Friday, January 15, 2016

Why Spin Is Good for Democracy

[JB comment: I find this article intellectually obscene: Spin is not "impish" (as its author claims)  -- it's a malady that destroys the political health of a democracy. This piece (by, of all people, an academic, whose profession supposedly calls for non-"impish" examination of critical issues) is itself an example of "spin" at its worst.]

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By DAVID GREENBERG JAN. 14, 2016, New York Times

BETWEEN Tuesday’s State of the Union address and Thursday’s Republican
debate, and with the primary season around the corner, this week may well
mark “peak spin” for the 2016 campaign. President Obama is making the case
for his legacy, congressional Republicans are making the case against it, the
candidates are puffing themselves up and tearing one another down, and the
hired opinion mongers are blanketing us with spin of their own.

For many, this blizzard of January spin prompts a yearning for a more
authentic politics, free of Washington cant. Yet all the distortion involved in
modern spin, the thrust and parry of competing arguments are vital to
democracy, and a big part of what gets us interested and engaged in the first

It’s worth recalling that the term “spin” is relatively new. Back in 1960,
when the Kennedy­-Nixon debates first aired, the campaigns didn’t trot out any
smooth-­talking spokesmen afterward to explain why their man had won. But
in the years that followed — the era of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “credibility gap” —
the press began to chafe at passively relaying the president’s messages.
Journalists began insisting on offering readers and viewers more analysis, to
the frustration of presidents like Richard M. Nixon who preferred to control
the narrative.

Politicians learned that they had to get their own surrogates on the air, be
they partisan journalists, hired flacks or abject toadies. With the Ford­-Carter
debates in 1976, the networks began showcasing these handpicked spokesmen.
“It’s a clear-­cut victory for the president,” Ron Nessen, Gerald Ford’s press
secretary, told an NBC reporter after one debate. Robert S. Strauss, the
Democratic Party chairman, called the same event “a good night for the
American people and a great night for Jimmy Carter.” No one was fooled.

In 1984, the artificiality of these efforts had grown so transparent that the
hired talkers were called “spin doctors.” By 1988 these cheerleaders were so
numerous that journalists christened the corridor where they congregated
Spin Alley (later upgraded to the Spin Room). One surrogate that fall for the
Democratic nominee, Michael S. Dukakis, was a vanquished rival from the
spring primaries; after a debate at the University of California, Los Angeles,
Student Union, he gamely embraced his thankless sales job with uncommon
zeal (or admirable self­-awareness), donning a white hospital coat and a name
tag to proclaim himself “Senator Albert Gore Jr.: Spin Doctor.”

The concept of spin quickly became a part of the culture. The next years
produced the rock band the Spin Doctors, the political sitcom “Spin City” and
the dryly comic documentary “Spin,” assembled from satellite feeds that
captured politicians behind the scenes, unguarded, honing their messages for
public consumption.

The word “spin” connotes something a little different from older names
for persuasive speech. In the early 20th century, the term of choice,
“propaganda,” implied a passive citizenry manipulated by powerful politicians.
In the 1950s and 1960s, “news management,” an ungainly shard of Cold War
bureaucratese, evoked presidents tightly controlling the spigot of information.

Spin, on the other hand, has an impish quality; it doesn’t take itself too
seriously. Spin winks at its own truth stretching. It signals to the journalists
who report it and the audiences who consume it that they’re getting a partial,
even insincere, version of events. But it also suggests that this grazing of the
truth is no grounds for alarm, because, after all, politics has never been the
realm of dispassionate truth-­telling.

The fact is, many of us enjoy the post­-debate commentary. Confident that
we can see through self-­serving claims of the hacks and flacks, we question
them, and even applaud those who voice our own sentiments. When
politicians we like are foundering, we want them to be more skilled and
aggressive with their spin, not less.

The whirlwind of spin this week also shows that, in a democracy, spin is
almost always met with abundant counterspin. A lot of it may be vacuous, but
we’re not — despite our frustrations — in a totalitarian society of Orwellian
Newspeak. When the president makes a glib argument, a host of conservative
tweeters are ready to pounce; when the G.O.P. candidates harrumph windily,
liberal critics delight in highlighting their evasions. Citizens intuitively grasp
that we’re not helpless dupes in the face of clever arguments or high-­tech ads,
though we may suspect our neighbors are.

In a time of cynicism, audiences need to find ways to take pleasure in
politics. Democracy requires objective information for voters to make
informed judgments. But it also needs lively argument. Spin, even when we’re
fully aware of its partisan nature and strategic purposes, leads us to argue and
think about what’s at stake in our politics.

The theatricality and combativeness on display in the Spin Room — and
the animated chatter ricocheting across the TV studios and Twitter feeds — are
more likely to pique citizens’ political interest than are antiseptic or Olympian
declarations that purport to tell us all we need to know.

Instead of trying to banish spin from the kingdom of politics, we’d be
better off nurturing in ourselves and our neighbors the critical sense that
allows us to question and evaluate spin — and maybe, just once in a while, to
know when to enjoy it.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and
media studies at Rutgers, is the author of “Republic of Spin: An
Inside History of the American Presidency.”

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