Roundtable: Pentagon PR, Kerry's Iraq Joke Falls Flat

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Guests discuss a revamped public relations push by the Pentagon, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) says if you don't do well in school, you can get "stuck in Iraq;" an ad uses sex to lure women voters to the polls, and the American Red Cross is overhauling its management team, again. Guests: Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle; E.R. Shipp, professor in journalism at Hofstra University; and Bob Meadows, writer for People magazine.

TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox, in for Farai Chideya. On today's Roundtable, the Pentagon tries to reinvent its public image. Also, a new ad uses sex to lure voters to the polls. And John Kerry steps back into the campaign fray.

Joining us today from our New York bureau is E.R. Shipp, professor in journalism, Hofstra University School of Communication. E.R., nice to have you.

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Journalism, Hofstra University, School of Communication): Yes, hello.

COX: And Bob Meadows, writer, People Magazine. Hello, Bob.

Mr. BOB MEADOWS (Writer, People Magazine): Hello.

COX: And in Nashville, Tennessee at Spotland Productions, Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle. Jeff, nice to have you back as well.

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Radio Host, Freestyle): Good to be here, Tony.

COX: Listen, damage control. That seems to be the theme of our Roundtable on this slightly abbreviated version today. First up, the Pentagon, they're trying to do a facelift, I guess you could say, starting with beefing up the public relations staff and trying to set the record straight as they see it with regard to coverage of the Iraq War.

So here's my first question, Jeff, to you: what is the first step? And before you get to it, don't say dump Rumsfeld. That was yesterday's Roundtable discussion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARR: That's every week's Roundtable.

COX: What's the first step?

Mr. CARR: Well, we look at this Pentagon PR issue that's come up. Now regardless of the company line that we hear is being presented here, I think it's pretty obvious for those of us who have been in the media to varying degrees and talk radio, news reporting or publishing, whatever it is, what's really going on.

Although coming short of referring to it as an official information operations program, anybody that reads about the structure of the approach that the Pentagon is now taking is going to argue that it's precisely that. They have the rapid response departments, surrogates that are going to be hired to blanket the media to present all of the good and wonderful things that are coming out of the Pentagon's efforts.

But I think it's important to realize that if we don't buy, or if we buy the company line that it's not a propaganda campaign, then they've done their job and they've done it well. So we are at war. It's a shadowy, unclear, ill- defined and quite amorphous war, but nonetheless it's war. When you're at war, the propaganda machine will roll out full-fledged on both sides.

And in this case, the Pentagon's launching a PR campaign to try to sway the population to believe in this war, as well as convince our enemies that we're righteous in this.

COX: Well, E.R., do you think they can do it?

Prof. SHIPP: No. They can try to do it. But I think we can see from polls how people in this country are not supportive of the war at this point. So no amount of public relations activities is likely to significantly change that. Even I believe Mr. Rumsfeld gave the department a D plus rating some months ago.

COX: Yes, he did.

Prof. SHIPP: And what they're now trying to say is we're trying to do better than a D plus. So they know that they are not convincing the American people, and they definitely aren't convincing the rest of the world, obviously.

COX: Well, you know, Bob, I'm wondering if you're trying to do something new and trying to get the public to look at you with new eyes, do you tell them, hey, I'm about to put some makeup on so, you know, pay attention?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, I think that probably is what we'll get news media to report on what you're trying to do. But the truth is they can put out as many photos of Iraqis planting flowers and traipsing through fields as they want. It's not going to matter when you have dozens of Iraqis dying everyday over there, when you have just had the, I think, the third or fourth highest month for American soldiers dying over there.

This war is so extremely unpopular, it doesn't really matter what type of PR the Pentagon is going to try and put out there. Because that story is so tragic of what is happening in this civil war that is now happening in Iraq.

COX: Speaking of damage control - we're going on to our next topic - how does, E.R., John Kerry manage to do this? Insert himself into the campaign in a big way a week before the election? Or do you disagree that this is a big blunder?

Prof. SHIPP: Yes. It was a blunder. But let me start by saying this: politicians should stick to their day jobs. They should not try to crack jokes. He essentially got in trouble by saying that if you don't do well in school, you'll end up in Iraq.

That wasn't the way the punch line was supposed to go, apparently. He was supposed to say - and I'm quoting - “do you know where you end if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.”

So the punch line was supposed to focus on President Bush, but it came out sounding as if he were demeaning the troops.

So he botched this. Having said that, though - having said that, though, the president is really using this as a distraction. Because right now, a lot of Republicans running in tight races are distancing themselves from him. So he's trying to put the focus on Kerry, as opposed to what's happening in this own party.

COX: Absolutely, but that's what he should be doing, shouldn't he, Jeff? I mean, that is the correct strategy for something like this, isn't it?

Mr. CARR: Well, of course it is. And I think that what's happened is Kerry did bring this issue up. And he did make a flub, and the Republicans are going to make him pay. We're down to the wire, and any opportunity they have to take a seam and to rip it open into a wide-open doorway in the Republican's favor, they're going to take.

You have to realize - as E.R. said - what your strengths are. Now Bill Clinton, he could've pulled that joke off without reading off the paper. Maybe even Jimmy Carter in his own deadpan manner could've done it. But as a general rule, if you're not a funny guy, you shouldn't tell jokes -or at the very least you should practice the joke. And no matter what, never takes your eyes off the script, and so he…

Mr. MEADOWS: Off the cue card…

Mr. CARR: Never take your eye off the cue card. And when you do that, if you're not an experienced comedian, this kind of thing could happen. And I think at this point he's explained enough that it was a flubbed joke, and I think it's not that big of an issue anymore. But the Republicans are going to continue to press this.

COX: Well, you know, I wonder about that point that you just made, Bob Meadows, because - I mean Jeff made the point, but I'm coming to you, Bob Meadows - that, you know, Kerry has just begun to sort of resurface a little bit more as we look towards 2008, you know? And to have something like this sort of crop up reminds people of some of the missteps that were made, you know, in the presidential election last time around. So does this hurt him in the longer run?

Mr. MEADOWS: It hurts Kerry from the standpoint of, yeah, if you can't tell a joke - he was, back in 2004, he was seen as this aristocratic guy. Even though he went to Vietnam, he was still seen the aristocrat and George Bush, for some strange reason, was seen as the common man.

Having the ability to tell a joke, have a beer, shoot back, you know, shoot back and shoot the breeze with people, that's one of the things that you have to be able to do. He's already showing, you know what? Not only am I an aristocrat, not only do I have this jaw, but I also cannot tell a joke. I cannot remember a punch line.

So, yeah, it takes that away from him again.

COX: All right. We've got another one to talk about, although this time, it's not exactly damage control. But it is putting a new face on an old institution. A new media campaign launched by the group Women's Voices, Women Vote is raising eyebrows for the way that they are trying to entice voters to the polls.

Now they are calling the ad campaign, quote, “Remember Your First Time,” end quote - now remember that - and have enlisted celebrities like actress Regina King to talk about their, quote, “first time,” but it's not the, quote, “first time” you may be thinking about. Here, let's listen:

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Ms. REGINA KING (Actor): I was the last one of all my friends to do it. What would my mother say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KING: After I did it my first time, I told everybody. I had such a big mouth about it. You got all that energy flowing inside and you go in and commit. It's a beautiful thing. I will do it again and again and again and again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Well, the ad says 20 million - and she's fanning, you know, if you've seen it, she's fanning - the ad says 20 million women did not vote in the last presidential election. E.R., does this make you want to vote?

Prof. SHIPP: Well, I always vote, so we'll put it that way. I won't tell you about my first time. But anyway, I had not even known of this statistic, first of all, that 20 million women - most of them unmarried women - did not vote, and that's what this campaign is really aimed at.

And I think the thinking seems to be that if you're an unmarried mother, you're so busy raising your children, working and all of that, that the last thing you have time to do is to go and go to the ballot - to go to the booth to vote. So I think the campaign is rather clever, and it does get your attention because you don't know where these people are going.

Particularly, you've got Desperate Housewives involved and all of that. But I think it's good, because they're raising issues that - some of the main issues that women should care about are healthcare, education, opportunities for jobs, equal pay, social security. We should all be considering that. But if there is 20 million women out there who aren't voting, then this is a good campaign.

COX: Well, you know, Jeff, I saw it and I had a couple of different reactions to it. Obviously, it's funny and it's cute. But I was wondering whether or not it's seemed clever or desperate. Which does it seem to you?

Mr. CARR: It could be one or the other. I mean, there are always two sides of this coin. When you interject sex in any way into the discussion, it makes people perk up in their seats. I mean, I could say, I'm so enjoying being here with the group, sharing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Watch out, now.

Mr. CARR: Interacting is so stimulating. And instantly, people who are flipping through the channels would pause and say, hey, well, what are they talking about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARR: So I think it's kind of innovative on the one hand, but it also can be used deviantly, as in the case of the Senate race that's on fire here in Tennessee - particularly here in Nashville.

Harold Ford Jr. - he went to a Playboy Super Bowl party that at first, he had denied going to. And then it was found out, and they played that up on commercials and all over the place. Then when he was confronted about it, his reply was, hey, I like football and I like girls. And they played that up, too, but that may have registered with some of the male voters who are out there saying well, yeah. You know, I like football. I like girls, too. I like that guy.

So as a result, the Get Out the Vote campaigns are blistering now. You're standing in line forever just for early voting. And it's anyone's guess on how it's going to shake out now. But it injects something new to the discussion.

Prof. SHIPP: Well, you know what, with the Ford campaign, what makes that really controversial is that the ad plays up a white woman…

Mr. CARR: Yeah.

COX: Yeah, right.

Prof. SHIPP: …a blonde, winking and cooing and saying call me up, Harold, kind of thing. So that plays into the whole racial history that we have, particularly in the South.

COX: Well, you know, Bob, sex sells. It sells cars. It sells soap. It sells all sorts of things in the American culture. So why shouldn't it be able to sell voting as well, or at least participation in voting?

Mr. MEADOWS: Sex does sell, but you often - you have to remember, the American public is among the West world, we're like the most squeamish when it comes to sex. This may actually turn some people off. But as far as the desperation of getting people out to vote, there are many tactics. You have to remember in Arizona right now, they have this measure being voted on. They're going to give $1 million every two years to a random voter. I can't really argue against these things that are trying to get people out to vote. I know I would be out at that poll in Arizona if I was there.

Prof. SHIPP: How long do you have to be in the state to order to register to vote?

COX: Well, you know…

Mr. CARR: Yeah, right. I can't…

COX: E.R., you can't move to Arizona.

Mr. MEADOWS: I think it's too late this year.

COX: You know, I am confused about by one thing, and maybe you can sort of explain it to me. In listening to the Regina King ad and understanding that the target - as I understand it - is women voters, why they would use, you know, that sexual innuendo to reach women voters?

Prof. SHIPP: Well, it's not just Regina King's part - all of the women were playing off of that whole thing. Somebody had a clever idea.

COX: Okay.

Prof. SHIPP: There are probably other ways you could've reached women. There probably are, in fact, there are other ways that people are doing things. We can't forget that organizations as old as the NAACP and the Urban League and as new as Rock the Vote are out there trying to attract people to the polls.

They're using various means, whether it is just going around to churches and that kind of thing to talk to people, or whether it's having concerts to invite younger people. So there are many ways that we are trying to get people to participate. Think about it. In this country, more than half of us don't vote, period.

COX: Yeah.

Prof. SHIPP: So this is just one other effort.

COX: This is our last topic. We only got about a minute or so left, unfortunately, because we got caught up in talking about Regina King and sex. I mean, how could that happen? But it did.

The Red Cross is also trying to do a little damage control post-Katrina - reorganizing, overhauling, trying to put a new face. Can they do this successfully, do you think, Bob?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, I think what the Red Cross is doing, truthfully, is coming into the 21st century. They're going to, I guess, slash their 20-member board now to 12. They're going to try to diminish the influence of presidential appointees. The thing I wonder about, though, is they're going to do this over a period of six years. It seems like they could do a little bit quicker than that. And, of course, this is all in response to Hurricane Katrina and the criticism that they faced, how they couldn't play nice with others and were kind of slow to react to a lot of things. So I guess it remains to be seen.

COX: Bob, I mean, Jeff, do you, what do you think?

Mr. CARR: Yeah, I think it's - I think it could be speedier, as Bob said. I think that in the relief efforts that I participated in, I heard all the criticisms from slow response to lack of coordinated, informed volunteers and the like. And in reality, you cannot have an 8-Track approach in an iPod world. And anyone that has ran an organization with the board knows that it can be hard to run with the board involved in day to day operations. And traditionally, things like fundraising and a long-term visioning is the board philosophy for even the largest most successful non-profits. So it only makes sense that the same rule would be true for the Red Cross.

COX: Unfortunately, E.R. we have run out of time, which means that when we get together again, you get the first word, because I'm taking away the last word from you today.

Prof. SHIPP: Oh, well.

COX: E.R. Shipp, professor in journalism, Hofstra University School of Communication. Bob Meadows, writer People magazine. Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle. Thank you all for a very good Roundtable today.

Prof. SHIPP: Thanks.

Mr. MEADOWS: Thank you.

Mr. CARR: Thank you.

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