Media

Spin Cycle

The authors of 'All the President's Spin' discuss the current arms race of political spin, the Bush politics of dishonesty, and the future of American democracy.
In a market filled with books documenting President Bush's shaky relationship with the truth, there is a new entry: All the President's Spin. Penned by the three young founder-editors of Spinsanity.com, the book meticulously documents just how Bush has been able to deceive the nation – on Iraq, his tax cuts, or stem cell research – and, more importantly, get away with it.

Although Democrats themselves, Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan take a non-partisan approach to a man they describe as the "highest profile carrier of a virus infecting our political system." It is a book that takes issue not with the president's policies but the damage he has wreaked on a democracy through his "politics of dishonesty." The authors also argue that the responsibility for the precarious state of our political system, however, is equally shared by the media which prefers to abide by an arid definition of objectivity than serve the public interest.

AlterNet spoke on the phone with the authors who are variously based in Los Angeles, New York City, and Durham, North Carolina.

Why did you decide write this book, given that there are so many other book bashing Bush out there already?

Brendan Nyhan: We felt like the books out there on Bush don't really do justice to what has gone on over the last four years. Bush is the leader in the arms race of political spin. But no one was adequately explaining how he was getting away with it or focusing on how the media has let him get away with it.

Did you feel that the other books were not tough enough on him or is it that they were too shrill in accusing him of lying?

Bryan Keefer: There are a lot of Bush-bashing books out there – for example, David Corn's book is called The Lies of George W. Bush. But the administration is in fact very good at not lying, saying things that have a kernel of truth but when taken as a whole are very misleading. We've got dozens of examples of this type of thing in the book. For example, they'll take a quote out of context.

So they don't lie. It's a very careful strategy because if they say something that is really untrue then the media will get you. If you say something really misleading but there is a grain of truth there then the media won't go after you.

So do you agree with the decision of many in the media to avoid using the word "lie" when it comes to Bush?

Keefer: We do document three things that are lies in the book that are demonstrably untrue.

The problem is that the media doesn't adequately explain what is going on. They won't come out and say, Bush made this misleading claim.

There is a piece in the Washington Post today on Rudy Giuliani's speech attacking John Kerry. The way the article is framed is that he took certain things out of context. But these (statements) were vicious misrepresentations of Kerry's positions. The problem is that the media frames these kinds of things in a very tepid, he said/she said kind of way. They don't explain it adequately because they are constrained by the need to appear balanced. And the way they've interpreted objectivity, to me, is rolling over.

It seems then that the problem is not so much lies as an impoverished notion of truth. Today, the media has decided, as Clinton did, it is really about what your definition of is is – they've bought into this hair-splitting notion of what is true.

Ben Fritz: The media is afraid to impose its interpretation. As a result, they're letting everyone else define what is true. And different sides have different interests in defining what is is, to use that metaphor. What it means for a tax-cut to benefit the middle class, what it means to have a unilateral invasion, or have 60 stem cell lines available for research.

In refusing to impose itself, the media is making a choice too. It's why the politicians get away with so much. As we say in the book, it would be better if the media took a stance, even if it wasn't a truly objective stance. It would give us a better way of dealing with politicians who are defining the truth as they see fit.

Hasn't it been the great American tradition of journalism to discover the truth? So how did we get to this point where we have journalists that are reluctant to put forward what the facts are?

Nyhan: They do try and say what the facts are in a general sense, but in this he said/she said kind of way. But they won't go beyond that in making the kind of judgments that Ben was just talking about. And that has a long history in American journalism.

The way the American press has interpreted objectivity since the early twentieth century has pushed the press into the role of essentially being a stenographer.

So what you're saying is that this was always a weakness in the American media system. And what has changed is that the politicians – since Reagan and then Clinton and now Bush - have become better at exploiting it.

Nyhan: That's exactly right. They've realized what they can get away with without triggering the Watergate-type coverage that Nixon received.

The press needs to adjust. The argument we're making is that the press needs to recognize that they're being out-gunned here and think about objectivity in a different way. They need to think about how they're asking of readers here, to adjudicate between these he said/she said claims on all these disputes. It's almost impossible for the average person to figure out who is right.

In writing about the 2004 elections campaign, you point out that John Kerry also uses some of these same kind of tactics of manipulation. If so, why doesn't it work as well for the Democrats?

Keefer: It does work when they do it. The unemployment numbers are probably the best case in point. They take the private sector number and claim it is the net job loss number. And the media is just as reluctant to call him on it.

Look, the argument we make is that Bush has been doing this for four years. He's really taken advantage of the weaknesses of the media well beyond anything Reagan or Clinton knew how to do. So just by dint of experience and better strategy, he's just more practiced at it.

Fritz: The Republicans also have a better infrastructure for this kind of stuff. There are more conservative partisan media outlets, more media-savvy think tanks, etc.

But if you look at organizations like the Center for American Progress and the liberal media becoming more aggressive, I think liberals realize that in the interest of winning the short-term spin war, they need to build up their infrastructure. Now that may be good for liberals in the short run, it may not be good for democracy in the long run.

You write: "Given recent trends in American politics, Bush's misleading tactics could very well become the norm." One of the solutions you argue for is a new kind of objectivity, but given that newsrooms are being pressured by shorter news cycles and are increasingly profit-driven, how realistic is that?

Keefer: Major news organizations can do whatever they put their mind to. The New York Times has plenty of reporters. If they dedicated two researchers to the campaign full-time that their reporters could call back to and say, "Fact-check this," that would be it. That's all they would really need to do to keep up with this stuff. As media consolidation puts pressure on people, it's tough. But if they want to do it, they can do it.

Nyhan: In terms of what can drive it, members of public need to push them to do it. In the spin-driven 24 hour news cycle that we have now, it's actually a way for quality media outlets to distinguish themselves. You can get the news instantly from a wide variety of sources. That's not much of a value-add for most media outlets.

People are overwhelmed by that information; there's too much of it. There's a real hunger out there for news outlets that give them context, give them facts. There's either he said/she said reporting or, on the other hand, shrill talking heads screaming at each other, there's a valuable middle ground that's being lost. News outlets will find an audience for that kind of work.

Do you feel a little bit of that is going on? That the news media feel that their credibility is being challenged or threatened?

Fritz: They have to be aware of that for a number of reasons. They are struggling for credibility. They're struggling for an audience. Journalists, more and more, feel angry and frustrated at the way they're being spun. They know what's going on. They're not idiots. News organizations and individuals in them who want to have more credibility than insurance salesmen among the public want to find ways to do this.

Complaining about this kind of deception can sometimes sound a bit like complaining about reality TV. We all hate reality TV, but guess which show has the highest ratings. Don't you think that the responsibility in the end rests with the American public? They have to decide to punish media outlets or politicians for using these tactics?

Keefer: In part, a lot of the responsibility is on the media's shoulders. It is the mediating institution. There are not a lot of ways that Americans interact with the political system or have access to information from sources that fall outside the media.

That said, we talk about it a little bit – blogs, in particular. There is a thriving culture of press criticism on the web that is beginning to have an impact. Media organizations will listen to that and open themselves up. In the wake of the Iraq war and the way they covered it, they understand that they did it very poorly. So in some ways, writing a blog is a new way of democratic participation.

So who is the audience for this book – the average American, journalists?

Nyhan: I think the audience is all of the above. It's been an interesting experience, both as Spinsanity has grown and with the book. We hear from such a wide swath of people. We had a 17-year-old Republican in Georgia who really liked our book. From him to professional journalists. There isn't really as much out there that breaks down the techniques and lets you see how you are being spun.

Do you think the younger generation is more skeptical? With someone who grew up on MTV, you know you are always being sold to all the time.

Nyhan: That's true. We're all in our twenties and we know that. But for people who still have some faith that politics matters a little bit more than Nikes or Pepsi, it's frustrating. Because we can see that the political ads or the way politicians talk is just slightly less professional than what we see in television commercials. So I think young people are the perfect audience. We really understand this stuff because it's been around for our whole lives. We know the system sucks. Understanding how it works, seeing the reasons and knowing that it doesn't have to be this way – that is a positive message for people who've grown up in this culture.
Lakshmi Chaudhry is senior editor of Alternet.
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