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November 22, 2003

Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press

It is not easy to explain why space is set aside for spinning the press, and the press walks right into the space. These notes on Spin Alley include recommendations. Close down. Blow up. Invent something better.

Wherever there is a big candidates’ debate there is Spin Alley. After the debate, journalists have to write stories, produce TV packages. For this they need quotes and authorized knowers who can talk on camera.

There to provide such are the spinners: hired guns, stand-ins, soulmates who agree to meet the press after the debate to explain why their candidate “won.” Of course this is a verdict known in advance; however that fact too is known in advance, so no one really minds. Spin Alley will live again in whatever large, air-conditioned room is next designated for the ritual. Unless it’s stopped.

Here is Tom Tomorrow writing about it in Salon back in 1996:

After the debate, I took the press shuttle back to the media center — and to the small section therein blatantly designated “Spin Alley,” ringed on three sides by bare-bones makeshift broadcast platforms and stuffed to capacity with reporters, camera crews and politicos. Everywhere you looked there were clusters of media people surrounding spinners and surrogates, whose names were printed on laminated red signs held high above the crowd by aides. I felt like I was standing in the middle of one of my own damn cartoons come to life.

If you asked one of the reporters swarming the alley “why come to such a place in search of perspective on the news?” the possible answers are:

Then there’s Tom Tomorrow’s reading: “one of my own damn cartoons come to life.” For him, for me, for most anyone who steps back and reflects on Spin Alley, it is first of all remarkable (weird) that such a location exists at all as a taken-for-granted thing in national politics. Why should it? How could it? I know all the practical reasons participants have to mount the ritual of post-debate spin, and I could tick them off. But I won’t because it would just tick you off.

Here is one of the few coherent definitions of information ever offered (via Shannon & Weaver and Norbert Weiner for academics out there): “Information is a measure of uncertainty reduced.” Thus, for news to have information in it, there has to be uncertainty in the air (over something nontrivial.) Any report that reduces that uncertainty has information to offer. The greater the reduction, the more information. The greater the uncertainty, the more it can be reduced. Who’s going to win the Democratic nomination for 2004 is a genuine uncertainty. After the New Hamsphire primary we know a little more— who’s not going to win, maybe. That’s information: a measure of uncertainty reduced.

If we toss information theory into the Alley and let things unfold, we find an odd result. Spin Alley is journalists helping to stage an event defined beforehand by its absence of information. But journalists themselves are defined as people trained to look for information. So why are they looking here? By common agreement—hey, spin is spin—there is zero uncertainty in views the spinners will express after the debate. They are bound. It’s a “first the verdict, then the trial” situation.

This way of looking at information is helpful in thinking about the press because it shifts our view from the reporter’s actions in search of news to the situation from which news is to be drawn. There can be no information drawn from a situation devoid of uncertainty; therefore the quality of news the journalist can provide varies with the information situation the journalist is thrust into. In this sense too Spin Alley qualifies as strange. No one thrusts the reporter into the Alley; she elects to go there.

Ater they invented the Alley, our clever campaign pros went on to perfect some related rituals, each with a touch of the bizarre: the “pre-buttal” advisory, which is spin sent to the press before the debate begins, countering “what Bush will say.” That shows a sense of humor. Then they went further: live spin on the Internet during the unfolding of the debate. No waiting for the next sentence. (You think I am kidding?)

Guaranteed to lack information, the Alley draws information hounds in the press. From an insult to truthtelling, (spin) the truthtellers are supposed to make a truthful account. Low quality inputs are supposed to yield high quality outputs. The intensity of these contradictions is, I think, the reason why Spin Alley (a term popularized by journalists) is treated in a light-hearted, slightly disdainful, we-all-know-what-this-is style when reporters talk about it on the air. But joking does not really explain why you lend yourself to the joke. And no good can come from a situation defined by its intellectual dishonesty, which is what Tom Tomorrow meant: the site is “blatantly designated” as Spin Alley. Among the lessons and observations I draw are:

The Press Has Political Partners. Spin Alley, an invention of the American press and politicos, shows that the system we have is in certain ways a partnership between the press and insiders in politics. They come together to mount the ritual. An intelligent nation is entitled to ask if the partners are engaged in public service when they bring to life their invention, Spin Alley, after every presidential debate. Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good. Why not abandon this perverse practice and think up better ways to generate quotable conversation after a debate? (We could probably come up with some at PressThink in a few days. Hit the comment button with your ideas.)

Who’s Winning? Can be a Loser. Spin Alley could not exist unless journalists were determined to keep asking the most base (I guess some would say basic) question there is about a debate: who won? Thud. Sigh. Grrr. Click. Zzzz. I doubt that reporters, pundits and achors feel very smart or very good about themselves when they reduce things this way…. okay, who won? But they keep doing it, for reasons no longer clear to themselves. It might have something to do with a master narrative for the election featuring the circular and contentless theme of winning the election. (See this about that.)

Avoiding the Political Has Costs. “Who’s winning,” though vapid, has a virtue: it appears to be neutral, a frame to put around politics that has no politics to it. This is an illusion, mostly. The partnership that created Spin Alley is a political one, responsible not only for rituals like the Alley but for the debates themselves, which are co-productions among questioners, candidates, and sponsoring agencies.

Just recall the circumstances of 2000 when, before the Boston debate, Ralph Nader (who actually met the master narrative’s test of threatening to affect the outcome of the horse race) was barred from the hall after being banned from the podium. Whether the decision was right or wrong, it shows that mounting debates is a political act. So is framing the discussion of them. The press wants to avoid being “political.” But it can’t. Yet by its own logic it must. So it says it does avoid it. Practically no one believes it.

Which turns things toward the absurd. And it turns journalists into surrealists who sometimes appear on C-Span doing things surreal. Picture a man trapped in the driver’s seat just after a car wreck. He is surrounded by twisted metal and rising smoke, but lucid. Turning to you, he says: “I want one thing understood. I am an observer here.” That’s what I mean by surreal. For there are times when the press is that man.

Strangest of all is that little of this strangeness is lost on journalists. Here’s USA Today’s Chuck Raasch during the 2000 campaign:

ST. LOUIS The most absurd exercise in American politics always takes place in the hectic moments after a debate. It’s ”Spin Alley,” where talking heads dispense partisan patter in a roomful of hundreds of hectic, on-deadline journalists.

If you are a C-SPAN junkie, you have probably caught this surrealistic swirl. It is over-the-top, excessive, the theater of the absurd. If the Coen brothers - producers of such twisted cult flicks as ”Fargo” and ”Blood Simple” - were to make a movie about politics, they would call it ”Spin Alley.”

Little of it bears any resemblance to the truth. It would be more amusing were it not so symptomatic of a who’s-ahead-at-this-very-moment political culture that is about to let big questions go unanswered on Election Day 2000.

A sound critique. But by now critique has done its job. The absurdity is well known, admitted to by journalists. Spin Alley goes on. Yet it would be easy to abandon it by the time we gear up for the big debates in Fall 2004. A major candidate could say: no one from my campaign will show up. “The American people don’t need my people telling them who won.”

Unlikely? Then how about this. Journalists just don’t show up.

No? Here’s another idea. Pauline Kael wrote a review of The Warriors (directed by Walter Hill, 1979) in which she explained street gangs as “kids who think they own the streets because they keep other kids out of them.” I think this is one sense in which the campaign insiders—a gang with college degrees—“own” the process of electing a president, and of interpreting the election. Spin Alley does not admit just anyone. You have to be credentialed. The insiders think they own it because they keep outsiders out. (Witness Nader kept away by police.)

So to reform a space like Spin Alley—that is, to blow it up—you could credential a whole other crowd of talkers, people who have sworn no loyalty oath to a candidate even if they prefer one; who have never seen a list of talking points; who didn’t know what they were going to say about the debate until they had watched it and listened to it; who are capable of having their minds changed by action in the present, and of speaking to their disappointed hopes; who know that life is contingent, and does not stay on message; who are free to find humor everywhere and humanity in weird places, who can laugh at their own side, not just the other— free thinkers, speakers, citizens of these states, with different accents and political stripes.

Need quotes fast? Find 100 of these people (for they do exist, all over America) and credential them in a room. Make sure Dave Eggers is one. You don’t have to fire the professional spinners, by the way. Just don’t give them credentials. Raze spin alley. Open sensibility street. This would restore uncertainty, and once again information might flow.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

UPDATE… PressThink (Sep. 28, 2004): Nagourney’s Challenge: Quit Spin Alley. “Nagourney told a Miami Herald reporter that he wouldn’t be heading promptly into the Spin Room at the debate Thursday night in Miami. He won’t be there at all. He plans to watch on TV from Washington, and write a story about what the candidates said. Which defies the herd. In itself that is significant.”

UPDATE II… Here is the now famous exchange about spin alley between Jon Stewart and Crossfire hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala (Oct. 15, 2004):

STEWART: But let me ask you guys, again, a question, because we talked a little bit about, you’re actually doing honest debate and all that. But, after the debates, where do you guys head to right afterwards?

CARLSON: The men’s room.

STEWART: Right after that?


STEWART: Spin alley.


STEWART: No, spin alley.

BEGALA: What are you talking about? You mean at these debates?

STEWART: Yes. You go to spin alley, the place called spin alley. Now, don’t you think that, for people watching at home, that’s kind of a drag, that you’re literally walking to a place called deception lane?


STEWART: Like, it’s spin alley. It’s — don’t you see, that’s the issue I’m trying to talk to you guys…

BEGALA: No, I actually believe — I have a lot of friends who work for President Bush. I went to college with some of them.

CARLSON: Neither of us was ever in the spin room, actually.


BEGALA: No, I did — I went to do the Larry King show. They actually believe what they’re saying. They want to persuade you. That’s what they’re trying to do by spinning. But I don’t doubt for a minute these people who work for President Bush, who I disagree with on everything, they believe that stuff, Jon. This is not a lie or a deception at all. They believe in him, just like I believe in my guy.

New Media Hack takes up the challenge (and adds some kind words.) Read his explanation of grid blogging.

Jeff Jarvis also has ideas on a better way.

And Andrew Cline adds commentary here.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 22, 2003 1:41 AM