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15 April 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Resurrecting “Wag the Dog” (wherein there lies quite a tale)

Synopsis: An imaginative writer found a novel new way to work “Wag the Dog” into one of her stories.

Clinton Puts Bully Pulpit Mike to Work
Elizabeth Shogren, The Los Angeles Times,4/11/98

Life in this celebrity press corps means never having to say that anyone’s honest. Which brings us to this Liz Shogren piece, in which the enterprising analyst finds a creative new way to compare White House conduct to the film “Wag the Dog.”

HOWLER readers will remember the recent Tinseltown fable, in which a president diverts attention from a sexual affair by hiring consultants to stage a fake war. Back when air strikes against Iraq were being considered, it was de rigeuramong pundits to refer to the film, in attempts to plumb President Clinton’s hidden motives for considering the military action.

Well, the war didn’t happen, and Iraq fell from sight, and with it, we’d have thought, went the “Wag the Dog” references. But Shogren managed to get “Wag the Dog” back in play in this creative “analysis” piece!

Shogren began in standard fashion, noting that Clinton’s recent foreign/domestic issues “roadshow” has given him a chance “to look presidential.” And here, on the day after the Northern Ireland peace accord, was paragraph two of her inventive report:

SHOGREN (paragraph 2): But around the country, many Americans wonder, despite Clinton’s key role in the peace and power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, if there is not a certain “Wag the Dog” quality to Clinton’s travels--an effort to divert attention from his troubles at home, if not by manufacturing an international crisis, as in the recent movie, then at least by calling attention to other concerns.

We’ve recently tipped our hat to two Washington journalists for their creative ability to invoke Richard Nixon (see THE DAILY HOWLER, April 13). Today, we offer the same tribute to the fanciful Shogren. Why? For managing to work a “Wag the Dog” reference into a story about a president creating peace!!

The whole point of “Wag the Dog”, of course, was that the fictional president was behaving in a dishonorable way--was pretending to stage a phony warto draw attention away from his troubles. The tale wouldn’t likely have had the same panache, for example, had he solved world hunger to distract from his problems.

According to Shogren, however, many Americans don’t see it that way. Pretend to start a war, create a real peace--it’s all the same when we talk about Clinton!

But just for the record, since we’re talking about honesty, how accurate is Shogren’s specific claim--the claim that “many Americans” are now wondering if Clinton’s efforts don’t somehow have that “Wag the Dog” flavor? After all, Shogren doesn’t claim to be speaking for herself. She’s merely chronicling what many othersare feeling. And--hang onto your hats--here’s the sum total of evidence in support of her claim that “many Americans” feel the way she describes:

SHOGREN (paragraphs 3, 4): The father-son tobacco-growing team of Gilbert and Leroy Cannon, for example, took a cynical view of the president’s hey-I’m-a-statesman-not-a-jerk campaign. “To us tobacco farmers, it looks like he’s traveling down here just to distract attention from Paula Jones and all that mess,” said Gilbert Cannon, 57, a tobacco farmer who turned out for Clinton’s visit to Carrollton, Ky., on Thursday by protesting Senate legislation (which Clinton supports) to impose new costs and regulations on tobacco.

“Tobacco is a diversion,” added his 36-year-old son, Leroy.

And that’s the sum total of evidenceoffered to support Shogren’s claim that “many Americans” now hold the view she describes! That’s it! Two tobacco farmers, pere et fils,question Clinton’s motives about tobacco legislation. No other individuals are individually cited; she cites no polling or surveys to buttress her claim. But, on the basis of an interview with two people (one family) who have a business interest at odds with the president, Shogren tells us what “many Americans” are feeling--“around the country,” no less! And we note that the Cannons, while clearly not Clinton fans, do not themselves make a “Wag the Dog” reference at all. That peculiar embellishment, so strange on thisweekend, seems to come to us solely from Shogren.

A thought experiment: can the reader imagine what would happen if a college freshman turned in written work of this caliber--work with an assertion about what “many Americans are thinking,” supported by a single interview with one family? Is it even conceivablethat such work would be accepted, even from a freshman in college? Yet here is such work--dressed up with snide metaphor--presented as “analysis” by the Los Angeles Times, a publication that is generally taken to be one of the nation’s top daily newspapers.

Yep, to journalists like Shogren seeking an angle, Cannon and Cannon an arsenal make. Two people may not seem like “many Americans” to you, but when you’re living inside this celebrity press corps, a single view from a father-son team is plenty of evidence on which to stake out a claim--as long as what they’re thinking is sufficiently negative, and as long as it gives a bright young scribe a chance to resurrect a rude image.

In all fairness, though, we do see one way in which “Wag the Dog” fits this piece quite well. In “Wag the Dog,” as you will again recall, an American president was faking a war. Here, in this piece by Elizabeth Shogren, a major newspaper is faking a story.