The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House is going to install a video wall in the briefing room to try to capitalize on the power of visual imagery (sub. required):
For a decade, the daily White House news briefing has been televised. Now it is becoming television.
Earlier this year, Fox News talk show host Tony Snow was hired as press secretary. Next up: a renovation of the briefing room, likely with a video wall that could display everything from "flags waving in the breeze [to] detailed charts and graphs," according to a senior White House official working on the project. For TV viewers, the video feed could be the sole on-screen image, or could share the space with the speaker.
White House officials say they are weighing how -- and how often -- to use the video capability. But the new technology could help transform White House briefings -- midday exchanges with reporters in a utilitarian setting -- into more interesting viewing. Both the planned video capabilities and Mr. Snow's hiring appear to be part of a subtle but sweeping effort by administration officials to deliver their message directly to the public, particularly through video.
This move fits with the White House obsession with visual backdrops for its press events. The trend dates back at least to Reagan, whose communications team focused heavily on using imagery. The canonical illustration of this shift is described by Lesley Stahl in a famous anecdote that Bob Somerby summarized back in 2000:
Dick Darman clued in Lesley Stahl -- it's all about the pictures. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Stahl aired a lengthy report on the CBS Evening News; it was broadly critical of President Reagan. In her recent book, Reporting Live, Stahl described her thoughts as the piece went to air:
STAHL (page 210): I knew the piece would have an impact, if only because it was so long: five minutes and 40 seconds, practically a documentary in Evening News terms. I worried that my sources at the White House would be angry enough to freeze me out.
But that isn't what happened, she says. When the piece aired, Darman called from the White House. "Way to go, kiddo," he said to Stahl. "What a great piece. We loved it." Stahl replied, "Didn't you hear what I said [in the broadcast]?" Darman's answer has been frequently quoted:
STAHL: [Darman replied,] "Nobody heard what you said."
Did I hear him right? "Come again?"
"You guys in Televisionland haven't figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you."
Stahl's critical report about President Reagan had been accompanied by generally upbeat visuals. According to Darman's theory, the pictures registered more with viewers than anything Stahl had said.
This anecdote may be apocryphal. It certainly exaggerates the power of images. But nonetheless, they do have an influence. And the problem is that the White House shift is just the latest effort to use PR tactics to reshape every aspect of the presidency. (See All the President's Spin for much more on this trend.)