Choosing the Right Filter for Presidential Image Making

On Friday, Larry Speakes died. If you're under 35 or so the name probably doesn't mean that much to you, but for many people, he'll always be the symbol of a particular transformation in American politics. Whenever I think of Speakes, who served as White House spokesperson during the Reagan years, I think of a particular quote, one of those timeless utterances that sums up something fundamental about politics or a particular era. It came about because his boss, Ronald Reagan, liked to tell stories to make arguments about policy, or just to entertain people. The problem was that many of these stories were made up, and many others seemed to have come from movies he saw.

One of the latter was a story Reagan told in a speech to a group of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, about an old soldier in World War II who was in a plane that was on its way to crash after being damaged by antiaircraft fire. Everyone began bailing out, but one terrified young soldier was caught in the gun turret. "He took the boy's hand," Reagan said of the older man, "And said, 'Never mind, son, we'll ride it out together.' Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously awarded." Though the story has been retold in many fictional contexts, it never happened. When columnist Lars-Erik Nelson asked Speakes about it, the spokesman said, "If you tell the same story five times, it's true." It would be hard to come up with a better motto for the entire Reagan presidency, and for its legacy to American politics.

I don't bring this up to attack Speakes on the occasion of his death. Speakes was hardly the most mendacious person to occupy the post of White House spokesperson. His historical importance comes from the fact that he held that role in the administration that ushered in the modern age of image making.

To be clear, it isn't that the Reaganauts invented media manipulation. Politicians have been constructing personas for public consumption and staging media events for almost the entire history of the Republic. (Did President Lincoln really grow up in a log cabin? The Springfield Town Crier gives it two and a half Pinocchios.) But theirs was the first administration with a deep and nuanced understanding of modern media, one that built its entire communication strategy around the question of how their protagonist looked on television.

Viewed from today, a lot of the things they did look pretty basic. Build an image of the president, and make sure everything you do serves to reinforce that image. Pick a story line every day, and have everybody stick to it. Punish reporters whose coverage you don't like. Make sure that when the president appears in public, every backdrop is constructed with the attention to detail of a Wes Anderson tableau. At the time, it seemed revolutionary, and reporters came to feel like they were being outmaneuvered by an administration that understood more about media than they did.

But over time, the idea of the Reagan administration's nearly supernatural power to control the media took on the shape of myth. One of the key episodes in this mythmaking came from Hedrick Smith's terrific 1988 book The Power Game: How Washington Works, which taught an entire generation of budding politicos (including yours truly) what went on behind the scenes in the nation's capital. Among many other things, Smith explained how carefully the Reagan team planned every one of Reagan's public appearances, paying particular attention to the way the President was portrayed visually.

One story Smith told became a staple in the narrative quiver of any good media critic. It concerned a piece Lesley Stahl of CBS News did about Reagan's image making, in which she detailed how often the visuals created by the administration were at odds with reality. To illustrate, she told how Reagan had cut funds for housing for the elderly and the disabled, over clips of him cutting a ribbon at a senior center and greeting disabled athletes. The piece also featured lots of other happy-looking visuals the administration had created to show how much time they spent thinking about his image. Let's pick it up from there, with what Stahl told Smith:

"I thought it was the single toughest piece I had ever done on Reagan," Stahl said, recalling her apprehension about the White House reaction. "The piece aired, and my phone rang. It was a senior White House official and I thought, 'I keep telling people that they've never yelled at me, but here it comes.'

"And the voice said, 'Great piece.'

"I said, 'What?'

"And he said, 'Great piece!'

"I said, 'Did you listen to what I said?'

"He said, 'Lesley, when you're showing four and a half minutes of great pictures of Ronald Regan, no one listens to what you say. Don't you know that the pictures are overriding your message because they conflict with your message? The public sees those pictures and they block your message. They didn't even hear what you said. So, in our minds, it was a four-and-a-half minute free ad for the Ronald Reagan campaign for re-election.'"

From that, we conclude that the superior power of visuals over the spoken word enabled Reagan to win the adoration of the American public. There's only one problem with this story: There's very little evidence for either proposition, that visuals persuade better than audio information, or that Reagan was adored by the American public.

The latter point is something I've discussed before, but briefly, while Reagan did easily win re-election and had good ratings at the end of his tenure, overall his approval ratings were pretty mediocre, higher than George W. Bush's but lower than Bill Clinton's, for example. The former point, though, is supposed to be the real lesson of the story: the visual is more important than the audio, and if you do a story with a bunch of pretty pictures of the president, but words that are highly critical of the president, everyone remembers the images and no one remembers the words.

It makes a certain intuitive sense. And there's no question that pictures matter. But Stahl's story was highly unusual, in that the two streams of information, audio and visual, provided contradictory messages. Most of the time in the news they're telling the same story, and that multimodal presentation is an important part of where the power of television to persuade comes from. I don't know that any communication researchers have ever done a test of the effects of this specific story, but that highlights a difficulty in interpreting it: every story on the news is different in many ways, from the subject matter to the tone to the particular sequence of words and images, and that makes it hard to make sweeping judgments about the effects a particular story will have on its audience. But the broad body of communication research on questions like this one gives no reason to believe that images overwhelm words.

What we do know is that the Stahl story ended up becoming a probably unwarranted symbol of everything the Reagan years were supposed to represent. I say unwarranted because it's one thing to say that the Reagan administration set a standard subsequent administrations would emulate in their extraordinary attention to images. It's quite another to say that attention paid dramatic and enduring dividends in public esteem.

The widespread belief that it did is one part of Reagan's legacy. It may not be true, but to reporters always on guard for White House manipulation, it sure feels true. Which fits nicely with the other part of Reagan's legacy embodied in Speakes' quote, that if you tell the same story five times, it's true. Long before Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness," Ronald Reagan, and the people who covered him, lived it.

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