May 1999 - Volume 31 Issue 5
Scandal Management 101
How to get the bad news out quickly - and quietly
by Lanny Davis
There were two major techniques that we used to implement McCurry's strategy of getting all the bad news out early and helping reporters write bad stories.
The first was overt and fully approved within the White House chain of command, at least in the first few months of 1997: Documents would be released to the press at the same time as they were handed over to the Congress. Over time the press came to call these episodes "document dumps." The second method was covert, both to the outside world and within the "official" channels of the White House - the selective placement of certain stories and hot documents with a particular news organization, on "deep background," in a manner designed to minimize damage.
The trumping argument used by McCurry and me for doing these document dumps was directly out of the rules: that the hot documents were going to be leaked anyway, or worse, they would not be leaked and would be released for the first time during nationally televised senate and house campaign-finance hearings. Better that we put the story out ourselves, with plenty of opportunity to answer questions and to characterize the documents favorably, or at least accurately.
We first used this technique in late Jan. 1997 when we released, all at once, thousands of pages of documents from the political files of former Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes, who had served as the President's de facto campaign manager during the 1996 reelection campaign. And when we made these and subsequent "dumps" of large volumes of documents and materials all at once, we also decided, contrary to conventional wisdom and recent White House practices, to make it easy, not hard, for the reporters to write their story. We made multiple copies, gave them plenty of time to review them before deadlines, and stayed nearby to answer all their questions and give them on-the-record comments whenever possible. We did this not to be nice guys to the press, but in our own self-interest. By making it easier, we would maximize the chance that the stories would be written comprehensively, accurately, with our viewpoint expressed.
In addition to the document dumps, our second device for getting bad stories written early and accurately was the so-called "deep-background private placement." This device had to be used covertly, hidden not only from the outside world but even within the official White House chain of command, since there were at times reasons why, as a matter of policy, the White House would not release a document - for example, if it had not yet been turned over to a congressional investigating committee that had requested it and there was a concern that Republican committee chairs would be offended by the premature leak. We did this rarely; this method was almost always limited to a potentially very damaging story that was complicated, and therefore, which needed a baseline or "predicate" story to frame the issue. I never did a deep-background private placement without at least someone at a high level of the White House chain of command at least generally aware of what I was doing.
The advantages of the predicate story as a critical tool of damage control cannot be overstated. For damaging stories that have complicated facts, particularly ones mixing facts and legal issues, as was almost always the case in the campaign-finance stories for which I was responsible, the predicate story is simply mandatory. The predicate story ideally must be comprehensive and contain all the facts, good and bad. As such, it will become the foundation block for all other reporters and for all future reporting. It will pop up in every Lexis/Nexis database search from then on. If it is complete and accurate, it will likely kill or at least diminish follow-up stories, since there won't be much more to report. If it is incomplete and wrong, then the Lexis database will cause it to repeat and grow, like a virus, more and more difficult to catch up with, correct, and cure.
By its very nature, a predicate story takes time to investigate and time to write, and thus does not lend itself to the competitive pressures and imminent deadlines that are inevitable when there is a general release to all news organizations. That is why it is necessary to select a single reporter or news organization to help generate such a story. This offers the luxury of being able to take as much time as necessary to work with the reporter, give him or her all the facts and documents, get all the questions answered, and engage in an ongoing back-and-forth dialogue to sort out the facts and legal issues accurately. Finally, this procedure offers us the maximum chance to get into the story our interpretation or characterization of the facts most favorable (or least damaging) to the President.
Of course the main disadvantage of the deep-background private placement is that it pisses off the other reporters who are not the recipients of the exclusive. Under McCurry's guidance, when possible, I tried to rotate these placements so that all felt they were being treated equally. However, in certain instances, when we were trying to kill the impact of the story, we used certain news organizations for this purpose. And we chose certain time periods or days of the week to place these stories with the same purpose in mind. Usually our first choice was the Associated Press. Not only was the AP's team of investigative reporters first-rate and notoriously fact-oriented and fair, but we found that when an AP story went out on the overnight wires, the major daily national newspapers, such as The Washington Post or The New York Times, would not be inclined to give it front-page play. If they printed it at all, it was often buried on an inside page. More importantly, if an AP story was comprehensive and accurate - meaning, an effective predicate story - it was less likely that the major dailies would have much left to report in the next day's papers.
Two other news organizations of choice for placement of deep background predicate stories were The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times. It might seem odd that the WSJ was one of our favorites, given the ideological hostility towards Clinton and his administration regularly reflected on its editorial page. But the WSJ had some of the best reporters in the city - led by Glenn Simpson and Phil Kuntz - covering these scandal stories. And the WSJ almost never put current political news on the front page; it usually got placed on the back page of the front section, which often diminished the impact of the story. We liked the Los Angeles Times for similar reasons. The LA Times also had three reporters who were very highly regarded for their fairness and balanced reporting: Alan Miller, Glenn Bunting, and David Willman. And for reasons that again seemed to us based more on institutional pride than anything else, the major national daily newspapers resisted repeating stories broken by an "out-of-town" newspaper such as the Los Angeles Times.
A good example of such a private placement is the way we handled documents suggesting that President Clinton made fundraising calls from the White House residence. It appeared, according to the call sheets and surrounding information we had about those calls, that the President's purposes and words during the phone calls had been ambiguous. He had not clearly asked for their "support." The fact that in some cases donations had followed the call clearly implied that the President would be suspected of having solicited campaign contributions. The call sheets suggested, but did not definitively prove, that the President's phone calls took place on phones in the White House residence. If so, this would have made them legal even if they were political solicitations on federal property.
The call sheets had been uncovered in May or early June 1997 and would have to be turned over to congressional committees. Clearly, this would make a very big story - one that, if not reported accurately and comprehensively, could damage the President and perhaps even lead to the appointment of an independent counsel.
So we decided to call John Solomon at the AP and invited him to come over to the White House to look over the call sheets and to answer any other questions he might have. We had come to regard Solomon as the most factually-oriented, middle-of-the-road journalist of any on the scandal beat. He would kill us with stories, for sure; but they were always factual and he went the extra mile to be fair and complete in his reporting. Several members of the White House counsel's office, were present to help me walk Solomon through all the documents, explain the underlying laws and rulings, and respond to his questions. One other tactical decision needs mentioning: We called Solomon on Thursday, July 3 - so that the story would go out over the wires just in time for the Friday, July 4 newspapers.
Solomon wrote the story as comprehensively and completely as we had hoped - and included comments from me that the calls would have been legal even if there had been a direct solicitation. By the time the Fourth of July's fireworks and picnics and celebrations were completed, we hoped, there would be little interest among journalists - and less among non-journalists - in whether the President had made a few ambiguous and completely legal phone calls. Maybe there might be a follow-up story in Saturday's or Sunday's papers, but since Solomon's story was so complete, there really wouldn't be much to report. By Monday, we hoped, the story would have died down almost completely. As it turned out, we were right. Manipulative and strategic in the choice and timing of the publication of this story? I guess. But though we were obligated to be honest with reporters, we were not required to be suicidal.
This is a perfect example of good spinning: the facts got out, in context, and we helped diminish the impact of the story not by deceiving but by ensuring a comprehensive and accurate treatment of those facts.
One delicious aspect of the deep-background private placement is the awkward position in which it puts rival news organizations, who might otherwise bitterly complain about not being the recipient of the placement. "Why did you give Solomon that story?" one reporter asked me the day after the Fourth of July. "It's not fair to favor the AP over the rest of us."
I waited, sensing what was coming next. I was not disappointed.
"You should have placed that story with me."
From the forthcoming book Truth To Tell,
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