One of the great things about being a novelist is that the form enables me to dramatize the way the government and establishment media collude to manipulate public opinion. The phenomenon of the mainstream media laundering government talking points into news in exchange for access to even more such talking points has been ruthlessly documented by many outstanding bloggers such as Glenn Greenwald, Dan Froomkin, Charles Kaiser, Jay Rosen, and Matt Taibbi. I hope to draw more attention to their work by my fictional – or not so fictional – representations of the actual process at work.
And so, here’s what I imagine took place during a hastily convened April 20th late-night White House meeting of panicked BP executives, incompetent Mineral Management Service officials, and one very slick West Wing PR flack.
Flack: Calm down, everyone, calm down. I need to get the facts from you and if everyone’s yelling, I can’t. So simmer down, please.
[The room quiets down, the attendees grateful for someone giving them direction, any direction.]
Flack [pointing at the most senior BP executive]: Okay. What happened?
BP Exec [taking a deep breath and visibly attempting to calm himself]: We’re not sure exactly. One of our Gulf of Mexico oil rigs, the Deepwater Horizon, blew up.
Flack: Don’t say that. It didn’t “blow up.” That’s not helpful.
BP Exec: What?
Flack: It…collapsed. You say it collapsed. If you say it blew up, you create scary images – bombs, terrorists, 9/11. Collapse is better. Small things collapse, and when they do, it’s discrete. You know, grandma passed out and collapsed. There isn’t any fire or smoke. Better imagery for us.
BP Exec [not really getting it, but shellshocked enough not to protest]: Okay…the rig collapsed. It collapsed, and the explosion –
[Stern look from the flack]
BP Exec: Right, the “collapse” tore a huge fucking gash in the seabed, and –
Flack: Stop. First, we don’t swear. Swearing is unprofessional, and above all, we have to look professional. Public confidence depends on our appearance of professionalism.
BP Exec: Are you fucking kidding me?
[Stern look from the flack]
BP Exec: Okay, sure, whatever, the collapse tore a gash in the seabed.
Flack [nodding]: Better. I like the way you got rid of the adjective “huge.” Adjectives like that aren’t helpful to us. In fact, I don’t want you using adjectives at all. They make it sound like you’re trying too hard. We’ll manage this story with well-chosen nouns. Much more effective way to create a proper narrative.
BP Exec: “Proper narrative?” Look, there’s a giant hole –
Flack: Stop. Giant is like huge. You need to stop describing things and just give me the facts.
BP Exec [raising his voice]: But I am giving –
Flack: There’s no gash. There’s no hole. What we have here, people, is an oil leak.
MMS Official: Leak? Have you seen the underwater video footage? That’s no leak, it looks like a fucking…it looks like Mount Vesuvius erupting oil out of the seabed!
Flack [expression understanding and patient]: This is good, this is the place for you to get these mistaken words out of your system so you’ll know never to use them again. “Erupt” is a very loaded word and as you correctly note, it immediately conjures up unhelpful images of volcanoes spewing lava. Speaking of which, “spew” is also an unhelpful word. Likewise, all forms of “gush” and “geyser.” From now on, you will use two words, and two words only, preferably in their drier, noun form, to describe this incident: “spill” and “leak.”
[The room is silent as the executives and officials try to understand the flack’s point]
Flack: Spills are small and finite. If I accidentally knock over this glass of water, we’ll have a spill. And the moment it’s happened, it’ll already be over. It’ll just be a matter of cleaning it up. We’ve been using the phrase “oil spill” for decades for just this reason and it’s been exceptionally effective at calming the public. We want people to understand that what’s happening in the Gulf is far from unprecedented; it’s just another oil spill, a significant one, certainly, but not qualitatively different from the many that have come before it. Leak is also fine because it conjures images of a ceiling dripping water that’s being neatly contained in a pan on the floor. Leaks are small, slow, and containable, and we have to position those notions in the public mind with regard to this latest oil spill, too. The words we employ to do so will be crucial. Trust me, people, I’m far from new at this form of damage control, and you can believe me when I tell you that the nomenclature we deploy starting now will be our most powerful weapon in shaping public consciousness and opinion regarding the incident itself. Don’t believe me? Note how I’ve deliberately referred to what happened as an “incident” – a small, dry word that conjures no unhelpful imagery. “Event” would be too weighty a word, and I’m sure I needn’t mention that words like “disaster,” “catastrophe,” or “calamity” would be extremely unhelpful.
[Silence in the room again, but several people are nodding their heads, comforted by the distraction of talking about the message, which the flack seems to know how to manage, rather than the substance of what happened, which they don’t]
Flack: Now, how much oil is actually leaking?
BP Exec: God, we don’t even know…our best guess at this point is at least 60,000 barrel s a day.
Flack [shaking his head]: That’s too much. We can’t say that, at least not right away.
BP Exec: Well, it is what it is.
Flack: We don’t know what it is. You just said yourself that you’re guessing. We’ll start with a low number – let’s make it a thousand barrels a day.
BP Exec: Look, you can’t just say it and make it so. There’s –
Flack: Isn’t it true that the leak includes a thousand barrels a day?
BP Exec [snorts]: Yeah, and another 59,000 barrels on top of that.
Flack: We don’t have to mention the second part. Not yet. In fact, doing so would be irresponsible because as you just pointed out, we don’t really know. We’re just guessing. So I want us to guess lower. We’ll introduce the lower number into the public’s mind to ease the entire incident into their consciousness. Once they realize there’s a spill, we can gradually walk the number up without unduly shocking people. We’ll be sure to use the word “estimate” in connection with all numbers to ensure we have the necessary flexibility to increase the number with the passage of time, as we gain more information.
MMS Official: I don’t see what difference any of this makes. We’re not the ones who are going to control the words that get used to describe this…this incident. The media will call it whatever they want.
Flack [chuckling at this display of incredible naivete]: Whatever gave you that notion?
MMS Official: Well, I mean, it’s not like we can control the media…
Flack: “Control” isn’t a good word. It sounds so totalitarian. “Persuasion” is much better.
MMS Official: Look, I don’t care what you call it…
Flack: I called it “persuasion” when I got the media to describe our escalation in Iraq as the “surge.” Strong, assertive word, don’t you think? With such great inherent imagery of waves crashing powerfully against the beach, and then – this is the best part – receding! And with none of the unhelpful Vietnam associations of “escalation.” And I called it persuasion when I got the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post to stop calling waterboarding “torture” and start referring to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” instead. Who do you think got the media to call the people we’ve been holding at Guantanamo, Bagram, and the black sites for nearly a decade “detainees” rather than “prisoners”? Forgive me for boasting, but “detainee” was such a brilliant word…high school students get detained for failing to turn in their homework, so nothing but a big yawn from the public. And have you noticed that the media has dropped “assassination” and now uses the soothingly dry phrase “targeted killing,” instead? Who do you think persuaded them to do that? And look at Israel’s “Security Fence” – my God, if you can get the media to refer to a double-lined, razor-wire-topped, 18-foot-tall concrete wall snaking for miles through the desert as just a “fence”…well, people, I submit to you that we can also get the media to refer to the Gulf incident as nothing but a spill or a leak, too. I guarantee you, two months from now, if you Google the phrase “Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill,” you’ll get 23 million hits, easy. The few instances you’ll find of eruption, geyser, gusher and the like will be eclipsed and our job will be done.
[The room is silent. Attendees are nodding their heads in grudging respect at the flack’s apparent mojo]
BP Exec: Okay, fine. But how do we stop the…leak?
Flack [shrugs]. My job is just to prevent public outrage and a meaningful discussion of the inevitable dangers – sorry, “risks” – of drilling for oil 5,000 feet underwater and 18,000 feet below the seabed. It’s up to you to stop the leak.
[Silence again. The attendees look at one another, their wide eyes moving from face to face]
Flack: You can stop it, can’t you? I mean, it’s just a leak, right?
For another depiction of the way the government and establishment media collaborate to launder government talking points, in this case regarding the missing CIA interrogation videos, here’s the prologue of my latest thriller, Inside Out.