White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA): Research, notes and designs for counter-propaganda

Rebranding, unused.
Strategy, research, concept and execution.
Made at Happy Cog.

Sep 17–Mar 18

George Lakoff, linguist:
Journalists must understand how propaganda works on the brain and grasp the cognitive science that marketers of propaganda have implicitly mastered: frames, metaphors, narratives and brain basics.


tl; dr: You can click on any image and cycle through all.

i. Integrative  propaganda

ii. Deception, human nature

iii. Truth monopoly

iv. WHCA at the heart of it all

v. Logo, grid, type, etc.


In a stump speech in 2017 Trump cited a letter from Jefferson: “Nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper … Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” It checks out. There are two points of clarification, however.
One: The quote needs to be put in its precise context. The papers of the early 1800s were diehard muckrakers sponsored by one or the other political party and were as deeply committed to the truth as a “deep state” conspiracy newsletter. This didn’t change much until the 1830s, after the Penny press came into fashion and cheap, independent broadsheets poured into the market. All the same, the virtuousness of truth-telling is still more a twentieth century phenomenon.
Two: Like all presidents, Jefferson ran hot and cold on the media, and was a criminal oversharer when he was put into a bad humor. But on balance his record was unflagging.
The last word on the subject should be the advice he gave to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1823, three years before his death: “the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to.” This poster is a direct but untargeted response and is careful not to repeat ︎ Trump’s words.
The nickel portrait is a little extra bit of shade. Trump wants money: Jefferson is money.
In terms of propaganda, there is probably no more effective vehicle than currency (see: ︎ Augustus).

i. Integrative Propaganda

27 BCE–14 CE

No doubt political lying was de rigueur long before 27 BCE – fourteen years after the death of Caesar, fourteen years of alternating civil war and martial rule, fourteen years of electioneering – but Octavian, eventual champion and Caesarian heir, reduced it to an art.
Literally so, at the beginning. Looking a little too monarchical for republican tastes – not so much regal or officious but just generally uncaring – he instructed his sculptors to reshape him in the godlike image of Alexander: curls ebbing along the temple, seraphim smile, melting middle gaze.
These artificial faces, sometimes referred to as the porta primas, after the famous statue in the Vatican, one of hundreds of such statues chiseled from marble, cast in bronze, set in terra cotta, were then sent to occupy the far niches of the empire.
Statues however are inferior propaganda tools, too heavy to move, too expensive and slow to make.
Mobile goods such as gold coins, jewelry, silver bowls and other bric-a-brac which might change hands often thus provided more suitable (and contagious) carriage. Merchandising, merchandising, as Mel Brooks said. 
There were the permanent monuments. The Ara Pacis, “altar of peace,” a self-veneration depicting him as pious peacemaker, was placed near a disused military barracks to remind his subjects of the calm which blanketed Rome since he outmaneuvered his rivals with a little help from his friends on Mount Olympus. 
Literature enshrined him for the high-born, which is to say the literate. Besides political texts, including his own raving autobiography, Octavian – by now, Caesar Augustus, Rome’s “first citizen,” a comely term for emperor – pressed the talents of Virgil, Horace, and Livy into his service. Those who didn’t play along were banished. (Ovid died near the Black Sea, in exile, but at least we got Metamorpheses out of the deal.) 
And so on and so forth, ad infinitum: “Such assimilation is the root of integrative propaganda,” wrote historian Matthew A. McIntosh.
When Augustus died the Roman Senate declared him a god, christening the Roman Empire.

Boris Johnson, dismissed lunatic and co-architect of Brexit, is a longtime fan of Augustus’s methods:

If in today’s Britain we had busts of Gordon Brown above people’s mantle place in Islington, we would think it was a culture that was completely sick and mad, wouldn’t we? But that was how [Augustus] was able to infuse the entire Roman Empire with that sense of loyalty and adherence to Rome.

Grid as distance

The distance between the president and the press is essential to the structural design of the rebrand (see: ︎ design).

Truman, Stimson, and Bundy
1945, 1947–

For a modern example consider the textbook justification for dropping the bomb, invented two years after the fact by Mac Bundy – later architect of the Vietnam War – to protect the bomb-as-deterrent strategy.
It appeared first as an opinion piece in Harper’s, byline to Henry L. Stimson, former chief military advisor to Truman, provoked by Americans’ flagging support for atomic warfare after John Hersey’s famous 1946 account of six survivors in Hiroshima.
Hersey’s too came in a high-brow publication, the New Yorker. The battleground is significant because intellectuals believe they’re inoculated against propaganda by virtue of superior reasoning. Like they have a genetic predisposition to sniffing out bullshit.
Nevertheless they were duped into convenient revisionism. Not because, or not only because, they trusted the source, Harper’s, but because their guilty conscience was ready to believe it. Ready to be healed.
This is how propaganda works.

Grid as elision 

For posters and print ads of the protest bent, each word must begin inside a new module but is after that left up to the person setting the type to arrange it in some pleasing way. This is meant to evoke the void created by censors’ pens without resorting to cliche blackout marks. Longer form writing can be included without such constraints, such as in the ︎ Ethel Payne open letter.

ii. Deception, human nature

Some inarticulate sounds without any meaning at all

There is no material difference between truth and falsehood in politics. It’s strictly a matter of convenience.
Jonathan Swift’s description of an eminent politician in his contemporaneous Dublin:
“The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it.”
This is culled from the same 1710 essay as “falsehood flies,” which no doubt you’ve heard in one iteration or another. The full quote for reference: 
“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”
Social media takes this as axiomatic. But Swift was a satirist at heart and should never be taken at face value, even in his essays, even when they don’t delight in fanciful description. Rhetorical fatalism is part of what makes something Swiftian. Ignoring that and taking “falsehood flies” as true without qualifications – that the patient is fated to death – is an excuse to do nothing. Though taken in its opposite, as an ontological challenge, may not do much better.
I say this to make a generalization about – what is it? I hate to say intellectual fundamentalism, but this is what physicist-philosopher David Bohm calls it, and I have no other word for it. Beating somebody over the head with facts works as well as it sounds. He cites biologist Humberto Maturana to make this point: “When one human being tells another human what is ‘real’ what they are actually doing is making a demand for obedience. They are asserting they have a privileged view of reality.”
This tack works against itself because we defend our views as if defending ourselves from bodily harm. The defense response is automatic and unconscious. Pyschic harm is the same. In a study conducted a few years ago researchers at Dartmouth referred to such kneejerk rejections as the backfire effect. Many others have demonstrated identical findings but without the coinage.
One is evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, whose research of reciprocal altruism – the belief society works on a kind of debt system – and deception models have shaped the case for the selfish gene. “Con artists use tricks to get your machinery of self-deception going, and then they control you. The general cost is you risk being out of touch with reality,” he said.
This is accomplished by immersion. “When the news media and Democrats repeat Trump’s frames, they are strengthening those frames by ensuring that tens of millions of Americans hear them repeated over and over again,” said George Lakoff.
Propaganda doesn’t achieve its narrative aims through believable fictions but by the endless reproduction of spectacle. Repeated enough times, a lie becomes the truth, Lakoff reminds us.

Swift’s solution:  

The only remedy is to suppose, that you have heard some inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all

Safety valve

Lewis Hyde has referred to carnivals as social “dirt work,” “a safety valve allowing internal conflicts and nagging anomalies to be expressed without serious consequences.” In this respect I think the dinner serves many of the same purposes.
A lot of people feel like the format is out of step with the reality of the present, but “beware the social system that can’t laugh at itself,” said Hyde.
Never mind the fact there’s hardly been a time so dire as recently as the 1980s, during the height of the Cold War, yet the dinners went on, without much fuss. The image of Reagan, for whatever he means to you personally (I have my views), serves as a good reminder of this – the playing along. The image of the Kremlin below was sourced specifically for its 80s fashions to reinforce the allusion.
The death of satire, even at its humorless nadir, would be the terrible loss of a powerful counterpropaganda tool.

b. ?–d. 2016?

The Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” the word of 2016, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Their president added: “Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.”
Four things need to be said:
1. We’re a post-fact species. (Going back to points above regarding deception, whale biologist Roger Payne: “If reciprocal altruism invites cheating, then you must become a deft detector of cheating, and if you get good at detecting cheating, then I have to get better at cheating in more subtle ways. What you end up with is a brain racing in its evolution toward greater and greater complexity.”) We can be post-truth no more than we can be post-human.
2. The idea we fell below some sort of mendoza line for truth-telling for the first time in 2016, not 2010, or 2001, or most of the twentienth century – the run up to World War I stands out – I could go on – is apallingly ahistorical.
3. The tribalist trap of “post-truth” is now one of the greatest obstacles to the defense of fact-based reporting and free speech because it excuses past political complacency and makes us (especially us liberals) vulnerable to future manipulation. This is a group deception that cannot be repeated and must be viciously undermined.
4. Our bullshit detectors really need a tune up. “Whenever [a lie] loses its sting, it dies.” (Swift again.)

iii. The problem of a partisan truth monoply

Enemy of the state  
1913–1921, 2013

The First Amendment is the only explicit right we have at our disposal to hold power to account (the Second is an after-the-fact, when-all-else-fails kind of thing). Invariably this is why presidents come at it with chisel and mallet – or sickle and hammer, as the current case may be – and never mortar and trowel.
Nearly all attempts have been made under cover of war.
In 1917 the Espionage Act was pushed through Congress at the urging of Woodrow Wilson, who feared criticism over his European war about-face (he had run his first campaign on neutrality) might derail his eventual veneration as peacemaker-in-chief. 
So the jackboot came down. Free speech was curtailed. Local papers and bookshops which trafficked in critical perspective – especially of the socialist variety – had their stores seized or burned. Wilson’s postmaster general, Albert Sidney Burleson, instructed his mail carriers to “keep a close watch on unsealed matters, newspapers, etc.,” especially those “calculated to…cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny…or otherwise embarrass or hamper the Government in conducting the war.” Senator Robert La Follette spoke in favor of free speech and was investigated for treason. (He was, eventually, cleared.)
By the end of Wilson’s presidency the act had resulted in few prosecutions, mostly of socialist labor figures, all of whom were pardoned by FDR, though the damage was irrevocable.
This total assault on free speech was prefigured early in Wilson’s presidency by a few notable skirmishes with the press, one in 1913 when he threatened to terminate his press conferences outright after off-the-record comments found their way into the evening papers. A second incident followed six months later, but history’s less clear on that score. Depending on the account, the WHCA formed in either contrition (account 1: Wilson found the reporters’ questions beneath his intellect and office) or protest (account 2: a rumor leaked that Wilson was cherry picking a more sympathetic press pool).
In any event, these efforts would prove in vain at the sinking of the Lusitania, which gave Wilson the pretext to suspend press conferences for good, concerned, he says, that disinformation may affect public opinion. Because emotion always has.
Once the US entered the war it was thanks to only a few senators who wouldn’t budge on Wilson’s demand for the executive “authority to censor the Press” that he was impelled to bother with any of them at all.
Eventually he found his answer to the problem of the press in a newly created propaganda office, which flooded newspapers in a mix of official wires and ads of the spread-democracy bent that typified his presidency, and drowned the truth in its verisimilitude.
But the worst of Wilson’s presidency came well after. The air of neighborly distrust created by, among other things, the 250,000 badged “secret service,” the American Protective League (APL), a battalion of average citizens enlisted into diming on dissenters and draft dodgers, stoked the fires that traced a direct line to McCarthyism and the televised art of character assassination.
One of those prosecuted by Eric Holder accused Obama of using the Espionage Act to do precisely this. 

“These people,” said one WHCA member, “they are not our friends.”

Interactive and digital display advertising

Transportation and infrastructure are key to circulation and repetition.
The Brexit bus was successful in a way that typical mobile propaganda was not, partly because political advertising is not regulated the same as consumer advertising, i.e. straight-up lying is not verboten.
But except for this piece by a semiotician there’s been hardly anything written about the use of the coach in British culture and what impact that may have had on how the message was received.
The other benefit to such displays is the ability to deploy them more rapidly than a billboard, say.  

Different strokes

General rule of thumb is conservatives incline to nostalgia (“things were better when I was young”), liberals toward the future. It's more complicated than that but say for the sake of concision.
Appeals during any presidency will generally have to be made to their supporters, who are the most likely to forgive certain trespasses. Senate and House Republicans were correct about Obama’s free speech record, loathe I am to admit. (See: ︎ convenience)

1: Reagan’s own assessment of his relationship with the press, combined with the neener-neener image from the WHCD 83 dinner, is a not-so-subtle dig at Trump. There’s no message here, strictly speaking; the point is to undermine his credibility and cast doubt on the ‘great man’ Reagan comparisons.

2: Designed as if this brand existed four, five years ago, when Obama was in office. Again, the point is to undermine the official narrative, that surveilling journalists, etc. was out of some duty to national security. (See: ︎ wartime overreach)

Character sketch no. 1: Obama

“Character is defined by a kind of consistency,” as Marilynne Robinson wrote in her essay “Grace and Beauty.” She was writing about prose works but given the amount Obama has worked his way into her essays since she interviewed him some years ago, and given the date, early 2016, I’ll go out on a limb and say there’s some interlinear commentary happening. I could be wrong, but self-deception demands I plow on.
Obama was a leader of such indomitable “character” that his only personal scandal, we liberals like to point out, was the tan summer suit he wore to a press conference in August 2014, a little sartorial gaffe humorously but harmlessly “out of character.” (On the left. On the right it was a semaphore for hardline socialism.)
It’s an odd turn of phrase, when you think about it—“out of character”—suggestive of a certain amount of theater and a knowing admission of its duplicitous nature and our own surrender to it. 
Because of that I think the image-making behind Obama’s presidency will require some critical examination once it can be taken for what it is, as a standalone event and not interposed between the rosy glow of two presidential dumpster fires.
His rap sheet is long: FOIA obstructions, the prosecution of whistleblowers, the surveillance of journalists (including an AP reporter whose phone records were seized, a First and Fourth Amendment two-for), then naming one an unindicted co-conspirator.
The last of these may be the broadest overreach of executive power against the free press since Adams jailed around twenty newspapermen for violating the Sedition Act (a bill co-authored by Alexander Hamilton, a curious fact that rarely gets mentioned now that Chernow has successfully rehabilitated his image through a work of old white guy revisionist elision).
For at least a generation he’ll be remembered as a man whose deference to the inalienable right to speak one’s mind to power was so pure, so true, so limpid – transparent, as promised – he patiently, graciously took protestors’ interruptions on sufferance – as viral video can forever attest.
Propaganda works like this.  

Character sketch no. 2: Trump

One of the far right’s favorite but specious arguments is that fascism is a purely big-government, leftist phenomenon, thus Trump and the enabling GOP, who favor states’ rights, small government, deregulation, the free market, etc., are naturally indisposed to fascism.
On the first point, democrats have done very little to help themselves. That Obama racked up the most egregious free speech record in a century and this somehow didn’t merit mass protests deserves to be underlined. Fair enough: Holder pledged not to follow through with the prosecution of journalists. But the precedence is there. And no doubt Trump will avail himself of it, when the time is right, and for strictly personal reasons.
Maybe, maybe not. On the one hand he is hardly anything new. Even his cruelty is unoriginal. Somehow Stephen Miller has dug up and patchworked the worst legislative legacies of ancient American history and frankensteined them into Trumpism. The immigration policies are ripped right out of 1798. No surprise they’re Federalist.
On the other hand Trump is also something else entirely. Notoriously unreliable when it comes to financial debts but a man of his word for campaign promises. Singularly driven by them, in fact. Tent cities, deportation forces, taxes. The wall is behind schedule, paid for by the wrong people, and likely to be entirely ineffective at stopping human border crossings (animals are another matter) but for all that has been kept in the news, the only measure of success that matters, as Lakoff points out. The same can be said for the Clinton email scandal, a story unwilling to give up the ghost in spite of her dead candidacy.
I hesitate to pin all this on the news media, as Lakoff has done, because I find social media the more culpable megaphone – the common coin of the moment, in the Augustan sense – but the point is well taken. Propaganda doesn’t achieve its narrative aims through believable fictions but by the endless reproduction of spectacle. (It bears repeating.)
“Trump has done this with such longevity that bad publicity somehow has become a facet of his perceived authenticity,” wrote Michael Kruse for Politico Magazine, back in July 2016. “He has done it with such consistency that a lack of bad publicity weirdly would feel like a betrayal to his brand.” It’s the public relations strategy of a life lived in wanton accumulation. A dollar is a dollar no matter how it was won. News, the same. Thus denials are done sort of sous rature, never completely erased but jumbled together, bad, worse or worst, into some horrible, undecidable mythic canon.

Remember Lakoff’s advice: When you repeat Trump, you help Trump.

Double duty: Counterpropanda and brand building

Questions have power separate from their answers, and there’s no better historical moment to illustrate this than Ethel Payne.
While many regard the briefings under Trump as farce, they’ve played an essential part in bringing about incremental social change. Unfortunately the mission and history of the WHCA is so poorly understood the public can’t fathom its place in American democracy.
So this open-letter ad pulls double duty: countering claims (without repeating them; see: ︎ Trump), and simultaneously educating the public about an aspect, albeit a small one, of the WHCA.

iv. WHCA at the heart of it all

Free speech first responders 
1914, 2017–

When the daily press briefings were first suspended then later threatened with cancellation Trump justified the break with protocol by saying it was “not possible” for his staff to always tell the truth to the American public.
Truth aside (truth is always aside in politics, never in front) there was probably no reasonable expectation, given historic events, stump speeches and the like, that he or his staff would approach their duties with any respect for decorum or tradition. Some voters in fact considered this a selling point.
So I expect what truly rankled the public had less to do with tradition or truth than the unbidden awareness of one more democratic subsystem we had, until then, if not wholly taken for granted, at least committed very little thought to.
Trump’s attacks on the White House press corps thus had the agglomerating effect of joining the frontline press to the resistance. Unbeknownst to the press I think, who have frustrated the lords and ladies of the resistance by not kowtowing to their demands to boycott the briefings and achieve a sort of pointless martyrdom.
Pointless now, because of how briefly we can mourn our losses. In less than the time it takes to run a briefing (say, forty minutes) we will have already collectively forgotten their sacrifice. Propaganda is relentless. Truth is exhaustible.
Meanwhile without the White House press there would be no one to occupy the liminal space between the public and an elected power which now has total control of the narrative. The walk-out is an emotional and altogether stupid demand – I speak only for myself – in line with what Rebecca Solnit characterized as ineffectual leftist perfectionism: a moralizing of democratic abstinence which excuses any “obligation to act and even tearing down those who do.”

v. Logo, visual allusion, grid, type, etc.

Physical separation, distance and references to the briefing room

There is, as there should be, some physical distance between the President and the press. The White House press has West Wing accommodations which in the American imagination is as good as saying the White House, though they’re separated from the actual “house” by a short covered walkway and barracked partly underground in a few tiny rooms with low ceilings.
The actual briefing room is the filled-in husk of FDR’s old indoor swimming pool–he took daily swims to mollify his humors—drained and converted into press offices by Nixon under the pretext of magnanimously providing them their own space, though it’s any wonder he didn’t want them wandering his halls and potentially wicking confessions from the air.
Today the offices are so spartan, claustrophobic, and dirty the press mainly cabs back to their workaday offices to type up their beat. The WHCA physical address where the executive director sits is actually Watergate.
This got me thinking about how I might represent that physical separation. Tempted as I am I will leave out the post-rationalization: The idea actually came from a laundry truck I used to see on Houston Street in the East Village. Its vinyl logo had peeled away from its front bumper and the four remaining letters I thought framed the license plate in a nice looking way. Chance and the prepared mind and so forth.

Initial attempt

This also resolved how to handle the visual language of censorship, which I wanted to reference without resorting to cliche. I don’t shy away from the obvious, but a good acid test for an idea is in how many stock photos exist of it already. (What truly killed it for me was the surfeit of cloyingly sentimental, dada-lite blackout poetry.) 
What’s left unobscured in a FOIA document is generally too anodyne to be of interest or missing the context that will give it real meaning. In this view censorship can be seen a matter of distance, in an almost physical sense – to push phrases and sentences apart, to push people away from the truth – and it occurred to me this could be evoked simply by pushing the text apart.
The inspiration to use the grid as a randomizing element came from an Ellsworth Kelly I used to visit in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The primary headline text is Schmalfette Grotesk/Haettenschweiler.
The original intent of the condensed text was to mimic the visual language of news while making a reference to the crowded confines of the briefing room and press accommodations in the West Wing.
Supporting text is various and pretty much used on a whim (Canela, Times New Roman, Helvetica, Caslon) and never finalized. The first version was Druk and Larsseit.

© 2018 Michael Johnson. Updated 8-16-18.