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Introduction to the Screening of The War Room

Remarks of American University Professor Leonard Steinhorn
Reel Journalism Film Series
The Newseum
Washington, DC
May 18, 2009

When I was asked to participate in a screening of The War Room for the Reel Journalism film series, the first question that came to mind was “what does this film have to do with journalism?”

After all, this isn’t a story about reporters but about behind-the-scenes campaign strategists and how they try to shape the news. As you’ll see in the film, the people behind the 1992 Clinton campaign – and we have three of the stars sitting here – used every strategic tool and technique and intuition to mold the public’s image of their candidate and to stay three steps ahead of the news media covering the campaign. These were the wizards trying to influence the news, not report it.

But the more I thought about it, I realized that The War Room was actually the perfect film for the Reel Journalism series. And the reason is simple: nothing is more important for journalists – indeed for the health of a democracy – than understanding how public images are formed, shaped, promoted, and sustained. If we truly want a strong democracy, one built on the informed consent our Founders envisioned, we must peek behind the curtain and see exactly what the Wizard of Oz is up to.

Take it from me – I’ve been there. Before joining the AU faculty, I served as a speechwriter and campaign strategist, and I know how to create the narratives and soundbites that reporters then use to weave their news stories.

Our School of Communication has just partnered with the School of Public Affairs to create a new MA in Political Communication, and we have also just laid the foundation for what I hope will be a major intellectual center at AU to study political communication and its impact on media and society.

And what we teach our students is what any strategist knows: that this field is really an art form. It’s about understanding human motivation and media narratives, about knowing what people think and how they connect emotionally with issues and candidates. In a final exam question I often ask my students why it is so important to know culture, history and psychology in this field. And the short answer is that each of them is coded into every strategic decision a political strategist makes. That’s what we teach in our courses; you’ll see it vividly in the film tonight.

So in many ways, this film, while not about journalism, is as critical to understanding the job journalists must do – what they must know and ferret out – as any other film in this series. That is why we are presenting it tonight.

A film series like this is possible only because two institutions – AU’s School of Communication and the Newseum – seek to promote the public good of shining a light on the media and political worlds, so I want to thank the Newseum as our partner.

It’s also possible because of the leadership from two very special members of the AU community here with us tonight – Provost Scott Bass, who came to AU a year ago and has been a remarkably energetic voice for our university ... and my friend and School of Communication Dean, Larry Kirkman, whose dynamism and dedication have made such a difference not only at our university but in the field of communication and the education of this next generation.

Of course a series like this is only possible because of your attendance tonight – because of people like you, who in coming to an event like this have the interest to care about our democracy and the passion to make it work. So to all here with us, I thank you.

There’s no better guide for the mission of Reel Journalism than our host, Nick Clooney. TV news anchor and news director, newspaper columnist, host for the cable channel AMC American Movie Classics, author of the book “Movies That Changed Us” – but his resume tells only a part of his remarkable career. Nick has a joint appointment at AU and the Newseum as a distinguished journalist in residence. I for one enjoy his candor and insight as a colleague, and I know from all the buzz among students that he’s an inspiration and true educator. It is my pleasure to introduce Nick Clooney ...