At this point in time

The clash is heating up between a fading president and the Democrats in Congress who — with the help of a few million votes — just reached into their pants and found some cojones (and I think this applies fairly to Hillary). The Gonzo AG and PudgeBoy Rove could be the flashpoint.

Anybody remember Richard Nixon? Only now is it looking to me that the constitutional and bombastic clashes of today could sink to the level to which the disturbed little soul of Richard Nixon brought America.

Let’s be on language watch. This kind of drama brings out the most preposterous posturing and the most outrageous obfuscating from masters who can peel off whole paragraphs of pettifoggery while the rest of us are brushing our teeth.

Watergate brought us many wonders, but among the most offensive was the phrase “at this point in time.” H.R. Haldeman — who makes Dick Cheney seem like Santa Claus — dropped this absolutely meaningless little phrase into almost every answer he gave before Congressional investigative committees. “And we had not, at this point in time, loaded the Constitution into the back of our van to bring it to the landfill,” he would say. Soon everyone in America was dropping the phrase into their every sentence. “Mom, I have a stomach ache, and, at this point in time, I do not think I should go to school.”

Each great Washington fight has its memorable moments of twisted, ingrown or inflated language. The Clinton impeachment — “That depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” and “I did not have sex with that woman.” The Reagan Iran-Contra hearings had — let’s see, what was the catch phrase then… I just can’t recall.

So here we go again. Watch the masters. Chuck Schumer ain’t no slouch at the orotund phrase that makes him seem statesmanlike while he sharpens his knives gleefully behind his back. Orrin Hatch sounds like someone stealing a baby from a daycare center when he’s just ordering lunch. Hillary will sound as pious as someone who’s descended to us from another realm, unless she gets pissed and sees that vast right-wing conspiracy again. Ted Kennedy always loves polysyllables, Joe Biden’s a walking filibuster, and Secretary of State (can that really be true?) Rice might just wink at us at the end of one of her meaningless word dances (she did, really, at John Kerry, after tough questioning about why she missed the signs preceding 9-11). Jim Webb, the new senator from Virginia who burned up the airwaves with the Dems response to the State of the Union, is filling his powderhorn right now. The wild card is Nancy Pelosi, bless her heart, who occasionally forgets to couch things in the treacly language of Congressional convention and calls a spade a spade, or an incompetent an incompetent. She might say something in English that a Boston cabbie would understand.

And keep your ears on Fred Fielding, new White House counsel. He was second to John Dean in the Nixon White House, so he’s sat at the feet of bullslingers for decades.

What will the memorable phrase be from this gathering storm? What are your guesses? As the master of verbal disaster said, “Bring ’em on.”


The PR Eye of Newt

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s recent “I was having an affair while impeaching the President for having an affair” confession was a thing of beauty, from a PR standpoint anyway.

History tells us most politicians would have tried to hide this fact. The problem with that strategy is that something that titillating can rarely be contained, particularly when jilted lovers meet desperate opponents and/or competitive reporters.

If Mr. Gingrich had failed to proactively disclose, it almost certainly would have come out, probably much closer to the New Hampshire primary, when hundreds more reporters are following this story. And he probably would have been hounded for days until he was driven out of the race in disgrace.

But the brainchild of the Republicans’ “family values” revolution spins as well as he sins. He divulged his dirty little secret about a year before the first primary, when few reporters or voters are paying attention. And he confessed via an obscure right wing website.

You gotta hand it to him. Naturally, few will see the disclosure on James Dobson’s website. Moreoever, the fact that someone else reported the confession first largely makes it “old news” to egotistical mainstream news sources. (They ran it, but they ran it pretty sparingly.) And because it’s too early for his primary opponents to be in full cannibalization mode, the issue gets no legs.

I’ll leave it to others to decide if Mr. Gingrich has the character and ideas to be President, but he has the PR skills.

– Loveland

Thomson Worst

In the PiPress’s thorough and thoughtful coverage of Eagan-based publisher Thomson West’s $15 million taxpayer ransom demand, the company served up particularly dim spin.

The article reads: “Why should elected officials spend public money for a construction project that the company can easily afford on its own in the city where it prefers to expand anyway?

Richard H. King, chief operaions officer of Thomson West’s legal and regulatory division in Eagan, might have the most honest answer: This is how the game is played. Economic incentives area a fact of life.”

For those of you who don’t speak Corleone, here is the translation: “We made them an offer they can’t refuse.”

– Loveland

Do Agencies Even Matter?

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest PR agency of all?

Faced with this question, many a client in need of help has searched high and low for The Answer. And many an agency has puffed itself with delusional self-congratulations.

Some PR people live for this debate, and they are ready to aggressively fight for the honor of their agency! Kind of like sports talk radio. Colts or Bears? Buckeyes or Jayhawks? Himle or Macabee? Go, team, go!

This strikes me as a totally meaningless debate. Any given client’s experience with an agency is based on their experience with individuals, not the institution. There are top-notch practitioners at institutions with lousy reputations, and wholly incompetent airheads at agencies with impeccable reputations. So, I submit the agency is largely a non-factor.

Here’s my unsolicited advice for anyone hiring an agency: First, disregard all agency capability PowerPoint presentations. Sure, the Cirque du Soleil transitions are mesmerizing. Yes, they do make impressive use of the terms “synergy,” “paradigm” and “new media.” And it’s hard to forget the scintillating, and proprietary, “Reputation Pyramid.” But these capabilities presentations tell you nothing real. I’m not exaggerating here (that part comes later). Nothing.

The second thing you should do is find out which person(s) is being proposed to do the actual work on your account. Hint: It may not be the well-coiffed CEO at the pitch who is incessantly complimenting you on your penny loafers. Also, it’s possible the Wonder Woman who lists 17 other live accounts on her bio just may not be at your beck and call after all.

When you learn who is going to work on the business, research that person, not the agency. Make sure the person(s) that they are offering up has the right stuff for your particular circumstances. The right chemistry for you and your superiors. The right kind of actual successes on like tasks. The right kind of supporting cast to get the work done as fast as you need it. Lots of happy clients in their wake. That kind of thing.

And once you are happy with that PERSON, memorialize their fidelity to you in contractual language.

Forget about the agency! It just doesn’t matter if an agency is Best of Show, Agency of the Millennium, or was recently puffed up in some sycophantic trade rag. It just doesn’t matter.

— Loveland

Sharpen the Chain Saws

At the beginning of Edward Abbey’s rollicking eco-sabotage novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, his character Doc Sarvis is chain-sawing down billboards along Arizona highways. “Everybody needs a hobby,” Doc says with an R. Crumb grin. 

Bravo to the city of Minnetonka for fighting lighted billboards. Like we don’t have enough advertising plastered all over every surface of the world. 

There’s communicating a message, and then there’s screaming in people’s faces. Driving towards downtown Minneapolis on northbound 35W, I see this excrescence like a huge flat-screen TV flipping bright mindless ads at me. It’s like a bad acid trip where I open up my glove compartment or toilet seat or closet door or my fly and out pops a 22-year-old account exec selling me a credit card. Get away! 

Is communication that irritates really effective? Do those dancing idiots on the website ads do anything but speed up your next click to eradicate them? Does my diving for the remote so I don’t have to waste my last few brain cells storing that insipid jingle “Save big money at Menard’s” help Menard’s sales in any way? Isn’t it counterproductive, Denny Hecker, to make me have to peel away the half-page ad wrap that’s metastasized over the sports section before I can get to my Twins stories? That grab-me-by-the-throat approach only makes me vow never ever to buy a car from you because you’re in my way and you piss me off. 

Billboards suck our attention in to the mundane so we can’t see anything beautiful or real – a sunset or wooded hillside or the need for urban renewal – beyond them. And lighted billboards – that’s like a yowling baby plopped right there on your dashboard. 

So you go, Minnetonka, and the other cities that are trying to protect some small corner of our consciousness from the hucksters. And if the courts and councils don’t come through, the McCullochs and the Husqvarnas might just start screaming back.



Freedom of the Blog

A Dakota County, Minnesota, judge just struck a blow for freedom of the press – or freedom of the individual person who presses fingers to computer keys and speaks his or her mind on a blog like this one.

This ruling gives the average citizen the same protection journalists have had while they criticize people who have power and influence. It extends a landmark First Amendment case to bloggers – saying you can only be successfully sued for libel by a public figure or public official if you say something on your blog that you know isn’t true or you recklessly disregarded whether or not it is true.

It’s a victory for democracy, a victory for individual voices.

True, some people worry that bloggers don’t have the professional training and experience that journalists do, so what bloggers put out on the web will be more loosey-goosey, less fair and accurate, than what journalists print and broadcast.

And it will be. There’s a lot of crap and nonsense on the internet, a lot of stuff that’s just not true.  And – hello – there’s a lot of crap and nonsense in the mainstream media, a lot of stuff that’s just not true.

Many people – generally we baby boomers who still read newspapers – worry that the younger generations get their news from the internet and that much of that “news” hasn’t been gathered and edited by professional journalists. That’s a fair concern. Just because I can report something on this blog doesn’t mean it’s true or accurate. When I was a daily newspaper reporter, what I wrote only got into print after I’d been asked a lot of questions by several editors to see if I’d checked facts and dug deeply enough to get close to the truth. And I wasn’t hired by The Minneapolis Star until I’d been through college journalism training and had gathered three years of experience on a smaller paper, making mistakes and learning how to get closer to the truth in my reporting.

As a blogger, I write and then – bam – press one key and my stuff is published. No scrutiny. No questions asked by anyone.

So why is it good that bloggers now can be shielded from libel convictions unless they’re extremely irresponsible? Because sometimes it’s the little guy, the renegade, the person on the margins, who’s willing to speak up and say something’s not right.

The internet has democratized journalism – it’s damned expensive to start and run a newspaper, magazine or broadcast station, and those who have that much capital tend to become part of the establishment, less likely to question how and why things are the way they are. With a blog, you need only access to the internet and you’re suddenly a reporter and publisher.

Look at the roots of this case and you’ll see why we need the establishment to be poked at and challenged.

The New York Times vs. Sullivan case that was just extended to blogers came out of the Civil Rights struggles of the early 1960s, when reporters were beaten and killed covering black citizens who were beaten and killed for trying to claim their basic rights as Americans. In the South just 40 years ago, blacks couldn’t register to vote, couldn’t serve on juries or be judged by juries of their peers, couldn’t sit on the main floors of theaters or drink at water fountains whites used, couldn’t fight back within the law at all when their rights were violated. The law, the establishment, the sheriffs, the legislatures, allowed this to happen. It was the way things were.

And the press? Went along for the ride. Would not write about injustice to blacks. Would not broadcast interviews with blacks. Would not investigate or publish the truth when whites lynched blacks in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses yet were acquitted by all-white juries.

Who would write about these horrors? The black press – the bloggers of that time. And a few mainstream national reporters started covering segregation when Civil Rights Movement leaders figured out how to get their attention with mass marches and sit-ins that sparked violent reactions by the Southern establishment. (And racial injustices in the North were only covered by the mainstream media when riots in the 1960s made them impossible to ignore any longer.)

Had the New York Times vs. Sullivan lawsuits gone the other way in 1964, reporters’ criticism of established power would have been greatly curtailed and this country would not have been able to see and correct its mistakes and transgressions.

Reporters must be able to challenge government, corporate and institutional power and must be able to make mistakes while they do it, as the philosophy behind the libel laws goes. If reporters have to get everything right, nothing would ever be printed, Benjamin Franklin said. We have the right to be wrong – but we don’t have the right to say something about another person that we know is wrong. And now bloggers – if this local case holds up to further judicial scrutiny – have the same rights as journalists.

America was founded by establishment people – Jefferson, Madison – who chose to protect a rowdy, partisan, unfair and unprofessional bunch of reporters and publishers. The founders protected free speech – even badly done free speech – because they believed the more free speech was out there the more likely citizens were to be informed, and the less likely it was that government could pull the wool over citizens’ eyes.

I think Jefferson would dig blogging – although he’d want us all to be more educated and informed than we are – and I think he’d be thanking Dakota County District Judge Timothy Blakely.


 Here’s the Minneapolis Star Tribune story on the judge’s ruling:

“Why the Hell Not?”

The news that President Bush is apparently considering a pardon for Scooter Libby has me thinking, “Why the hell not?”

Let’s face it, given where his favorability ratings are these days – in the low, low, low 30s – the President might as well try to earn himself one more distinction by capturing the title of “most unpopular sitting president ever” currently held by Harry Truman at 22% in 1952.  A pardon of Vice President Cheney’s aide,  convicted just two days ago, ought to put him in serious contention. And, it would give old “43” yet another topper to wave in Poppy’s (aka “41”)  face.  The best Bush Sr. could do was 29%  in 1992.

There’s the judgment of history to think of, after all.

– Austin