Wag the Dog & Spin Strategies in Washington, D.C.

Wag the Dog (1997)
Director: Barry Levinson
Dustin Hoffman
Robert De Niro
Anne Heche
Denis Leary
William H. Macy

By Yoshifumi Kobayashi and Rebecca Doser

Fig. 1: Wag the Dog was released in 1997 and reveals some core PR practices that politicians and public officials use in order to manipulate U.S. public opinion.

Wag the Dog (Fig. 1) is a comedy that is loosely based off of Larry Beinhart‘s novel American Hero. The storyline follows a Washington, D.C. spin doctor played by Robert De Niro who distracts the electorate from a sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood film producer to construct a fake war with Albania. This comedy was released prior to the Lewinsky scandal as well as the bombing of the Alshifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan by the Clinton Administration.

Fig.2: Conrad Brean is a top-notch spin doctor who distracts the electorate from a presidential sex scandal.

The term spin refers to outright lying or obfuscation in public relations (Baran, 2015, p. 277). It is a form of propaganda that is achieved  through providing a biased interpretation of an event or campaigning to persuade public opinion in favor of a public figure. In the case of this film, spin was used as a form of propaganda to persuade the majority that there was a war in Albania, in order to take their focus off of the President’s so called “advancement” on a Firefly Girl only two weeks before Election Day. Conrad Brean (Fig.2) is a spin doctor who is wrapped into a scheme to take the public’s attention away from the sex scandal that could ensue. Spin doctors have more access to new technologies than many, thus, in public relations, they are deceptive and manipulative in skewing the truth in order to create a biased interpretation of events. Conrad Brean says multiple times, “I’m working on it.” He is characterized by his assistant, Winifred Ames as “Mr. Fix-it” At the very beginning of the movie the audience views him and his colleagues in the basement of the White House as he brainstorms a strategy involving a B3-bombing and war in Albania. He is characterized as a strategic and clever spin doctor who is always thinking of the potential consequences of his actions before he goes through with them.

The movie takes place in the heart of Washington, D.C. in which Washington’s K Street is known as the hub for think tanks, lobbyists and advocacy groups. The lobbying industry is very prevalent in this area and thus this is where a lot of spin goes on. Lobbying is directly interacting to influence elected officials or government regulators and agents as a central activity, further making it the core of manipulative spin doctors and lobbyists alike.

Fig. 3: The Kennedy-Nixon debates ushered a new era of taking advantage of media exposure to build successful political campaigns.

At the beginning of the movie, Conrad Brean has to convince Hollywood producer Stanley Motss to join his PR campaign. He argues that politics is a show business. Brean says, “War is business that’s why we’re here” (15:30). He uses examples of past popular war slogans such as 54-40 or Fight and Tippecanoe and Tyler Too to portray how those campaign slogans resonate more with people than the actual war details do. He says, “We remember the slogans and we can’t even remember the fucking wars…you know why? That’s show business” (15:50). He continues with his argument saying,“You’ll remember the picture 50 years from now and you’ll have forgotten the war” (16:07). This argument is  related to the first televised Kennedy-Nixon electoral debate. In 1960, the Kennedy-Nixon debates (Fig.3) were not only the first televised presidential debates in American history but they also ushered a new era of creating a public image and taking advantage of media exposure to build a successful political campaign. Nixon took a hit in August when a reporter asked Eisenhower to name some of his vice president’s contributions, but after a long press conference he replied, “If you give a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.” This was later used in a commercial that ended with the statement, “President Eisenhower could not remember, but the voters will remember.” People remember slogans and political symbols more than they remember the details behind an event, statement or speech.

Later on, when the President claims that the speech written for him is too “corny,” Motss is determined to give it himself in the oval office in front of 30 secretaries. Many of the secretaries leave Motss’ speech in tears and are very moved by what he said. Motss – leaving the Oval Office – says to Brean: “You know, Connie, I felt very much at home in there. Simple quirk of fate, I could have gone this way,” and then he adds, “It’s all a change of wardrobe” (58:16). Connie says a bit later in response, “It’s like Plato once said…It doesn’t matter how the fuck you get there, as long as you get there” (58:45). This scenario points to the multitude of strategies there are to deceive individuals and hope the people and media will concentrate on anything that is presented to them in the news.

Fig. 4: An Albanian girl is the star of this staged news brief.

There are many scenes throughout the movie that represent multiple strategies used by spin doctors. One strategy used throughout the movie is a video news releases (VNR), which is a video segment that looks like a news report but is instead created by a PR firm, advertising agency or government agency. A VNR is portrayed in the scene in which the Albanian girl (Fig. 4) is portrayed running from terrorist uprisings in her village (36:00). VNRs are used frequently by government agencies in favor of presenting manipulated accounts as actual news reports (Baran, 2015, p.280). This is a clear attempt of the producer to relay the idea that seeing is believing. A theme of the movie that opens up here is one of constant fear as to whether or not the individuals used in the screenplay are illegal immigrants. Employing illegal immigrants can be a far bigger crime than even just setting the scene for a war that never existed and this theme comes up later in the movie

When the CIA learns of this fake creation of a war, they announce that the war has ended and in turn, Motss decides to create another fake story: one of a hero who was left behind. The soldier’s name is William Schumann who left behind an old shoe. This act in itself becomes a point of support and a political symbol in the movie as the producers begin to throw old shoes from trees in support of Schumann’s cause and the attempt to bring him home. When a photograph of Schumann is released, the producers relay the idea that there is a morse code embedded in his shirt that spells out “Courage Mom.” America is easily captivated by this story of bringing Schumann home immediately. This is an example of astroturfing, the practice of masking sponsors of a message or ogranization to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by a grassroots organization. The news outlets of television and newspaper alike are continuously building off of each other and publishing news that is identical to simply what they are seeing all over the place.

Multiple media events or pseudo-events such as the war in Albania, the footage of the Albanian girl and the grassroots demonstrations of patriotism in bringing Schumann home as an American hero all lead to Motss’ ultimate frustration in the end. The media credits the president’s win to the campaign slogan of “Don’t change horses in mid-stream” rather than crediting Motss for his hard work and directing. As Conrad mentioned at the beginning to Motss, one will always remember the slogan but not the war.

Baran, Stanley J. “Chapter 11.” Public Relations. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2015. Print