Robert Gibbs “Unplugged”

I wish I could provide you a video of the proceedings, but the stipulation for the impromptu “straight talk” from the White House Press Secretary on Wednesday was clear: no cameras.

Typical White House press briefings are characterized by the “business as usual” posturing by Gibbs, avoiding tough questions launched from the congregation of reporters eager only to gain a rise out of the secretary.  They know full well their questions will not be answered.   So, what the press briefings have become since the advent of televised sessions is an staged game with no winners.

Milibank of The Washington Post, described the proceedings:

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Wednesday morning gave the best performance that nobody will ever see. Actually, his performance was good precisely because nobody will see it, at least nobody beyond the few dozen who were in the room.


Here’s where the mainstream media gets it wrong though.  This situation isn’t some groundbreaking endeavor on the part of the Obama administration. It’s a desperation move.  The Press Secretary is trusted only so much as the press believe that he is in the “know” with the administration.  Continued posturing and question-dodging on the behalf of White House Press Secretaries extends throughout each Presidential term, inevitably leading to distrust on the part of the media.  The media, then lacking faith that the Secretary has an ear in the inner circle of the Administration, becomes a crowd of unbelievers, ready to attack and dismiss press releases at the weakest scent of posturing.

The Administration must maintain a cordial level of believability with the press corps, else be subject to undermining reporting on the behalf of frustrated journalists.  So, important information must occasionally be leaked to keep the media content, and the Press Secretary must be believed to be in the inner circle of the President’s staff to keep the media trusting.

Here’s what the Post has to say about the affair:

The Gibbs unplugged session was an experiment at the White House, one likely to continue because of Wednesday’s results. The absence of cameras undoubtedly made for a more civilized and substantive affair.”

An experiment? Hardly.  This tactic is a tried and true PR move.  The past months have revealed a media assault on the Obama Administration.  Contrary to what one might think, this attack has not been due to decreased approval ratings and poor public opinion.  The opposite is actually the truth.  What is covered and how that content is covered in the news media sets the agenda for public opinion.  Research shows, in an analysis of what is called “agenda setting,” that the type of spin covered most frequently in the news media sets the tone for public opinion.  This phenomenon is contrary to beliefs that the media is reactionary to public sentiment.  In fact, the opposite it true.

The result was a throwback to the good old days when reporters asked serious questions and the president’s press secretary actually answered some of them.

Garbage.  It’s more spin and public relations.  These are tactics that the Obama Administration has a firm hold on.  So, the fact that the Washington Post reported favorably on the incident is really no surprise.  In the absence of favorable coverage, there is little likelihood that Gibbs would resort to similar tactics in the future.  If the media even senses a slight possibility of getting valuable information from press briefings, they will report favorably on the Administration to coax out the possibility.

Really, its a genius PR move on the behalf of an Administration struggling to keep its head above water, and I’m almost positive it will pay off.  They’re acting at the exact time when they need favorable coverage, 26 days before the midterms.  Every bit of negative coverage due to distrust and a perceived lack of transparency has formed the public sentiment that today threatens the Democrats.  But what matters is not what has happened over the past month, it is what happens now. 26 days until the midterms, the Administration had taken a simple PR tactic that very well might pay huge dividends.

Does it matter that Gibbs really didn’t answer any substantive questions as usual? No, that’s not the point.  What matters is that the Administration is changing the media perception of it’s public relations.  If there is a perception that information might be disclosed straight from the horse’s mouth, coverage will be more favorable to establish an incentive for the White House to continue such tactics. 

Media scholars agree that favorable coverage of political events will be reflected in the public perception of the Administration.  Just as angry, accusatory reporting has caused the public to react with outrage and disapproval towards the Administration, a favorable spin will create a public  less extreme in their beliefs towards the Administration and by extension, Democrats.

It’s only 26 days until the mid-terms, and as Milibank says, “if only the cameras were rolling.”

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