- Some highlights from this interview
- Is coverage of President Bush biased?
- Spin and counter-spin in the blogosphere
- Why he went to jail for refusing to reveal sources
- How technology is changing political media
McKinnon was the chief media adviser for the 2000 and 2004 Bush-Cheney presidential campaigns. He now works as a communications consultant and an adviser to Sen. John McCain. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 17, 2006.
Who establishes the media strategy for the Bush campaigns?
The president. This is a president and a candidate who … said: "These are the issues that I want to talk about, ... so here's what I'm going to run on. Now, you all can do what you do and do your jobs well and help us try and communicate those issues." He was quite clear about what his message was going to be. Let me put it this way: We did not have to remind him of his firmly held convictions.
Would you argue with him about what's practical and what's going to get him elected?
Sure. We said: "Social Security is a very problematic issue. Many candidates have run on that issue, and their bones are in the political graveyard." He said: "I don't care. I think it's the right thing to do, and we're going to run on it." Those are the best kind of candidates: candidates who are clear about who they are, what they believe in. That's why he won that election. John Kerry didn't know what he was all about. People like President Bush's character. Even if they disagreed with his policies, they believed that he knew who he was and where he was going.
In [writer and media critic] Ken Auletta's article in The New Yorker, he referred to an interview that he did with the president's former chief of staff, Andy Card, who talked about the press just being another interest group. What is the president's or the administration's attitude toward the press?
I don't think the president thinks, nor do I think, that there's an inherent ideological bias in the press. The president has described the press as a filter, which is exactly what it is. It filters the news and presents it in a way that it determines is the best way to present the news. But we live in a different information age today, ... so the president and the White House, unlike any other White House, has opportunities to deliver news straight to viewers and straight to voters without the press filtering it. ...
But do you see the press as another interest group?
Yeah, I think the press has an interest. I think the press has an interest in communicating to its viewers or readers, and their viewers or readers drive profit for those news organizations, so I think those news organizations have a certain bias toward their own readers. Yeah, I think they are a special interest. Of course they are. …
Would you say that the so-called mainstream media is biased against President Bush?
No, not necessarily. I think it's just a bias toward conflict. I think they'd write a conflict story about Bush just as they'll write a conflict story about Kerry. I don't think that the press in 2004 was any more unfair to Bush than they were to Kerry. The same thing with the 2000: I don't think they were any more unfair to us than they were to [Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Al] Gore. They were unfair to both of us.
So you simply just don't trust them.
I simply don't trust them. I know that they want [to] write a story that has conflict. I know that, I acknowledge it, and I proceed accordingly.
“The president and the White House, unlike any other White House, has opportunities to deliver news straight to viewers and straight to voters without the press filtering it.”
Listen, it doesn't matter if I go on CBS, PBS or Fox. Whoever is interviewing me is going to want to create some conflict in the story, or it's not interesting. That's just the way the news is. We can go out in campaigns, and we'll try and strategize: "Let's go do a press conference on our policy on the environment. Let's go to a manufacturing plant and talk about our economic plan" -- zero coverage or the back of [page] D17. We do the story attacking Kerry -- page 1. Biased for conflict.
I think the press are good people; I think they're educated people. But when they go to report, it's going be about conflict.
But you don't think that the press, especially the Washington press corps, has a bias against the president and the vice president?
The Washington press corps would have a bias against whoever is president. It doesn't matter who's there. ... I think that the Bush administration recognizes that coddling the press doesn't get you anywhere. ... And with the proliferation of news organizations now, the president can't sit down with every news organization in the world and have interviews, so they pick and choose their opportunities to get their message out in the way that they think will best communicate their message. Pretty standard operating procedure for any presidency. ...
So you don't accept the idea that there is a professional form of journalism that attempts to be objective.
I think everybody tries to be objective, but what's objective? Everybody has their own idea of what the truth is. ...
I'll just run a standard definition: presenting both sides of the story. I think most journalists try and do that. Why do you need to get around this filter if it's going to present both sides of the story?
Because both sides do it differently. Everybody presents their own side and their own versions of what both sides are. ...
This administration had a lot of discipline in the way in which it has controlled its message. Did you talk about that with the president? Was that explicitly stated?
The president has always been disciplined about his message, and the campaigns have always been disciplined. We've always determined, it being a campaign, what we want to talk about, and we stick to it.
I would imagine that every presidential candidate, every administration, has said that at the beginning. This one really was very successful keeping people on message, in line.
That's right. You have a guy at the top who knows who he is and what he stands for, and he's very clear about what kind of campaign he wants to run. If [the campaign] starts to get out of bounds, he lets us know. If we get off message, he lets us know. And we have a team of people that have worked together a long time. We know what works, and we know what doesn't.
So this is just discipline? It's not authoritarian control?
No, not at all. Not at all. It's good political strategy. Good political strategy suggests that even if you've got flawed strategy, you stick with it, rather than change your strategy every month, which is what John Kerry did. We may not have had a perfect strategy, but we stuck to it. ...
[Political commentator] Pat Buchanan said the Nixon administration, faced with the networks and their commentators, decided to strike back and do two different things: one, to publicly criticize the news media, which had not happened before; and two, to go around the filter and directly to local media and others. Is that basically what's going on now? ...
I think Pat Buchanan was a smart guy, and I think every presidential administration since Nixon has tried to determine what [its] message is and how to best communicate [its] message in a way that it gets to the public unfiltered. Now, it's going to get filtered by the press in some way, and the job of the administration and the press office is to figure out a way to get that message out in the clearest way possible.
But is there a perception that there's political capital to be made by attacking the press, by saying that the press distorts, is biased toward conflict, and therefore you'll get political points by attacking the press?
I think there are other presidents that have attacked the press much more than this president. ...
... So what I understand from what you're saying is you don't think the White House press corps really is as powerful as it once was.
There's no question it's not as powerful as it once was. The White House press corps' influence is considerably diminished from years ago. They used to be the only funnel through which news was poured to the public, and today there are hundreds, if not thousands, of news channels beyond the Washington press corps for getting information out to the nation and to the world. ...
Why do you think that so many journalists believe that this administration not only wants to get around, but also wants to discredit what is called mainstream media?
I don't think it wants to discredit mainstream media so much as it wants to acknowledge that there is other media. I think mainstream media doesn't want to acknowledge the fact that there's other people out there. The mainstream media wants to hold onto the monopoly it once held. That has dissipated. And the mainstream media gets mad when the administration goes to some other news outlet.
Well, what they point to is Clinton had 191 press conferences, and the Bush administration, as of middle of '06, had 74.
The last time I read the Constitution, there was no obligation to do any press conferences. I think 74 is plenty. ...
My own experience with the Bush administration was that I was told, "We don't really care what the mainstream press says; we'll get our message out anyway."
As I said, unlike a decade or two ago, there are [now] thousands and thousands of press channels. Every administration going forward is going to determine the channels that it wants to communicate its message to. ...
The news was once controlled by a handful of news organizations, and now it's not controlled by anybody. In fact, any administration now can walk out and put its news out to the world totally unfiltered, because it's covered live.
And you can spin it, too, via the Internet and blogs.
Well, it goes both ways. There are thousands and thousands of people spinning it back the other way. You've got the blogosphere, and you've got others who are putting their own spin on what the administration is saying. There is just as much pushback on the administration as there is on the administration pushing its news out. It's a hurricane of information and people trying to filter it both ways. ...
... Yeah, but you can have, for instance, your own bloggers, your own paid bloggers in a campaign, right?
Yeah, sure. That's just another way of getting information out.
But you don't label it as advertising as you would before or say that this is a paid political ad. You can just simply put it on the Internet without any connections to where it came from.
Well, I think consumers know if they're reading a blog that they understand that that's the blogger's opinion. ...
But do you remember another administration paying someone and getting them credentials into a news conference to ask questions?
It's apples to oranges. It's a different time. It's a different world. It's a different universe. Listen, I don't condone that. I think that was a mistake, and others have acknowledged that was a mistake. But the point is that this administration, like every other administration, has a message. They try and get it out, and they use whatever channels are available to them. In 2006, there are thousands of more channels available to this president than there were to presidents previously, so this administration picks and chooses the channels with which to communicate, which any president would do. ...
When 60 Minutes II was doing its story about Bush's National Guard service, what was the reaction in the Bush campaign? You knew it was coming.
Right. It was another National Guard story. ...
How did you use it? I mean, you must have thought about the advantage it was going to give you.
I think it did its work on its own. ...
Before it was discredited, did you see Dan Rather as being biased?
I would say that he had a pretty consistent [record] of producing stories unflattering to the administration. ...
You didn't expect Dan Rather to do a positive story about the administration.
I certainly didn't.
But you would expect, for example, that [Fox News'] Brit Hume might do a more positive story about the administration.
Every administration looks out at a sea of reporters, and ... [they will be] evaluated for what kind of reporting they do, whether or not it's objective and fair. Every administration will take that into account for who they do interviews with. ...
Let me take you back to Ken Auletta's interview with Andy Card. "Do you accept," he was asked, "that the press has a legitimate check-and-balance function?" And he said, "Absolutely not." He said, "Congress has a check-and-balance function; the judiciary does, but not the press." And Karl Rove and apparently [Counselor to the President] Dan Bartlett and others that Ken Auletta talked to confirmed that. Is that the administration's view? Is that your view?
I think Andy Card was right. I think the true checks and balances are the judiciary and the Congress. The press is not elected, so who's going judge which press outlet is the proper check and balance?
But the First Amendment -- it's there for a reason. President Jefferson said he'd rather have a free press.
Sure. Nobody's suggesting that there shouldn't be a free press.
But do you see it as having a check-and-balance function in terms of especially the federal government?
I think that the press has a duty and an obligation to report on local government, state government, federal government -- to be aggressive, to do its job. And its job is to report on whatever it's covering. The administration's job is to make policy and execute policy, and the press's job is to report on that.
When The New York Times reported on the National Security [Agency's] wiretap program, was that a legitimate function of the press? ...
Listen, the press is going to report what it gets. The problem is with the leak, not the report of the leak.
The problem was that somebody didn't stay on message.
Because apparently they thought, according to the reporters involved, that there was something illegal going on.
Well, I think that there was a true national security interest at stake there, and the Times chose to do what it did. We happen to disagree with that.
Well, more than disagree. There's a leak investigation, and there's been some calls for prosecutions, not only of the leakers, but of possibly the reporters or the news organization.
Right, correct, as I think there should be.
You agree that the press should be prosecuted.
In that particular instance, yeah.
Even though a federal judge has said that, at least initially, that the program was illegal.
Well, we'll see how it ends up. ...
But you think it did damage national security.
Yeah, I do.
And the news organizations should be held responsible.
Well, I think the leakers should be held responsible for sure, and the news organizations should be held accountable as well. And well, we'll see where this goes. ...
Why did you go to jail?
First Amendment issue.
In 1980, during the hostage crisis, a representative of the shah came to speak at the University of Texas. I was editor of The Daily Texan, the newspaper at the University of Texas. Some students demonstrated -- some Iranian students -- and local law enforcement officials arrested and prosecuted those individuals. The prosecutors wanted unpublished evidence of the demonstration, which we refused to hand over. I was held in contempt of court and jailed briefly.
You believe in civil disobedience.
Sure, absolutely. I believe in the First Amendment.
So when you see reporters being subpoenaed not for national security but for reporting on doping in baseball, and then being threatened with jail, what's your reaction?
Are you talking about the BALCO [Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative] investigation? I generally support the reporters' right to do what they did in that particular circumstance.
As I understand it, the president of the United States personally acknowledged the work of these two reporters when he met them; he said it was a great public service, and yet now they're faced with jail by the same administration that's praising their work.
Well, the justice system will run its course. ...
So you're saying that the media landscape has changed so much that the major media that you grew up around really has lost its power.
It still plays an important role, but it's certainly not as powerful as it once was. The power has shifted, and I think that's a healthy development.
Is it easier to manipulate this decentralized media?
No, I think it just offers more channels to get information out, that's all. ...
[But these technological changes must have helped presidents stay more on message?]
Technology has had more of an impact on the presidency and how the presidency communicates than anything. News is virtual now. It is not 24-hour news cycles; it is instant news cycles. It is live. News is live all the time, around the clock. That has a huge impact on news organizations, on weekly news magazines. Their whole profit enterprise is completely turned upside down now.
It changes the way you, as a media strategist, look at a campaign as well.
Yeah, absolutely, sure. Everything we do is radically changed because we can digitally compress media now. Whereas I used to have to send a little box overnight to news stations, now we can just punch a button, and it's digitally sent immediately. In the 2004 campaign, we could produce an ad, and with one button it would go to 6 million people just like that. ...
Technology has reformed the process. We've always been accused of only communicating in 30-second sound bites. Well, I never liked that, but we were hostage to broadcast media, and that's all we could do. Now I can produce long-format video -- substantive on issues-- and put it on the Internet, and voters can see and hear and feel where our candidates are on a variety of issues without being limited to 30 seconds.
When you sit down in a media strategy now, in terms of putting a budget together, you don't necessarily have to be thinking in terms of how many minutes or hours I'm going to buy on local TV or pay the rates on local TV, because you can get around that, too.
It hasn't changed completely -- we're still buying broadcast from cable television -- but the paradigm is shifting, no question. And as I said, we can produce video; we can produce it quickly and we can distribute it broadly. We can have somebody talking about an issue for five minutes rather than 30 seconds, which is great. It's good for voters, and it's good for the candidates. ...