Spin This!: All the Ways We Don't Tell the Truth

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9780743442671: Spin This!: All the Ways We Don't Tell the Truth

We're all familiar with the warning, "Don't believe everything you see or hear." Bill Press, the popular co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," 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. Depending upon who is doing it, spinning can mean anything from portraying a difficult situation in the best possible light to completely disregarding the facts with the intent of averting embarrassment or scandal. Using examples drawn from recent history -- the Clinton presidency, the Florida recount, and the Bush White House -- Press first probes spin's favorite haunt: politics. In addition to surveying the incarnations of spin in the fields of journalism, law, and advertising, Press also chews on the spin of sex and "dating," a word that has become the very embodiment of spin. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Press argues that spin isn't all bad, and that without it the harsh truths of our times might be too tough to swallow. With the same keen sense of humor that helped make CNN's "Crossfire" television's premier debate show and the limited run of "The Spin Room" so popular, Press turns the tables on the prime purveyors of spin -- called "spin doctors" -- noting some of their biggest guffaws and blunders. As Press notes, it has become abundantly clear that the twenty-first century,beginning as it has with a president who was "spun into office," will be a fertile stomping ground for spin.

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About the Author:

Bill Press, an award-winning commentator, squares off against Tucker Carlson and Robert Novak on CNN's Crossfire. He and Carlson also launched and co-hosted The Spin Room. His twice-weekly newspaper column is distributed nationally by Tribune Media Services.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION: SPINNING THIS BOOK

"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

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 r - sum - . 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...

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