Washington, We Have A (Communication) Problem

Posted: Jul 15, 2007 12:00 AM
Washington, We Have A (Communication) Problem

Call it “the ‘gut feeling’ heard ‘round the world.”

And you should also know that the “gut feeling” comment from U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has a back-story.

It seems to have started with ABC News reporting that Al Qaeda is preparing a “spectacular” summer attack on U.S. soil. According to them, the Bush administration had arranged an urgent, multi-agency meeting on Thursday July 12th to discuss the new threats.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Chertoff met with the editorial board at the Chicago Tribune, and a few of his comments to them began to emerge nationwide.

“I believe we are entering a period this summer of increased risk,” he stated to the Tribune staffers. Further, he claimed “we do worry that they (Al Qaeda) are rebuilding their activities.” And, according to the Chicago Tribune, Chertoff further indicated that, while there is not sufficient evidence of a specific terror plot to warrant a raising of the terror threat level, he did have a “gut feeling” that we are in a state of increased danger.

But what about the ABC News reports of a “spectacular” summer attack? According to The Chicago Tribune, “Chertoff sternly echoed those sentiments…”

So Chertoff has a “gut feeling” that conditions are more dangerous. And there is nothing specific that he can report. And there is no reason to raise the terror threat level. But at the same time he “echoes the sentiments” of ABC News about a “spectacular” terror plot. Okay, then.

The next day, White House spokesman Tony Fratto claimed that the alleged “urgent multi-agency meeting” with security officials on Thursday was really not that urgent, had been pre-planned for sometime, and didn’t even involve the highest ranking individuals. And then ABC News followed-up with a report claiming that the “Thursday security meetings” were indeed something new, indeed very urgent, and focused around growing concerns of a “spectacular” terror plot.

But wait, there’s more. The day after that, Chertoff popped-up on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning, America,” denying reports that terror threat levels had risen to “pre 9-11” levels, but also indicated that “the level of intent on the part of the enemy remains very high.”

When these little excerpts are strung together, a somewhat discernible message begins to emerge. The message seems to be something like this: “the risks today are greater than they have been, they are not as great as some would suggest, and on an on-going basis we are seeking to adequately address these risks.”

Unfortunately, most Americans don’t have the time or the interest to string together excerpts from multiple reports. And they shouldn’t have to, either.

Whether governmental officials like it or not, the American media is a sound byte driven industry playing to an audience with an instant message mindset. Public people - - especially members of a presidential administration - - must speak with simplicity, clarity, and brevity, or the message gets muddled.

The current communication problems in Washington by no means begin and end with Mr. Chertoff; the Bush administration has suffered with such problems for most of it’s second term. This has been a disappointing surprise, given the performance levels of Mr. Bush and his team during his first presidential campaign, and his first four years in office.

When running for the presidency, then-Governor Bush sold Americans on his Reagan-style tax cutting proposals with a simple metaphor: “The American people have been overcharged, and I want to given them a refund” he said. With education, he campaigned on a platform of increased school accountability so we would “leave no child behind.” And after the terrorist attacks of 2001, President Bush pin-pointed the nation’s goal to “hunt down the terrorists and bring them to justice.”

But arguably since early 2005, the administration’s “message” has not been so successfully managed. In March of that year, at an engagement in Arizona wherein he was poised to unveil his immigration reform proposals, an undisciplined President Bush veered off topic and on to the subject of Terry Schiavo, the disabled woman who had her feeding tube removed and was dying in Florida.

The President’s “pro-life” remarks were admirable. Still, his statement about Ms. Schiavo, “it’s best to err on the side of life,” made headlines for months afterward, and the introduction of his new legislative agenda was completely overlooked in the press.

Many Americans - - especially many conservative Americans - - insist

that a focus on public rhetoric is merely a matter of image, style, and form, and prefer to focus on “substance” instead. But in a world such as ours, a President loses the ability to advancehis “substance,” (his agenda) if the “form” isn’t adequate.

Let’s hope the present administration gets their “form” back on track, before the problem becomes costly to the troops, and the nation as a whole.