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March 14, 2003
Spin Cycle (Kurtz)

Spin Cycle by Howard Kurtz

I didn't expect to enjoy reading this book.

I'm getting saturated on "press versus politicians" books and I've been saving the one I most wanted to read for last, which I'm starting to regret. So, I picked up this one as something I'd promised myself I'd "get through" before turning to What Liberal Media?.

Also, this onecovers the many and varied scandals, near-scandals, and just-missed-scandals of the Clinton era and if there's anything I'm sick of, it's the media's obsession with Clinton.

(Just for the record, I didn't initially object to any of the investigations involving campaign financing, potentially shady financial deals, or influence-buying, but I rapidly found each of them incoherent. And it took me about five minutes to get sick to death of the shrill whining about who Clinton did, didn't, or wanted to sleep with.)

I always thought it was funny, to be honest, that Clinton got re-elected and that his approval numbers stayed so relatively high in the polls, in spite of everything the media could do to change those facts. After the initial, grim amusement of watching the media doing everything but holding their breaths and stamping their little feet in an attempt to rouse the general public against Clinton, I started turning off the news when the subject turned that way.

It amazes me how little journalists seem to grasp the audience for whom they are supposedly writing. Maybe they were all too close to it or something, but I can assure them that the average, "knows nothing about complicated investment deals" citizen could barely make heads or tails out of the multiplicity of sometimes-overlapping accusations being thrown about. Nor did the note of hysteria evident in many journalist's voices (whether on-screen or in print) really invite confidence.

Sorry. This isn't about me. I'm supposed to be contemplating the book, right?

Let's return to the subject at hand.

Anyhow. I bought Kurtz's book and I finally sat down to read it, expecting to be able to skim my way it in two or three days.

Drat the man, anyhow.

The book is lively and absorbing, not the least because of the constant view of the sparring between White House and media that Kurtz keeps front and center in all the action. It's irritatingly fascinating, in fact. I'm reading every word.

The book is about politics in the sense of politicking between the media and the press secretary. It's a book about process, I guess. The process of "making" news. Maybe it's about war. The war between the press and the Administration for who's going to control the news cycle.

That's one of the more interesting things about the book, that it's not primarily about party politics or issues or legislation or any of those things us mere mortals think are undertaken in Washington D.C. In the first hundred pages, these concepts barely appear at all. (What does appear is the White House press secretary, McCurry, someone I grew to feel rather sorry for.)

I'm still not discussing the actual book, am I? I seem to be somewhat tangential today. I'm also considering whether or not I should wait until I finish the book before I jump to conclusions, but why change a life-long habit, after all?

As I always do, I started with the Introduction. Frequently the best material in the book is in the Introduction.

Kurtz's was no exception in that it was more than worth reading. He gives us a brief but thorough glimpse of how the presidency has been transformed by mass media.

The president's "message" - once distributed in a cozy, face-to-face style between respected professionals. was transformed, in Kurtz's eyes, by the increasing dishonesty and deliberate distancing of each succeeding Administration into an entertainment event that culminated with Clinton competing with "Dennis Rodman, Courtney Love, and David Letterman" for the voter's/audience's attention.

Even this early in the book, you get the sense of the Clinton Administration in battle with the press - the politicos struggling daily to get word of Clinton's policies or proposals into the news cycles (one of the last times Kurtz mentions the subject for a while) as the press focuses on digging for scandal and talking about the current -gate, be it 'travelgate,' 'filegate,' 'Whitewatergate,' or, above all, what was happening behind Clinton's zipper. (Zippergate?)

The first hundred pages more-or-less lays out the first four years. Bits of scandal bob up here and there but the White House stays afloat most of the time. Around page 100, Clinton takes the oath of office for the second time and then the fun and games really begin.

Anyhow. I don't have any insight or conclusions to this point, since I'm not done with the book. I only know that, sick as I was of the whole topic of Clinton's alleged misdeeds when I started, I at least understand what the press thought they were doing now. The inner workings of the process by which the media attempts to get information (the more outrageous the better because scandal headlines are better for their careers) and the Administration tries to mold the presentation of information (let's just call it 'spin', shall we?) make for fascinating reading.

At this point, I'm not even sure why I'm inflicting this one you, to be honest. I guess I was just hard up for something to talk about that wasn't war or the lies of the current Administration.

What I want to know is whatintheheck happened to this passionate, dedicated-to-getting-the-truth-out press corps, because I'm having a lot of trouble reconciling Kurtz's description of the press in his book with what I see on the television or read in the newspapers every day.

Why isn't anyone hounding Bush about his sins of commission and omission the way they hounded Clinton? Why did the press unanimously decide that Clinton was a Big Fat Liar and pounce on his every word while Bush, who lied about much bigger things throughout his campaign got a conspiratorial silence? Why isn't anyone beating down his door today as he lies about even more dangerous things? Why does Bush get a free ride?

As the economy tanks, where are the pundits who should be drawing parallels between Texas and the USofA and pointing out to the millions upon millions of voters that you, "get what you pay for." (Not, of course, that the voters paid for him, because corporations did that, but you know what I mean.)

That's what I'm mostly getting out of the book. Frustration that this possibly idealized group of journalists didn't last long enough to, if they didn't feel like preparing us in advance, at least get at the truth today.

Posted by AnneZook at 07:31 AM