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Standing in for President Bush, Allison Barber rehearses soldiers prior to their appearance on TV (Source: ABC News video)The biggest surprise for me about the furor following President Bush's recent staged TV event with U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq was the media's newfound willingness to expose the facade. Bush has been conducting similar staged events for years now, and he rarely gets called on them.

Bush's teleconference with soldiers outraged Paul Rieckhoff, the Iraq war veteran who organized Operation Truth. Rieckhoff wrote a devastating critique of the event:

This thing was not just staged, it was superstaged. In a disgusting display, the President again used our troops as political props in an event so scripted that it basically turned into a conversation with himself. I wish the White House had put this much effort into post-war planning when my platoon hit Baghdad. ...

When I was an Infantry Platoon leader in Iraq, I was interviewed by CBS 60 Minutes. As the tape was rolling, my commanding officer stood behind the camera carefully listening to my every word with his arms crossed. I knew it wouldn’t be fun for me if I strayed from the prescribed talking points. That incident was one of the motivating factors that led me to create Operation Truth--an organization that truly represents the candid voice of our troops and Veterans. The voices we heard today were neither candid nor representative. ... It was a shameful and misguided use of our military. The Commander in Chief has no right to use America’s sons and daughters as a defibrillator for his ailing Presidency.

Bush's staged teleconference with soldiers included a "spontaneous" discussion with Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo, who works in public affairs for the military as spokesperson to the mediaIn this case, though, the flacks weren't just standing behind the soldiers and overseeing what they said. As Ward Harkavy pointed out in the Village Voice, one of the soldiers who appeared on TV with Bush was a flack herself -- Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo, who works in public affairs for the military as spokesperson to the media. Lombardo's role as a PR person was not disclosed to viewers as she participated in what appeared to be a "spontaneous conversation" with the president:

SERGEANT LOMBARDO: First, I'd like to say that this is a pleasure to speak with you again. We had the honor of your visit in New York City on November 11th, in 2001, when you recognized our Rainbow Soldiers for their recovery and rescue efforts at Ground Zero.

THE PRESIDENT: Were you there?

SERGEANT LOMBARDO: We began our fight against terrorism in the wake of 9/11, and we're proud to continue it here in North-Central New York -- North-Central Iraq.

THE PRESIDENT: Let me ask you something. Were you there when I came to New York?

SERGEANT LOMBARDO: Yes, I was, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: I thought you looked familiar.

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Our friend Tim Karr at Free Press has some additional information about Lombardo, with links to other stories in which she has appeared as a military spokesperson.

Although there's been some furor over the discovery that Bush's "dialogue" with soldiers was less spontaneous than claimed, this degree of staging is actually the norm for Bush's public appearances. Washington Post reporter Jim VandeHei, who called the videoconference "one of the stranger and most awkwardly staged publicity events of the Bush presidency," made an interesting observation during an online chat with readers that explains why this particular staged event has been treated differently than some of the others:

I don't think anyone expects Bush to engage in a debate with soldiers. But I also don't think the public expects the White House to cook up an event with taxpayers dollars that purports to be a free exchange of ideas and and bill it as such. We all know most public event [sic] for politicians are staged. This is just a rare example when their [sic] video evidence of how it is done.

Most of the time, in other words, TV journalists know about the stagecraft behind the political events they are covering, but they don't bother to look behind the curtain or to explain the stagecraft to their viewers. On this particular occasion, though, they got handed the real story on a platter when video of Bush's rehearsal with the soldiers inadvertently wound up in reporters' hands. Dan Froomkin, also of the Washington Post, reports as follows:

[T]elevision journalists for once had a field day exposing the sleight of hand to which they are more often accessories.

Up until now, the degree to which most Bush events are meticulously choreographed has not been a great story for TV. That's because the elaborate preparations -- the stage-setting, the screening and prepping of participants, and any number of steps to insure that nothing remotely like dissent intrudes upon the president -- all typically happen behind the curtain.

In fact, TV tends to lap up precisely the kind of stirring, spotless imagery the White House normally cranks out for public consumption.

But yesterday, all that changed when an errant satellite feed fell in their laps.

Suddenly, instead of covering a highly artificial and largely newsless event the normal way -- broadcasting the desired images, playing the hoary sound bytes and making it seem like something new was said -- pretty much everyone today led with the artifice.

Oddly, given the amount of attention that this event has gotten in the blogosphere, I couldn't find any good sources for the video of the rehearsal session. However, the Crooks and Liars website has a copy of CNN's report, and we've got a Quicktime version of the ABC News report, in which you can see Allison Barber, a senior Pentagon official, rehearsing the troops prior to their performance.

Exposing publicity stunts like this latest is part of the mission of the Center for Media and Democracy, and you can participate. On SourceWatch, we have articles about Bush's teleconference with soldiers and Corine Lombardo. Those articles are open to editing by anyone (including you). If you know of information that we haven't reported here, please help us out by adding the results of your own research.

Comments

To see this story in my weekly prwatch newsletter, was not a surprise. I am glad to read that it got some much needed attention from the media though. This "looking the other way" tactic, that journalists have become very good at was halted with this particular staged event. It is definitely not a new thing, "staging events." But, I agree with some of the above responses, it is not acceptable to use our troops in the way they are being used. I am a former "journalist in training" that was stationed at Ft. Meade and going through the program to be a PR person or a Sgt. Lombardo. I realized what was "up ahead" in my career and failed out of the program on purpose. I then asked for a chapter and got out with an Honorable Discharge. I am glad to be a civilian again. I made a promise to myself that I would continue doing PR, through my own pursuits. Mainly because I owe it to my fellow soldiers still serving this country, and protecting my freedom and rights. I am finishing my masters degree in PR and I have started my own PR company. Ethics are extremely important to me and reading stories like this only fuel my fire to strive for excellence in my PR efforts. I am happy to help out "Operation Truth," on any level I can. Thanks Sheldon for blogging on this. Ex-Spc. Fresh www.fresh-communications.com