures are an indicator of the nation's well-being.

In addition to being a committed activist, churchman and attorney, Hewitt claims to know something about communications — trumpeting himself as an avatar of the new media as it triumphs over the liberal-biased "old" media. One of his most popular books is "Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World."

So I was struck by this post of a few days ago, "Secretary Rumsfeld and the New Media." In it, Hewitt discusses an interview with Rumsfeld, focusing on the advice he gave the secretary about communications in the new media era:

rumsfeld.jpgThe SecDef has staked everything on transforming the way the American military fights wars. I worry that all those efforts will be at least compromised unless the Pentagon gets its best minds thinking about how to explain the conflict and its many dimensions to the American public.

(snip)

The information war –fought not just by the Pentagon, but also by the White House the Department of Justice, the intelligence community–has become, like logistics, the realm of professionals*. Let's hope the U.S. gets as serious about it as it is about logistics.

Some suggestions:

The Secretary of Defense and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs are the two most important voices in the military. They need to engage media in lengthy, one-on-one question-and-answer sessions at which other journalists are allowed to attend but not participate.

Volume is not a substitute for quality. The DoD does in fact put out an avalanche of information every single day –too much, in fact. The Pentagon all too often steps on its lead story, and all too often does not respond to breaking information that the terrorists lob on to the battlefields of the information war. The rapid response of the military to such disinformation has to improve.

Finally, the particulars of any day's battles does not matter nearly as much as the strategic overview of the course of the war. Repetition is hated by the Beltway press corps, always eager to get a scoop or at least a new lede.

But repetition is the core of information war.

Finally, new media is far more powerful in its reach than the credibility-challenged and ideologically-compromised old media. The old press rules from the days when the New York Times or the Washington Post made the weather are still in place. They can be upended.

How is this advice — basically PR advice — any different from what Edward Bernays might have suggested to Rumsfeld 80 or 90 years ago at the dawn of the public relations industry? How is it any different from how politics was conducted under under Reagan or Clinton, the two most successful practitioners of the Pat Caddell/Mike Deaver/James Carville "permanent campaign" model that was engineered based on the PR-advertising principles formed when TV networks and a handful of newspapers dominated the news ecosystem?

Isn't this approach precisely what new media acolytes rebel against? That whole "message of the day," "don't step on your own story," "rapid response," top-down media management? What I thought new media is about is transparency, providing more not less, and showing faith in the ability of news consumers–"prosumers" in Alvin Toffler's lexicon–to do their own filtering and editing.

A "new media" approach would have Rumsfeld communicating constantly and candidly, the good news with the bad. Don't have a message of the day, don't shade anything to gain a specific headline. Most Americans have stopped reading newspapers anyway. Instead, use the media tools now available to transmit a body of knowledge about the war to engaged members of the public, who will then be motivated to educate their peers. Rumsfeld or a trusted, high-level spokesperson could do this actively, identifying bloggers with a sympathetic viewpoint and beginning an on-the-record conversation with them. They could be bolder still, and carry on conversations with unsympathetic bloggers, too.

Like most PR problems, Rumsfeld's is not really a PR problem, it's a fact problem. In the initial weeks of the Iraq war, the news was good, thus the PR was fabulous. Now, three years on, the war is a bloody grind, the news is mixed and the significance of each development murky. You can't change that reality with a new policy on granting interviews!

But Hewitt is worried about the enemy's propaganda, and so is Rumsfeld. In the SecDef's words (from his interview transcript):

This is the first war that's ever been conducted, in the 21st Century, in an era of these new media realities, where you have the internet and 24 hour talk radio and news and bloggers and video cameras and digital cameras and instant communications worldwide. And the enemy understands that they can't win a battle out on the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan. The only place they can win a battle is in Washington, D.C. So they have media committees, and they get up in the morning and figure out how they're going to manipulate the American media, and they do a very skillful job.

This is a misdiagnosis. It might be the first war in a time of blogging, but it's certainly not the first war in which an enemy deployed propaganda through whatever media channels were available at the time to frighten, demoralize or mislead.

The Nazi takeover of Europe derived from a series of expert bluffs, until finally the bluff became reality. But it goes back much farther than WWII, to past millenia when the media of choice were memorized lines of poetry and the misinformation spread, virally you might say, by clever spies. Sun Tzu, writing in the 6th century B.C.: "Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." And, his Strategy 7: "Create something from nothing." Propaganda is not new, and it would surprise me to find out that our nation's war planners were unprepared for it.

Will a "message of the day" media strategy stop the Iraqi insurgents from using the media to broadcast terror and convey a sense of futility to the American public? I don't see how. But the public reaction to scenes of bombs going off and kidnapped reporters isn't the problem anyway. It's the political reaction to the presumed public reaction, of which Hewitt's commentary is symptomatic. He apparently thinks the public's dwindling support for the war stems from the enemy's manipulation of the news media, while with his next breath he claims the news media's influence is waning.

The fact is, Bush and Rumsfeld are quite lucky that the public has tolerated the Iraq war for as long as it has, and it's a testament to the public's sophistication that the media manipulation, the staged acts of terror, have had so little impact on policy. Despite Bush's low poll ratings, I see little to resemble the Vietnam-era public anguish with regard to Iraq. Sure, the war has many critics, but back then, average middle-class people were urgently demanding the end of our involvement in Vietnam, and politicians of the president's own party responded by promising immediate troop withdrawal.

The Vietnam war was an atrocious mistake, but the public's abandonment of it was in large part the result of enemy propaganda. The North Vietnamese were successful in making the militarily disappointing Tet offensive appear to be a rout. Thanks to the perception that Tet succeeded, Walter Cronkite famously declared the war unwinnable. In 1968, that meant a lot.

Who is today's Walter Cronkite? Who pretends to speak for Mr. and Mrs. America? If anyone tried, they'd find Mr. and Mrs. America leaving some nasty comments on their website. Friends of Donald Rumsfeld do the SecDef no favors by telling him to lead a PR effort to combat enemy propaganda, if that effort will distract him from his real job, organizing a winning strategy so America can get its troops home soon. Because, as Sun Tzu says, "There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare."

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