WASHINGTON -- The White House seems to have broken new ground in the news-management business by shipping its director of media affairs, Jeff Eller, to Somalia to oversee a pool of 18 American reporters formed by the Pentagon to cover the crisis there.
Eller is a political operative heretofore busy setting up local television interviews for President Clinton and selling his health-care reform plan to the news media. Eller barely got to distant Somalia when he headed back, amid criticism of his mission. But the White House says the criticism had nothing to do with his speedy turnaround.
White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers has assured reporters that Eller was not dispatched to exert "spin control" on the pool -- Washingtonese for trying to put the administration's own spin on the stories coming out of Somalia.
Rather, she says, Eller's assigned task was to "facilitate" the Pentagon reporters' trip and "make sure they got access that they needed and the kind of technical assistance they need." If that was the case, it makes you wonder why he returned so quickly.
The assignment, however brief, raises the question of what the small army of public relations men within the U.S. military establishment were supposed to be doing. One thing that the Pentagon has never lacked is PR kibitzers, in and out of uniform, to "facilitate" press coverage of any military crisis.
The superabundance of military PR men was clearly in evidence during the Persian Gulf War, when reporters were largely restricted from the battlefield and were fed the military's version of what was going on in briefings from military information specialists.
Former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater of the Reagan and Bush administrations, which did their fair share of military "spin control," says Eller's assignment "would tend to undermine the military and also to politicize the conflict." White House communications director Mark Gearan confirms that presidential counselor David Gergen, an old Reagan spin-controller himself, was involved in sending him.
There was a time when news-gatherers managed to cover all manner of government-related stories without having their hands held by some bureaucrat. But the penchant for managing the news and controlling access has grown as officialdom has increasingly sought to have the best face put on its actions.
Thirty years ago, a one-time Washington newspaper correspondent named Arthur Sylvester took over as an assistant secretary of defense for public affairs -- the Pentagon's chief flack -- and initiated a new policy. He ordered that any reporter interviewing any official in the Pentagon be accompanied by a public-information officer -- a Pentagon subordinate flack.
The order was also justified at the time as a way to "facilitate" news coverage, but the impact was to stifle candor on the part of officials being interviewed with a government monitor in the room.
Those were the days of the Cuban missile crisis, and so it was understandable that the Pentagon would want to keep a lid on sensitive information. But at the same time, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was holding press briefings attended by the duly accredited reporter from Tass, the official Soviet news agency.
There may be nothing nefarious involved in the dispatch of a White House media specialist to Somalia to "facilitate" the work of the reporters sent there in a military pool. But it does encourage speculation that the White House wanted to have someone with political antennae on hand to offer the appropriate spin -- at least until Eller's assignment generated criticism.
The general business of spin control has reached a point where the spinners often can't wait until an event is over before they start telling reporters what it means. At one of the debates in the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton's "spin doctors" rushed into the press room and began explaining why Clinton had won, even before the candidates finished debating.
Once again, the hand of Gergen, Ronald Reagan's press agent drafted from the Republican Party by Clinton, can be seen in what the PR boys call "getting our story out." Why are we not surprised?