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december 2007

Truth, Lies, and Press Secretaries


by Hans Durrer
Next Right: White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan

"Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan blames President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for efforts to mislead the public about the role of White House aides in leaking the identity of a CIA operative," reported the Associated Press on November 21, 2007.

Referring to the 2003 news conference in which he told reporters that Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby were "not involved" in the leak involving CIA-operative Valerie Plame, McClellan writes in his forthcoming book: "There was one problem. It was not true. I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest-ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice president, the president's chief of staff and the president himself."

  Not exactly a surprise, one would think. I mean, who expects press secretaries to tell the truth anyway? To put it mildly: they are paid to make their government look good, they are not paid to tell the truth. As Jerzy Urban, the Polish government spokesperson in the early-1990s, when asked at a briefing by a journalist if he was telling the truth, replied: "Is this the first time you've ever been to a press conference?"
Next Official reactions to McClellan's coming out were predictable. White House press secretary Dana Perino said it wasn't clear what McClellan meant. "The president has not and would not ask his spokespeople to pass on false information," she said. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said: "Just when you think the credibility of this White House can't get any lower, another shoe drops. If the Bush administration won't even tell the truth to its official spokesman, how can the American people expect to be told the truth either?"
  How can anyone even listen to these pretensions? I wonder. And above all: Since when do telling the truth and politics have anything in common? As Konrad Adenauer, the first German Chancellor after WWII, commented on his possible successor Ludwig Erhard: "He's totally unfit to be chancellor, he believes what the says."
  However, truth is clearly an issue in politics. And an important one at that. For the politicians — who must at least appear truthful — and for the interested electorate — for those of the electorate, for example, who make the effort to comment on articles like the one about McClellan on the internet.
Next The ones who shared their thoughts on the Scott McClellan book that blames Bush's and Cheney's "misstatements" about the Valerie Plame leak on the Los Angeles Times website took not only issue with the lies but also with the fact that this story did not make headlines, that it did not get published on the front page but that it was buried inside the paper.
  How come this story was not displayed more prominently? Well, that the Bush government is not exactly the most honest in the world is hardly news — for nobody — and that includes journalists. Yet the public, should the comments on the Los Angeles Times website be an indicator, seems to have other priorities than news — truth and lies, for instance. Angry writers "demand accountability from Bush," speak of "treason" and of "impeachment." This is nothing new? No, it isn't. It is however what is on people's minds. For the longing for truth is part of the human condition. We do not want to be lied to.
  I've always wondered why journalists would attend press briefings. I mean, are there really men and women who are interested in official versions of whatever? Obviously some are, but, hey, do not confuse this with journalism. Press briefings, as we all know, are about making people nominally in charge look good. In other words, press secretaries routinely need to lie — maybe not in the legal sense but that is not the point here. It is their job. But don't get me wrong: most of the time they do of course tell the truth. For only that allows that the lies will go undetected.
Next A press secretary who claims to have been misled is a bit of a joke, isn't it? Hurt pride, maybe? For isn't to mislead part of his job? Moreover, if always telling the truth were so important in his press briefings, shouldn't McClellan be rather thankful for not having had to consciously lie on this occasion?
  Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Predictably irrational. The hidden forces that shape our decisions opines — according to The New York Times — "... that good people can be dishonest up to the level where conscience kicks in. That essentially you can fool the conscience a little bit and make small transgressions without waking it up. It all goes under the radar because you are not paying that much attention."
  Is this what happened to — I assume he belongs to the good people — Scott McClellan? Did he all of a sudden pay attention to things he never before paid attention to? Possible but improbable, I'd say, for people who choose a career as press secretaries for governments, and especially as press secretary for the present US-government, do have other priorities than honesty.
  2007 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes