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Bush way ahead on spin
Scripps Howard News Service


September 07, 2005

The Bush administration may not be good at fighting wars or balancing budgets or putting even marginally competent persons in important positions, but it is admittedly brilliant at one thing: spinning the news.

"Spinning," which in less fastidious times was known as "lying," works like this: Sometime this past weekend, the White House decided that the party line in regard to the federal government's catastrophically poor response to Hurricane Katrina would be that local officials had failed to ask for help soon enough.

For example, on Sunday Sept. 4 the Washington Post ran a story in which it quoted a "senior administration official," who pointed out that as of Saturday Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco had still not declared a state of emergency. Newsweek repeats this claim in this week's edition.

What ineptitude! A state that has been hit by possibly the worst natural disaster in the nation's history, and five days later the governor still hasn't declared a state of emergency? The message coming down from the White House - where the indefatigable Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett have been put in charge of the administration's public relations campaign regarding its response to the drowning of New Orleans - couldn't be much clearer. How can you blame us for critical delays in responding to this disaster, when a bunch of shiftless disorganized Louisiana politicians can't even perform the most basic aspects of their jobs?

The only problem with this claim is that it was totally false. Blanco had declared a state of emergency more than a week earlier, on Aug. 26 - a fact that was a matter of public record, and indeed was so easily checked that the Post ran a correction within hours.

As Josh Marshall at points out, this is a perfect example of abuse by and of anonymous sources. It's difficult to believe that this "senior administration official" wasn't aware that he or she was slandering Blanco. But that's hardly an excuse for printing the official's lie as fact: quite the contrary. After all, the Post (and Newsweek) could have easily checked the accuracy of the official's claim, which is another way of saying that there wasn't any need to use an anonymous source in this sort of circumstance at all.

Yet there's a genuine brilliance in the sleaziness of this official's behavior. What the official was counting on is that reporters are always under deadline pressure. This means they can't check everything, and therefore one thing they'll often fail to check, ironically enough, is any statement that would be easy to check. And this is generally a sound instinct. Reporters tend to assume that high government officials won't lie to their faces about something that would be easy to check, because it's fairly unusual to encounter the level of sheer shamelessness necessary to engage in such behavior.

But if we've learned anything over the course of the past five years is that it's not unusual to discover this level of sheer shamelessness in the Bush White House. Consider the last time the administration faced possible criticism for failing to react quickly enough in a time of national crisis. On Sept. 11, 2001, the president spent much of the day on the run, swooping from one military base to another, before finally heading back to Washington in the evening.

Under the circumstances this created a tricky public relations problem: one that was solved soon afterwards when Karl Rove simply invented and broadcast an elaborate lie about how the nation's intelligence agencies had identified a "specific and credible threat" to Air Force One.

By now, the media should have identified a specific and credible threat to the accuracy of their reporting: any quotes from unidentified "senior administration officials."


Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado
and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)

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