We’re all familiar with the warning, “Don’t believe everything you see or hear.” Bill Press, the popular co-host of MSNBC’s “Buchanan and Press,” will have you wondering whether you should believe anything at all.Spin — intentional manipulation of the truth — is everywhere. It’s in the White House, in the courtrooms, in headlines and advertising slogans. Even couples on dates — not to mention book jackets — are guilty of spin. Now, analyst Bill Press freeze-frames the culture of spin to investigate what exactly spin is, who does it and why, and its impact on American society as a whole.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on. “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.” “Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as “I eat what I see’!” “You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!” “You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, which seemed to be talking in its sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!” “It is the same thing with you,” said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped. — Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter VII: A Mad Tea Party
INTRODUCTION: SPINNING THIS BOOK
This book was born in shock: the shock of sitting down as co-host of Crossfire for the very first time, in February 1996. I asked a straightforward question, expecting a straightforward answer. What I got instead was spin.
Our guest was conservative Republican Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma. But it could have been liberal Democratic Senator Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts. No matter. The result’s the same. We ask. They spin.
There is no good definition of spin. It’s easier to say what it’s not than what it is: It’s not the truth. Neither is it a lie. Spin lies somewhere in between: almost telling the truth, but not quite; bending the truth to make things look as good — or as bad — as possible; painting things in the best possible — or worst possible — light.
Spin is nothing new. As we shall see, it has been around since Adam and Eve. But we are more aware of it today. It is used more outrageously today. And we’ve finally given it a name.
Spin is everywhere. It is part of our daily vocabulary. It colors and shapes every arena of human endeavor. Grownups do it; kids do it. We live in a world of spin.
Of course, politics is one of spin’s most fertile breeding grounds. Many political campaigns establish official “spin rooms.” Consultants are hired to put the “best spin” on a candidate’s résumé. The candidate himself learns to spin, rather than answer a question directly. Party leaders are recruited to parachute into campaigns and serve as “master spinners.” Today’s variation of an old cynicism reads: How can you tell when a politician is spinning? When his lips are moving!
Spin is not limited to political campaigns. It not only helps people to get elected, it helps them to stay in office and build public support for their programs. Whether in the city council, or in the U.S. Congress, spin is a big part of getting bills passed. When Tom Daschle took over as Senate majority leader in June 2001, he created a special “intensive care unit” for members of the media with questions on the pending patients’ bill of rights. Reported the Washington Post: “No media ICU would be complete without spin doctors, who will offer reporters quick rebuttals to attacks by the health care industry and its allies in Congress.”
But the political realm has no monopoly on spin. In fact, politicians may not even be the worst offenders:
Defense lawyers are paid to put the best possible spin on their client’s criminal behavior: “Yes, Your Honor, she did stab her husband 30 times with a butcher knife while he was watching the evening news, but she’s a good mother to her 6 children and she volunteers for the Red Cross every Saturday.”
Salesmen spin the supposed magic of their products: “This new vacuum cleaner actually makes housework fun!”
TV networks spin their nightly newscast: “Ten reasons why all children hate their parents. Tape at 11.”
Over cocktails, men and women spin their sex appeal: “No, actually, there’s no one in my life right now.” Meaning, of course, no one I want to tell you about.
And that’s just for starters. Look around you. Spin is in the air. There is a magazine called Spin. A Tom Lowe novel about politics called Spin. A TV show called Spin City. The Nation magazine advertises itself as “Spin Control.” There was a rock band called “Spin Doctors.” Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post, wrote a book about the White House called Spin Cycle. In June 2001, the mighty Smithsonian Institution sponsored a workshop on “Who Spins the News?”. And, during the 2000 election, conservative columnist Tucker Carlson and I hosted a popular nightly primetime show on CNN called The Spin Room.
Tucker and I compare spin to obscenity, and borrowing a phrase from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we may not be able to define it, but we know it when we see it. According to Tucker, spin is when you hear a politician say something so patently untrue that you want to throw a beer bottle at the TV set. As a former student of theology, I take a loftier road: spin is when somebody says something so outrageous that you expect God to send a bolt of lightning to strike the spinner dead on the spot.
Unfortunately, spin is not always so obvious. Sometimes, it’s much more insidious. When George W. Bush said that politics had nothing to do with his decision on stem-cell research, some people didn’t see the spin. Some people actually believed him.
GEORGE ORWELL AND SPIN
Spin has its roots in what was first described as “Newspeak” by George Orwell in his novel 1984. (Orwell may have gotten the date wrong, but he was right about everything else.) In the totalitarian state he described, the ruling party controlled thought by controlling the language. The key was “doublethink,” as expressed in “doublespeak” — by which one says the exact opposite of what one means, yet ends up believing it to be true: “War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery,” and “Ignorance Is Strength.”
Another disturbing parallel between Washingtonspeak and Newspeak is the shrinking vocabulary. In Orwell’s 1984, certain words are dropped from the language each year until, in the end, Oldspeak disappears entirely and only Newspeak is left. If you can’t express a thought in Newspeak, that thought cannot be expressed at all. The leaders of our nation do not operate with the same level of efficiency, but they do play the same game with words: they drop certain words or phrases and replace them with others, in order to control or change what we think about a proposal by giving it a new name.
Thus, “late-term” abortion becomes “partial-birth” abortion and “fast track” authority becomes “trade promotion” authority. Ronald Reagan’s original proposal to build a Strategic Defense Initiative has undergone many name changes over the years — from SDI, or Strategic Defense Initiative, to “Brilliant Pebbles” to “National Missile Defense” to simply “missile defense” today, although the best name was and remains “Star Wars.”
In Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” he compares those who so deftly manipulate language to “a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” It’s all part of politics, he argues. From those who inhabit the corrupt world of politics, says Orwell, we can expect to encounter equally corrupt speech. After all, he continues: “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
“Giving solidity to pure wind”: how closely that resembles the contemporary news conference. Over the years, I have listened to politicians of all stripes and ideologies attempting to give “solidity to pure wind.”
I confess: I had done a little spinning of my own before joining CNN. For almost fifteen years, with one year out to run for political office, I worked on radio and TV in Los Angeles, the second-biggest market in the country. My specialty was nightly political commentary as part of the evening news — first on KABC-TV, later on KCOP-TV. In only two and a half minutes, I’d not only tell you everything you needed to know about an issue, I’d tell you what you should think about it. On the late news, at 11 P.M., I’d do the same thing in only thirty seconds. The formula was: “Here are the facts. Here is my spin. Thank you for listening.”
Soon after starting in TV, I branched out into talk radio, first, as guest host for the vacationing Michael Jackson (the talk show host, not the Gloved One) on KABC Radio. Next, I was presenting political commentary during morning drive. Then, I was debating the issues every afternoon with conservative sidekick Bill Pearl, where we were immediately dubbed “The Dueling Bills.” Eager to have my own show, I moved to KFI Radio and launched Bill Press, True American on weekend afternoons. When Republican spokesman Tony Blankley first heard of my radio moniker, “True American,” he sniffed, “Talk about spin!”
More so than television news, talk radio is spin heaven. The talk show host begins with an opening spin on the topic of the hour. Then listeners call to spin the talk show host. It’s great fun, and it’s the most democratic forum that exists for the debate and discussion of ideas. Talk radio is the home of equal opportunity spinning.
I’ve always been comfortable in politics: While working in TV and radio, I also held down the volunteer job of Chairman of the California Democratic Party and took time out in 1990 to run unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for California State Insurance Commissioner. I started out volunteering for Gene McCarthy in 1968 and ran a campaign in San Francisco for Supervisor Roger Boas. I worked for nine years in Sacramento as Chief of Staff for State Senator Peter Behr; as Executive Director of the Planning and Conservation League, an environmental lobby; and as Director of the California Office of Planning and Research for Governor Jerry Brown. By the time I began broadcasting, I knew almost every elected official in the state, Republican and Democrat, starting with Pat Brown, Jesse Unruh and Ronald Reagan, and I had worked with many of them on various issues.
But my first introduction to spin — real spin, as practiced by a master — was with California Governor Jerry Brown. Whenever the governor gave a news conference, his team of advisers would immediately gather in Press Secretary Bill Stall’s office, anxiously awaiting the first story about his remarks to come over the Associated Press wire. If the coverage did not match their expectations, either Stall or Chief of Staff Gray Davis (now governor himself) or top adviser Tom Quinn — or sometimes even the governor — would get the reporter on the phone, harangue him and demand a different lead to the story. Most of the time, the poor reporter, perhaps stunned by the immediate and urgent attention, usually agreed to provide it.
First, the governor spun the news in his statement. Then, if he didn’t get the spin he wanted, he was able to spin it again — all before the wire story was picked up by the papers or radio or TV. This was virtual spin control. In state capitols, it still happens every day.
So, before joining Crossfire, I’d been around the block — the relatively small block that California is. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the total verbal disconnect in the nation’s capital. In many ways, Washington really did resemble Alice’s Mad Tea Party. With every Crossfire guest, I understood the words they spoke well enough, but they didn’t exactly say what they meant, or mean what they said.
After one year in Washington, I was afraid I might end up believing things like “People are homeless by choice,” “Guns don’t kill,” “Conservatives are compassionate” and “Arsenic is good for drinking water.”
I soon came to realize that the twists and turns of language I was hearing in Washington were not as evil as Orwell’s Newspeak (not yet, anyway). What I was hearing was much more banal. Somewhere between lies and the truth, these were not the words of tyrants seeking to control; they were the utterings of politicians seeking to confuse. But they were also the words of politicians who were confused themselves, because they were leading double lives. And not just the politicians, unfortunately; most of the people around them were leading double lives as well. Welcome to Washington.
WASHINGTON AS SPIN
The late Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, discovered that people inside the Beltway had developed a language of their own, speaking on two levels at once: “The two-track conversation is as close as the capitol comes to having its own language,” she notes in her memoir Washington. In every conversation, in other words, almost in every statement, there is the literal meaning and the implied meaning. In a world of spin, we hear the literal meaning, but respond to the implied.
Greenfield also discovered that people didn’t just talk in two tracks, they also lived in those same two tracks. They pretended to be someone who, in fact, they were not, and they pretended so successfully that they soon forgot which persona was the real one and which was the phony. “It is as if everyone who came to the place were put into the witness protection program,” Greenfield explained, “furnished with a complete new public identity, and left with much untended anxiety about the vestiges of the old one. We are, most of us, much of the time, in disguise. We present ourselves as we think we are meant to be.”
So Washington veterans, both in and around the Congress and the White House, all have their public persona and their private persona. After a while, they’re not sure which is which.
In such an environment, spin is essential to enabling one to mask the truth — both in speech and in life. Spin is the only way to survive, or to advance one’s personal or political agenda.
As novices, our first reaction is to flee. Our second is to scream out loud, “Cut the bullshit!” Our third, which most fall into, is simply to accept it and begin cultivating our own double personality. That’s the way it is, it’s not going to change, and you might as well adapt accordingly.
Like Meg Greenfield and countless others, I learned to survive in Washington by learning to recognize spin, deal with it, laugh at it, see through it — and even do a little spinning myself. Why not? When in Rome, spin as the Romans spin.
But while Washington may be the capital of spin, it’s not alone. Wherever we live today, we live in a world of mutual dependency between spinners and spun. Spinners feel they must spin in order to gain any respect or attention. Spinnees, in turn, expect a certain amount of freedom with the truth from others. We are constantly spinning each other in circles. And we are spinning our discourse downward.
Today, spin is no longer a secret. It’s openly talked about — and bragged about. If, earlier, politicians or consultants were occasionally derided as mere “spinners,” they now proudly label themselves “spin doctors” or “spinmeisters.” If gatherings of supporters were once mocked as “spin alley,” campaigns now openly organize “spin rooms,” where spokespeople come to spin and reporters come to be spun.
Every celebrity today has his or her own spokesperson, or spinperson. And not just celebrities, almost anybody who lands in the news gets one.
O.J. still has a spin doctor.
Congressman Gary Condit hired one along with a criminal attorney. So did Chandra Levy’s parents.
When a little boy in Florida lost his arm to a shark, his uncle first yanked his severed arm out of the shark’s jaws — and then hired a spin doctor.
Even spin doctors need spin doctors. When New York’s celebrity flack Lizzie Grubman got into hot water for backing her SUV into the crowd outside a Hamptons night club, she hired two of them.
Life is tough. By the time you pay for your personal trainer and your personal spin doctor, there’s no money left for groceries.
THE SPIN ROOM
By the 2000 election, spin had become such an important component of political campaigns that CNN decided to launch a new show about spin called the Spin Room. Conservative columnist Tucker Carlson and I got the lucky assignment. We parsed the spin every night throughout the election, the long recount and into the first months of the new administration, when Tucker moved over to join me and Bob Novak on Crossfire.
Tucker’s great fun to work with (and I’m not just spinning!). Neither one of us takes ourselves, or our political parties, too seriously. Unlike any other political show on television, Spin Room was a casual, meandering conversation: a chance to kick back at the end of the day, chew over the latest news, poke holes into the most outrageous spins of the day, read e-mails and chat room comments from viewers and, most important, enjoy a few laughs.
But what started out as a show about political spin became a show about universal spin. Once Tucker and I started talking about political spin — and the more examples of spin we heard from viewers — we realized that spin was not limited to politics. Spin was everywhere. In every profession and every human experience, we are bombarded with spin: from doctors, lawyers, car salesmen, advertisers, businessmen, professors, journalists, preachers, boyfriends, girlfriends, even husbands and wives. Parents spin their kids, and kids spin their parents. Spin makes the world go round.
Before anybody spins us, before we spin anybody else, it all starts closer to home: we spin ourselves. What is self-esteem but spinning oneself in a positive manner? Who wants to go around all day feeling down in the dumps? Do yourself a favor. Take a cue from Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, some people like me.” Start your day by telling yourself how smart, good-looking, clever, witty and sexy you are.
GOOD SPIN/BAD SPIN
The obvious question: Is spin bad?
That’s what most people think. Spin has a bad reputation, which is unfortunate, because not all spin is bad. For the most part, it’s benign. And sometimes, it can actually be a good thing. (The best answer, in the end, is what the old man said when asked whether he wore boxers or briefs: “Depends...”)
Spin can be bad. Spin can be evil. It can be used deliberately to deceive, to cover up, to distort the facts and to justify the most foul acts a person or government can commit. In those cases, spin is more accurately called a “lie.” However, as Lanny Davis — former spinner for Bill Clinton and one of the world’s best — observes in his book Truth to Tell, that kind of spin often backfires, because the truth comes out and the liar is caught with egg on his face. In which case, Davis concludes: “Bad spinning is not only dishonest, it is ineffective.”
Unfortunately, lies don’t always backfire. Sometimes people get away with lies. Always have, and always will.
But most spin is garden-variety harmless. It is nowhere near a lie. It is simply toying with the truth:
When a movie critic gushes: “You’ll be rolling in the aisles. The worst that could happen is missing this film.” That’s spin.
When your son comes home from fishing, stretches out his hands and says: “Mom, you should have seen the one that got away!” That’s spin.
When the golf pro tells you: “All you have to do is buy this new titanium club. It’ll take ten strokes off your game.” That’s spin.
When we dignify the job of trash collector by calling him “a sanitation engineer.” That’s spin.
When Reno, Nevada, promotes itself as “The Biggest Little City in the World.” That’s spin.
When the minister tells a grieving widow: “God loved your husband so much, He wanted him right up there alongside Him.” That’s spin.
When a national politician gets off the plane from an early foray into Iowa and New Hampshire and swears to reporters: “I haven’t even thought about running for president. For the next two years, all I want is to do the best possible job for the people of my home state.” Don’t believe a word he says. He doesn’t expect you to. That’s spin.
When a man tells a woman: “That’s the best sex I’ve ever had in my entire life.” He’s just happy he got laid. That’s spin.
Spin (n): something between truth and a lie.
Spin can also be a positive force to help us through some sticky situations.
After twenty-seven years of marriage and four kids, a famous couple gets divorced and a spokesman insists they’re “still friends — they just discovered they weren’t compatible anymore.” Now, everybody knows he’s been cheating on her for years, they haven’t lived as man and wife for years, and they were just waiting for their youngest to start college before making it official. But spin makes it easier for them to hold their heads up high. Why not?
You hate your job. You hate your boss even more, and the feeling is mutual. Along comes a new job, so you quit your old job. But you don’t burn your bridges behind you. You spin your way out of it: “I really enjoyed this job. It’s been a great learning experience for me. In many ways, I hate to go, but it’s time to move on.” And, sure enough, the boss even says a few nice things about you, no matter how happy she is to see you finally walk out the door for good. Spin gets you both through what could have been a painful situation.
In May 2001, after reporting huge losses and being slammed with an SEC investigation, Lucent Technologies canned its hot shot CFO Deborah C. Hopkins — but made her a sweetheart deal. In addition to providing her full $650,000 base salary and a severance payment of at least $1.95 million, Lucent agreed to hire a public relations executive for six months to protect her reputation by spinning the reasons for her departure. The deal later fell through, but the precedent was set. From now on, when fired, every powerful Wall Street executive will be entitled to his or her own spin doctor. Never again will anyone dare say: “So-and-so did a lousy job, so we fired his ass!”
Spin is also used in applying for a job. After all, what’s a good job interview but good spin?
If you’re serious about getting the job, you’re sure as hell not going to slink in, shoulders drooping, eyes downcast and whisper, “I’m not really sure I can handle all the pressure, but I’d be willing to give it a try, if you’d be so kind as to be patient with me.” Instead, you stride in, standing tall, and proudly declare, “I was born to do this job. I’m the best person you could find, no matter how many you interview.” You know it’s spin. They know it’s spin. But that’s the way you get the job.
Spin helps in less dramatic ways, too.
Question: “Hey, how goes it?” Answer: “Great!” or “No complaints” or “Never been better” — not “Life really sucks, big time.” Putting it more positively makes us feel more positive about ourselves.
Spin is a self-help technique as old as Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. It builds us up in the eyes of others. In the section of his book on “How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking,” Carnegie advises: “Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.” Now that is nothing but spin, but it works. We all do it.
Sometimes spin is a means toward a greater end. If you really value a friendship, you don’t have to destroy it by telling the guy how much your wife can’t stand him. Spin the reason he’s never invited over, spare him the truth, save the friendship. Spin may also be the way to keep a job, save a marriage or salvage a business relationship. If so, it’s worth it. The end doesn’t always justify the means, but in this case it does.
During time of war, spin can also serve to unite an entire nation and help us through adversity. After the horrendous attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the first time foreign terrorists struck the American mainland, there were many strong statements from President Bush and other leaders. “We are the greatest people on earth.” “We will not be scared off.” “We have declared war on terrorism.” “This is World War III.” “We will win this war.” “We will find those responsible and wipe them off the face of the planet.” “He can run but he can’t hide.” “We will bring Osama bin Laden back dead or alive.”
Some of it was true. Some of it was hyperbole. Some of it was spin. Some of it was more suited to a Super Bowl game than national policy. But all of it was welcome, helping us pull together, survive, steel ourselves for the difficult days ahead, start rebuilding, and return to as close to normalcy as we will ever get. Spin works.
Most important, spin builds us up in our own eyes as well. Spinning ourselves helps us gain self-confidence. In today’s competitive world, spin is an essential survival technique.
This book is a look at spin in its many dimensions: good and bad; political, professional and personal; historical and current. After reading it, you will be better equipped to live in the world of spin. You will know how to spot spin better. You will know how to recognize it, decipher it, see through it, respond to it — and, perhaps, even how to better practice it yourself.
You will, in fact, be spin-proof.
Copyright © 2001 by Bill Press Posted with permission from Simon and Schuster