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Minding Our Business

 

Light and shadow

Michael DeaverThe common thread of all the disciplines in our college is that we are story tellers. We tell good stories, funny stories, horror stories—and in every sense of those words. What sets our disciplines apart is that we tell those stories from different perspectives. Journalism and public relations come to mind. Each is an honorable profession—would we teach anything other?—though they do not always find common ground.

One of the more artful practitioners of political PR that I met during nine years as CNN’s Senior White House correspondent was Michael K. Deaver.

If Ronald Reagan was the “great communicator,” Mike Deaver must have been the “great illuminator.” In fitting understatement, Deaver once told an interviewer: “I’ve always said the only thing I did is light him well,”

When Deaver died of cancer Saturday at age 69, he was vice chairman of Edelman International, a global public relations firm. But his days in the spotlight, so to speak, were in the Reagan White House.

Deaver was deputy chief of staff and so much more. He was Reagan’s imagemeister and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s confidante. By her description, Deaver was “like a son to Ronnie.” He was also the buffer between the First Lady and the Reagan campaign and staff aides who tiptoed around or blundered into differences with her.

Deaver and Reagan photoDeaver was in on Mrs. Reagan’s use of an astrologer to plot a safe course for her husband. But that’s another story and too long to tell here. It suffices to convey that Deaver, of all the Reagan aides, was closest to the couple and most entrusted with projecting and protecting their images.

Leslie Stahl, then the CBS White House correspondent, tells the often repeated story of airing what she considered a scathing report about budget cuts made by the Reagan administration. Stahl came to the White House the next morning expecting to be berated by White House officials. Instead, she was greeted with compliments for her report.

Finally, Stahl confronted a Deaver deputy who shed light on her bewilderment. “No one heard what you had to say in that piece,” Stahl was told. “They just saw the pictures.” And in those pictures, Reagan was glowing.

In this regard, the Reagan team was cocky, but good. Spokesman Larry Speakes kept a framed saying on the wall of his office that said: “Don’t tell us how to stage the news. We won’t tell you how to report it.”

I don’t buy the notion, as Stahl put it, that “pictures drowned out my words.” At least, not as an absolute. Perhaps I’m just an old radio guy, but the television in my office is not in my line of sight. I rarely just watch. I listen for audio cues to catch my attention.

And I’d never tell any of our students that words don’t matter. In fact, I admonish our broadcast students that the audio—both words and ambient sound—are not afterthoughts to their reports. For that matter, too much TV news video is little more than wallpaper to accompany the sound. We need to do something about that, too. Writing to pictures, not writing over pictures, is a start.

But the way Mike Deaver set the scene was masterful. The light rising over the beach cliffs in Normandy caught the glint in Reagan’s eye at a World War II commemoration. The Brandenburg Gate was framed behind the president in Berlin when he declaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The balloons cascaded from the rafters in just the right pattern to frame Reagan’s buoyancy at Republican conventions.

Michael Deaver, Times Mag. CoverDeaver was not always successful. The pictures of Reagan visiting a military cemetery at Bitburg, Germany, haunted the White House when it became apparent that Nazi SS troopers were among the German soldiers buried there.

Deaver’s own photo on the cover of a 1986 issue of Time presaged his downfall. Time’s headline: “Who’s This Man Calling? Influence Peddling in Washington.”

Now Deaver has shaped one last scenario—a conundrum for the dean of a college of mass communications that spans the diverse, though related, disciplines of public relations and journalism. This weekend we welcomed hundreds of new students at our freshman convocation. And Mike, in absentia, and I were recast in our old roles from White House days where a certain tension between the press and the presidency was a democratic essential.

As a PR guy, I suggested, Mike would have told our public relations students to show their clients in the best possible light. On the other hand, I hope I conveyed to the journalism students that it is their responsibility not to be blinded by the light.

Photos courtesy of edelman.com

 
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The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.


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