My nephew's high school government class was studying propaganda, a word most students associated with Hitler, Goebbels, and the like. "I deal with propagandists every day," I told the class in the Detroit area last week. "They work in the White House and in Congress--Republicans and Democrats alike."
The kids were a bit surprised. "Are you calling them Nazis?" one asked. Of course not, I replied, but politicians today are using new communications tools to spread their version of the truth, much of it misleading.
A smart piece by Nancy Benac of the Associated Press describes how the Obama White House "image machine" works--"serving up a stream of words, images, and videos that invariably cast the president as commanding, compassionate, and on the ball. In this world, Obama's family is always photogenic, first dog Bo is always well-behaved, and the vegetables in the South Lawn kitchen garden always seem succulent."
Virtually every president has sought to control their images, often using new technology to keep traditional media at bay and to communicate directly with voters. Abraham Lincoln was, in the words of one biographer, "our first media politician" who "continually manipulated" newspaper editors. Franklin Roosevelt used the radio and John F. Kennedy the television to disseminate their messages unfiltered by the White House press corps. Ronald Reagan ran a tightly scripted White House. Bill Clinton bypassed experienced, probing Washington reporters in favor of talk radio and local media.