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November 16, 2002
Spin This! (Press) (2)

Spin This! by Bill Press

Okay, I know I wrote about this book before, but I thought I'd post a different kind of review now that I've finished it.

In fact, I read some parts twice while I was thinking about what to say, because I wasn't quite as happy with the book when I finally finished it as I was when I last posted about it.

First, when you buy this book, I encourage you to buy the paperback edition. Not for any reasons of frugality or any desire to rook the author out of well-earned royalties, but because the June 2002, paperback release includes a new, 35-page introduction, covering the question of "spin" for 9/11 and most major events between that time and the time of publication. (The hardback edition was released in 2001, before the events of 9/11.)

The book was most interesting to me when it focused on what Press knows bestóthe spin of politics and the media. I was less interested in and less educated by the revelation of "spin" in advertising, dating, and the legal system, as well as in politics.

By the way, "spin" = advertising, essentially, so the portion of the book that covered "spin" in advertising was, at best, redundant.

In fact, one of the two primary flaws of the book was the author's casual acceptance of the use of blatantly untrue advertising techniques in our political and judicial systems. There are truth in advertising laws that keep product manufacturers from claiming that their merchandise possesses virtues it manifestly does not. Unfortunately no such regulations exist in politics and I find Press's blithe assumption that no one crosses an unwritten line between "making the best of things" into outright lying more than a touch naÔve.

In fact, some of the most egregious examples of "spin" that he shares with us as samples of the technique are little more than outright lies. Press says that as long as it isn't an outright lie, then "spin" isn't a bad thing at all, but he's quite wrong.

First, someone, probably the Catholic Church, moralizes on "sins of omission." The phrase popped into my mind instantly when I read this part of Press's book.

Sins of omission, Mr. Press, are bad things. In case you weren't certain.

Second, I think too many years immersed in D.C. double-speak has blurred his vision on the subject of what is a true statement and what isn't. He accepts as acceptable "spin" statements that have on the frailest, most tangential relationship with any true fact. The only difference between these "spins" and a lie is the word Press uses to describe them.

In his view, those are acceptable uses of "spin" but I simply can't agree. I don't care if it's a Democrat or a Republican, I violently disagree with the perception that the only thing that matters is putting the best possible face on the situation, regardless of the truth. It wasn't right for Clinton, it ain't right for Bush, it wasn't right for anyone who came before them, and it isn't going to be right for anyone who comes after.

It's okay for a Republican White House representative to say, "This year there will be a budget deficit, a shortfall. That shortfall is, in our view, insignificant since it is less than one percent of our country's gross national product. Our GNP is $____ and the shortfall is projected to be $____."

It is not okay for a Republican White House representative to claim "there will be no deficit, just a small shortfall" because that lies and says that "deficit" and "shortfall" aren't the same thing.

Press found the second example above, which really happened, of a Republican spinning a new deficit into a minor "shortfall" quite acceptable spin. I, clearly, do not.

In other "sins of omission" we can include the current administration dipping into Social Security on the sly to cover the deficit caused by the ambitious and unequal tax cut. Failing to inform the middle- and lower-class American public that the Social Security they're relying on is being jeopardized to hand millionaires millions of dollars in tax cuts is a passive-aggressive way of telling a lie.

So, I disagree with some of his basic assumptions about "spin" itself, but Press is making good points, so I read on.

(I also disagree with his assessment of what the CIA knew or should have known about the events of 9/11, but that's a whole different topic. Hindsight is always 20/20 and it's easy now to say there were three reports linking potential terrorists with potential airplane crashes into buildings on USofA soil, but what no one is saying is now many thousands of pieces of potential terrorist action by how many hundreds of terrorist groups those three bits of information were buried in over the course of the five years or more during which these three pieces of information were uncovered.)

Later, Press's perspective also seems to be, and he says as much, that if the politician "spins" madly, it isn't the news media's job to tell the public all the facts, or the true facts. No, it's up to the public to find out for themselves that something was left out, and what it was.

Words cannot express how appalled I am. First, by the implicit admission that politicians and the media are on one side of a line and the public is on the other and that it's the public's problem to find out if those who are paid to lead and inform us are, in fact, doing nothing of the sort.

I know the myth of a free press is just that, a myth, and that the press is owned by corporate interests so similar to those running the country today that any difference between them is more a matter of letterhead on stationary than goals and principles. And yet, even knowing that, reading a journalist/pundit announcing that it's my problem to find out what's really going on in Washington because it isn't his job to tell me, shocks me.

Second, I'm appalled because on the page after Press makes this astounding comment, that it isn't the business of the news media to report the actual news to the public, on the very next page he begins a chapter bragging about how news reporters "make the news" by virtue of what they choose to cover and how they cover it. They can turn a winner into a loser and vice-versa, and

Press not only seems oblivious of the contradiction in his own words, he seems highly amused by the power and inclination of the media to shape the future in this fashion.

However little excuse politicians have for "spinning" the voters, the media, which presumably exists to inform the public, can have even less honest excuse for doing the same thing.

To be fair, he does address this, in all of one paragraph in his 250+page book.

"So how do politicians get away with it? Surely, reporters see through the spin. Why don't they expose it? They know the facts. Why don't they print the truth behind the spin? Well, once in a while, they do. Every so often, you read a good article that compares what a politician ways with what he does or with the way things really are. But that's rare. Usually we're just fed the blather they spin, without commentary or correction. In a way, reporters and politicians feed each other. In a more perverse, co-dependent way, reporters can even before the enablers of the politician's spin."

That's about it for why you don't hear the truth on the nightly news or read it in your daily paper. After that is when he gets into explaining that it's not the reporter's responsibility to report the truth if the truth is different from what the politician says.

Ahem. I'm getting all heated and I promised myself I wouldn't do that. Let's move on.

Back to "spin."

Words have power, as any decent journalist or pundit should know, that creating a catchphrase to disguise or even change the real facts behind your words is worth the Orwellian "Newspeak" reference Press briefly evokes.

I'd have been happier if he had seemed to realize exactly how apt a comparison this really was and had gone on to explore the damage that "spin" does to our society, and the major contribution it has made to the current climate of political apathy where barely fifty percent of the voting-eligible public can bestir themselves to mark a ballot once a year, but clearly that was outside the scope of his efforts.

Let's just say that anyone who hasn't realized by now that presenting a Presidential campaign candidate in the same way you'd try to convince the public to try a new brand of frozen dinner is not the best way to engage and involve the public.

Of course, that could be what they want. Republicans, at least, have little interest in the input or opinions of the "average voter" except on voting day where they're expected to go out and do their thing for the GOP. I can imagine few things Bush, Cheney, et. al., would like less than an honestly and fully informed voting public.

Come to that, a lot of Democrats would be shaking in their shoes at the same prospect.

It's a chicken-and-egg question, isn't it? Did we become a herd of cattle to be whipped onto one trail or another because party leaders decided they were better off without us most of the year, or did they give up caring about keeping the public honestly informed after voter apathy set in?

I'll spare you a digression on the candidacy of Ronald Reagan and how it was that, and not JFK's performance on television that made the most fundamental change in American politics and how we elect our representatives and presidents. Read Press's book. It's in there and it's fascinating to read.

Sufficient to say that he convinced me the those in charge of our nation's political parties realized we could be herded like lemmings and that political apathy has increased each year since they started following through on that idea.

When Press confines himself to revealing the various faces that "spin" can put on a situation, the book is more than worth reading. If it does nothing else, it will teach the reader to be even more deeply skeptical of every political utterance and the media coverage that accompanies it.

Is that a good thing? No, in the short term it isn't, but in the long term, increasing disgust with double-speak, double-dealing, and double standards may push the great American public into standing up and demanding that, conservative or liberal, the politicians confine themselves to revealing the facts. And similarly demanding that the media either reveal its political bias up front and honestly or confine itself to reporting without commentary.

In any case, I highly recommend this book, in spite of what I see as its failings, and if you find that it makes you mad, well, good. Heck, for all I know, it was supposed to. I promise that if you pay attention to what you read, it will make you think, anyhow.

A final point I'd like to make that Press either thought was implicit or didn't bother to expound upon is that the degree of "spin" gets worse with each succeeding administration. The more the last guy got away with, the more the next guy is going to try to get away with.

After two years in office, the "spin" the Bush administration is handing out on a daily basis is already starting to dwarf Clinton's efforts after eight years in office. This is something to be very, very afraid of.

Just imagine what the next guy is going to do.

Posted by AnneZook at 11:22 PM