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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 | Comments (0)
November 15, 2002
Spin

When the Republicans say they stand for smaller government, what they mean is they favor putting government jobs out for bid so that some government departments are actually controlled by private industry and consequently not subject to the kind of scrutiny and oversight that civil service jobs are.

I wouldn't care quite as much if I thought it was really about "lawn mowing and making eyeglasses" but we all know it won't end there. If "paycheck printing" for its employees isn't considered "government business," then what other government functions might they decide would be better off outsourced?

Most IRS work is just accounting, after all. Maybe Washington will outsource tax collection to Arthur Andersen. I'm sure there are remnants of the former accounting giant still around, ready to be picked up and used by someone for a new scam...I mean contract.

"This administration is selling the federal government at bargain basement prices to their corporate friends, who then make campaign contributions back," Mr. Harnage said. "This is not about saving money, it's about moving money to the private sector."

Another point is that I can already hear the Bushleaguer spinning this as 850,000 new jobs! for the American people! all the while trying to pretend that he's not throwing the 850,000 people currently doing those jobs onto the unemployment line.

Read my previous entry about the power struggle for policy control in Washington.

Think about Congress getting ready to give the White House the power to hire, fire, and relocate people within the huge, new Homeland Security Department, which won't fall under Civil Service rules.

If the Bushleaguer cans 850,000 union employees (devotees of Big Business aren't usually Labor fans, so he doesnít mind doing that) and creates a new department of 120,000 employees that aren't union, and that he has an unprecedented amount of power over, what does that do to the balance of power in Washington?

Are you listening? Are you paying attention? Are you at all able to see where this will inevitably lead?

Posted by AnneZook at 10:52 AM | Comments (0)
November 13, 2002
Taking Over

Today's "must read" is Cass Sunstein's Op/Ed piece in the New York Times about judiciary activism.

As Sunstein makes clear, this is something to fear whether you're Democrat, middle-of-the-road, or Republican.

Swaziland

Nothing new about Zena, but the monarchy in the country continues to be revealed as a system on the edge of revolution.

Enforced Education: It's All A Plot. Or, not.

A plot to do what? I don't know yet. I've just started reading John Taylor Gatto's on-line novel The Underground History of American Education.

So far I'm not sure whether to take it seriously (why don't we have a system whereby parents have easy access to the backgrounds of the teachers entrusted with their children?) or to laugh my way though it ("a government agent called a teacher").

One thing I always try and do when I'm reading something public-policy related is to see how quickly I can identify the political leanings of the author.

Sentences like, "I want to open up concealed aspects of modern schooling such as the deterioration it forces in the morality of parenting have an odd air of combining right-wing zing and survivalist propaganda. First thought: Far, far, far right-wing and probably living in an thinly populated area of Tennessee. Or Washington State. With a lot of guns and a two-year food supply.

Then I ran across: "One thing you do know is how unlikely it will be for any teacher to understand the personality of your particular child or anything significant about your family, culture, religion, plans, hopes, dreams. In the confusion of school affairs even teachers so disposed donít have opportunity to know those things. How did this happen?"

That sounds like a more left-wing, inclusive kind of educational dream, overly-idealized. Peace, love, and understanding and take a toke while we're waiting for the bus.

Maybe this guy is just confused?

Also, I'm sorry, but at what point did a commitment to teach every child reading, writing, and 'rithmetic become a commitment to nurture your family's religion?

(I'll tell you what I think. If he spent 30 years teaching disrespect for home and parents, I'm glad he's no longer teaching.)

At this point I'm still in the prologue and I already disagree with what seems to be the underlying assumptions of the book, that schooling is interfering with parenting and that public schooling does children a disservice.

The bottom line remains what it has always been. If you want your children to learn your values, you have to teach them those values. And that teaching is going to require time, effort, patience, and love. And you might throw in setting a good example, while you're at it. It's not up to little Johnnie's third-grade math teacher to teach him the meaning of Judaism, Christianity, Paganism, or whatever your religion is. It isn't the the responsibility of Susie's English teacher to try and lead Susie to fulfill your family's "dream", no matter what it is.

Teachers are there to teach their subjects. Your child's morality, your religion, and your personal family dreams are your business.

The next thing I ran across was the cost-factor, figured in a way to make the Enron accounting department proud with, "The cost in New York State for building a well-schooled child in the year 2000 is $200,000 per body when lost interest is calculated."

What interest? Lost where? At what percentage? Using what figure as the principle? Amortized? Monthly, quarterly, or annually? Or daily? Interest derived from what? The stock market? Are fluctuations figured in or did you use a constant?

By now I'm totally confused, which the next bit, an endless, run-on litany of the author's woes and wins as a teacher, does nothing to clarify.

I dunno if I'm going to read this book or not. I do agree that people don't learn at the same speed, or in the same way. But I don't automatically derive from those facts the conclusion that public schools do more damage than good.

And I'm not sure at all I want to read the rest of the book after reading this passage:

"Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents. The whole blueprint of school procedure is Egyptian, not Greek or Roman. It grows from the theological idea that human value is a scarce thing, represented symbolically by the narrow peak of a pyramid."

It has nothing to do with Egyptian, Greek, or Roman "procedure" and doesn't have its basis in theology and where does he get these ideas, anyhow?

(Maybe from the Republicans. They certainly believe that a very few people have a lot of value and the rest of the world should just shut up and empty the garbage.)

His next paragraph goes on to say:

"That idea passed into American history through the Puritans. It found its "scientific" presentation in the bell curve, along which talent supposedly apportions itself by some Iron Law of Biology. Itís a religious notion, School is its church."

Yeah, because the Puritans were all about Egyptology.

And how he gets from the "Iron Law of Biology" to whatever it is he's discussing being a religious notion, I do not know.

"I offer rituals to keep heresy at bay. I provide documentation to justify the heavenly pyramid."

Okay, I may be getting a glimpse of what he's getting at here. He feels the whole schooling process is too automated, too restrictive, and/or too rigid.

"In 30 years of teaching kids rich and poor I almost never met a learning disabled child; hardly ever met a gifted and talented one either. Like all school categories, these are sacred myths, created by human imagination. They derive from questionable values we never examine because they preserve the temple of schooling."

Okay, buddy, if you have, as you say, met gifted and/or disabled children, then clearly you do know they aren't a myth, so why are you saying they are?

As a "gifted" child who shared a school with "learning disabled" children, I can assure you, if your own experience wasn't sufficiently convincing, that we do exist.

The bell curve is not a figment of someone's overheated imagination. Perhaps it's your imagination which is at fault, that after 30 years in the classroom, you couldn't tell which child needed extra help and which child needed extra challenges?

I also fail to see what's "questionable" about trying to identify different learning abilities and adapt to them.

Isn't what you're demanding? Because it seems to be what you want, but at the same time you're dissing the public school system for trying to find a way to do it. (The only other conclusion I'm able to draw from your premise at the moment is that you don't think people should have to learn if they don't want to, but I'm thinking that it's the imprecision in your writing that's leading me to that conclusion.)

Shortly thereafter he comes out in favor of "free choice" for schools and announces that tests designed to figure out if Johnnie Can Read are a waste of time, as are tests that try to measure if students in Oregon are getting as good an education as students in Baltimore.

Sheesh. At this point, he spends a chunk of time patting himself on the back for how popular he was after he publicly quit his job and gives us a list of the impressive organizations just dying to hear what he had to say.

On the other hand, I might keep reading if he goes on to develop this theme:

"As I traveled, I discovered a universal hunger, often unvoiced, to be free of managed debate. A desire to be given untainted information. Nobody seemed to have maps of where this thing had come from or why it acted as it did, but the ability to smell a rat was alive and well all over America."

The rhetoric is muddy and contradictory but there may be something of interest further on. I'll keep reading and probably keep you posted, whether you like it or not.

Posted by AnneZook at 12:01 PM
November 11, 2002
Campaign Promise Countdown Lemme see,

Lemme see, what did the GOP promise us besides a couple more years of laughing at Bushisms?

1. Blow Up Iraq
2. "Reform" Social Security
3. Make Temporary $1.35 Trillion Tax Cut permanent!
4. MORE Tax cuts! Permanent Repeal of Estate Tax!
5. MORE Tax cuts! Down With Capital Gains!
6. MORE Tax cuts! Tax Relief for businesses!
7. MORE Tax cuts! Increase Tax Breaks for Investors!
8. SPEND! Increase Defense Spending!
9. Do something about that deficit. Maybe issue a memo prohibiting paper memos. Cut Federal spending anyhow.

Now that the election is safely behind them, I see that the Republicans are saying, quite apologetically, that they don't think they can do anything about that Social Security issue until after the 2004 elections.

Anyhow. Out of what I see as the nine paybacks the Republicans promised to deliver if elected, one of them has gone down for the count six days after the election.

Oh, wait. Looks like a couple more things might be in jeopardy as well.

Like making that big tax cut permanent. The effort is now being described as a "largely political push" which sounds to me like they'll hope to lose in a way they can blame on the Dems.

And, we're told, "it is all but certain they will not pursue a capital gains tax cut.

Okay, three out of nine. That's 1/3, you know. One third of their campaign issues trashed less than a week after the election.

What's left is "a stimulus package tied to economic recovery that could include an immediate increase of the child tax credit, a rise in contribution limits for retirement savings accounts and an expansion of tax breaks for business investment."

I dunno what a "stimulus program tied to economic recovery" is supposed to mean.

An increase in the child tax credit is good for poor people although "could include" means all of these are speculative.

Upping the limit on your 401k is good for rich folks who have a lot of money to shelter...I mean save.

Tax breaks for business investment are the same way. You know a lot of middle-income or lower people who are concerned about how big of a tax break they can get by dumping ten or fifteen million into a business investment?

Me, neither.

Presumably the child tax credit thing is the carrot to lure the donkeys to bite on the entire package.

(There was no way to resist, sorry.)

In other thoughts....

Honestly, I do wonder how they think they're going to pay for their war, okay? The bills for Afghanistan are still coming in and they've already squandered their safety net. Even backing down on their campaign promises isn't going to turn the deficit into a surplus.

Wars are expensive.

There's the staff, and getting good people is almost impossible any more, and then there's a dozen different kinds of guns they all insist on having and ammunition is just a scary price these days and even if you win, which you can't count on, there's all of those redecorating costs afterwards, not to mention pensioning off an entire nation whose economy, such as it was, you've trashed.

I wonder if anyone has thought of just giving the guy a Laser Tag franchise for Christmas? Maybe he could work off his aggressions or his manhood issues or whatever that way?

Posted by AnneZook at 04:21 PM | Comments (0)