This is an archive, please visit for current posts.
PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine
Recent Entries
Like PressThink? More from the same pen:

Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

"Web Users Open the Gates." My take on ten years of Internet journalism, at

Read: Q & As

Jay Rosen, interviewed about his work and ideas by journalist Richard Poynder

Achtung! Interview in German with a leading German newspaper about the future of newspapers and the Net.

Audio: Have a Listen

Listen to an audio interview with Jay Rosen conducted by journalist Christopher Lydon, October 2003. It's about the transformation of the journalism world by the Web.

Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

Presentation to the Berkman Center at Harvard University on open source journalism and NewAssignment.Net. Downloadable mp3, 70 minutes, with Q and A. Nov. 2006.

Video: Have A Look

Half hour video interview with Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. On blogging, journalism, NewAssignment.Net and distributed reporting.

Jay Rosen explains the Web's "ethic of the link" in this four-minute YouTube clip.

"The Web is people." Jay Rosen speaking on the origins of the World Wide Web. (2:38)

One hour video Q & A on why the press is "between business models" (June 2008)

Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

A former senior editor at Pantheon, Tom Englehardt solicits and edits commentary pieces that he publishes in blog form at TomDispatches. High-quality political writing and cultural analysis.

Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

Syndicate this site:

XML Summaries

XML Full Posts

December 9, 2004

Guest Writer Lisa Stone: Kind of a Drag-- A Short History of Spin Alley and the Press

Stone, a journalist, on the life and times of Spin Alley, one of the strangest places ever founded in American politics. It required the cooperation of journalists who were also the intended victims. Linda Wertheimer in 02: "If a clever reinterpretation of an event can wriggle its way into a reporter’s story, why not keep doing it?" Stone has the answer.

Lisa Stone, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is a writer and editor with 14 years experience in writing, editing, producing and creating content, most recently as a blogger for, the online network for American Lawyer Media. She now writes the Legal Blog Watch. She also wrote the Convention Blog Watch column for the Los Angeles Times.

I met Lisa at BloggerCon III in Palo Alto. She expressed some interest in writing for PressThink, so I asked her to look into Spin Alley because I thought it had come to a symbolic end during the 2004 campaign. This is what she found: Three distinct phases over 20 years: first, a fascination with the art of it. Then a disgust with the lie of it. Then the move to transcend it— quit Spin Alley in favor of something better. Oh, and she found when it started: 1984, in a piece by Jack Rosenthal. You tell it, Lisa…

Special to PressThink

Kind of a Drag: A Short History of Spin Alley and the Press

By Lisa Stone

“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?”

— Comedian Jon Stewart on CNN’s Crossfire with hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, Oct. 15, 2004.

When Jon Stewart “busted” Spin Alley in his famous confrontation with the Crossfire people (the most downloaded video clip ever, at the time) he was hitting on a practice that had grown more and more disreputable. As a designated spot for the practice of spin, the Alley only fell from legitimacy when an alternative practice rose up and called out to conscience of the press. It was one lesson of Campaign 2004: Forget about spinning the outcome, just fact check the debates.

Now that we know this (and a pretty obvious lesson it is) we can look back at the life and times of Spin Alley, one of the strangest places ever founded in American politics— not least because it required the cooperation of journalists who would appear to be the intended victims of spin. This is a story with some twists in it.

The most widely linked and commonly accepted definition of political spin I found belongs to William Safire. His New Political Dictionary describes “spin” as “deliberate shading of news perception; attempted control of political reaction.” (See Wordspy for this definition and an elaboration.) This is basic: spin is an art of control.

While the act of political spin has to be as old as our species, politics is a second career for the word itself. Long before spin had anything to do with politicking (and we’ll get to that), its practitioners had sought to win at other sports, according to Plateau Press:

The spin in question comes from pool and baseball, according to Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase, “relating to a ball struck by the cue or pitched in such a way as to behave deceptively in travel due to what is known in British circles as ‘side’ or spin. The original spin doctor was a wily pool shooter or ball pitcher who could make the ball appear to travel true but in reality behave unpredictably.” (Wow: spin used to be un-predictable.) Donald, who used to write on words for The Courier-Mail, does not give dates for these ancient uses, but spin as in “slant” or “interpretation” dates from about 1984.

Indeed, spin was reinvented in 1984 in two key events—one journalistic, one political. Researching Donald’s term, “spin doctor”, lead me to The New York Times archive and the piece in which Jack Rosenthal of the editorial page staff launched spin into the political lexicon. (“The Debates and The Spin Doctors,” New York Times, Oct. 21, 1984.)

Tonight at about 9:30, seconds after the Reagan-Mondale debate ends, a bazaar will suddenly materialize in the press room of the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates, and they’ll be playing for very high stakes. How well they do their work could be as important as how well the candidates do theirs.

After I purchased this from the Times archive, I Googled Rosenthal in an attempt to provide a free link for Pressthink—and I found it: NPR’s Linda Wertheimer did this post two years ago! Actually, it was a radio piece on the origins of spin. Part of NPR’s “Present at the Creation” series, her segment entitled “Spin” aired on Nov. 4, 2002.

Wertheimer recalls the events in Louisville that lead to Rosenthal’s description. (“They’ll be the Spin Doctors…”) And she unveils the original “spin doctor,” at least according to legend. Here is a partial transcript from her audio report:

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Many reporters remember the late Lee Atwater, who worked for the Reagan campaign, as the superstar of spin, rapping out quotes for reporters looking for a dose of spin from the doctor. Lyn Nofziger, who was a senior advisor on the Reagan campaign, says Atwater was the first person he heard use the term spin. That was before the first debate [1984, in Louisville]

LYN NOFZIGER: And Lee was telling us, “now, you know, we’re going to want to go out and spin this afterward”, meaning making it look like Reagan had won the debate which ordinarily would not have been hard to do, but you may remember that that debate was a kind of disaster for Reagan. He did not do well at all. And I must tell you I was very uncomfortable spinning it.

That’s a story about the origins of Spin Alley as a recognized “place” in American politics. We can never fix the birth exactly. It was around 1984, though, when people started to recognize spin as part of the scene at debates: part of the ritual. Atwater’s “techniques” were more like an ancient tradition, a sort of Sun Tzu goes GOP. To wit, English historian Mark Knights has written a new book on partisan efforts to influence writing aimed at everyday citizens in 17th Century Britain. I haven’t read the book, which ships in January 2005, but in a review, BBC Political Reporter Brian Wheeler describes Knights’ portrayal of classic spin: “Politicians recruited the leading writers and journalists of the day to put the best possible gloss on controversial policies, such as the war against Louis XIV, in pamphlets and sermons.”

”The public confronted the same issues of deception and media spin that we see as characteristic of modern politics,” Knights wrote, bridging the 400-year gap between politics in Stuart England and Jon Stewart’s visit to Crossfire.

Jay Rosen asked me to trace “spin alley” back to where it entered our political language, then forward to Stewart’s denunciation on CNN. That turned out to be 20 years, from the presidential debates in 1984 to the first presidential debate this year. From Jack Rosenthal’s column explaining how journalists participate in Spin Alley (insightful and newsmaking at the time) to Times chief political correspondent Adam Nagourney’s decision not to attend the 2004 debates or Spin Alley. Here are the three waves I saw:

  • 1984-early 1990s: “Spin is part of the game.” Journalists acknowledge Spin Alley as a necessary evil; and they say the readers can trust journalists to filter the spin out, leaving the public with real news.
  • 1996-2002: “Spinning is lying.” A counter-opinion forms. Spin Alley is not a necessary evil, it’s just an evil. And an absurdity. But it goes on. Critique bounces off the Alley like hail.
  • 2003-2004: “Spin Alley: absurd, corrupt and degrading.” Stewart calls it a drag. Journalists and watchdogs alike debunk Spin Alley, while an obvious and better alternative emerges: Fact-checking!

1984-early 1990s: “Spin is part of the game.”

In introducing spin doctors to his readers, Rosenthal took an elevated view of a journalist’s responsibility, as distinguished from what we expect of laymen:

“Two verdicts will be at issue,” he wrote. “The first is the one that television millions will reach themselves. The second is the verdict the public will seek from the reporters, pundits and experts who follow politics and try to keep the candidates honest….”

The questions asked by the pros, writes Rosenthal “are more like school. Who knew the answer? Who blundered? Who scored points in rebuttal? And it’s concerning these questions, which turn heavily on information, that laymen have the right to expect media to play a mediating role. In a country with a state network or a Government line, such mediation would be dangerous. Not here; even with the Spin Doctors at work, the printed page and the television screen offer a range of judgments, like the gymnastic judges at the Olympics. And anyone who mistrusts them can spin something else: the dial. “

Rosenthal’s message is: the spin doctors are out there but the public can trust us— the professionals who try to keep the candidates honest. We play a “mediating role” between readers and the spin of other professionals (who are getting quite good at it). And if you don’t trust the mediator, change the channel.

Meanwhile, Rosenthal was rubbing elbows with colleagues whose descriptions of spin treated it as an insider’s game. Here, sausage is made. Remembering the 1984 Louisville debate, veteran political reporter Elisabeth Bumiller (The Washington Post, The New York Times), described Spin Alley for NPR:

The candidates’ spokespeople and the campaign managers would start saying “he won, let me tell you why he won and these are the great points that he made”….And it would be the opposite on the other side. And I actually think there were signs in those days, masses of reporters around each clump, around each little sign. It was always on deadline of course for newspapers, it was well into the evening, and so they were talking very fast and furiously. There were reporters around scribbling madly in notebooks and lots of cameras and lots of lights. You know, it looked important.

Bumiller chose a different spin doctor as the best she’d ever seen (President Reagan’s chief of staff, Jim Baker) but uses the same glowing terms Wertheimer used to describe Lee Atwater. Baker was, Bumiller says, “the all-time number-one-best spinner…he had what one of my editors would call the art of candor. Where he would talk on background like a normal person, acknowledge that they had a slight problem at the White House, so right there he had disarmed you. But then he would always put it in the best possible light. But he was the master.”

In other words, “superstars” who performed at peak level in spin situations were admired for their skills. They could “win” the spin, and winning was admired. Spinning for the press pack was a designated, accepted part of the debate ritual. Those who worked the system well—Messrs. Atwater and Baker—were considered worthy adversaries by journalists. Note: The better the spinner, the better the reporter (listener) you have to be to “catch” the master.

Although different in tone, Wertheimer, Bumiller and Rosenthal shared in common their acceptance of Spin Alley. Other than Rosenthal’s op-ed outing the process and naming its participants, I didn’t find journalists doubting whether they should participate— get spun. Instead they explained to us this new practice (as part of the game) and profiled the experts in it. During this era it was said—or assumed—that the pros in political journalism would filter out the spin. So it’s really no problem. Really.

1996-2002: “Spinning is lying.”

About a dozen years after Rosenthal described Spin Alley—three election cycles—professional opinion started to shift. Journalists began to publish columns and books complaining about “spin” and denigrating “spinners” to their readers.

The first example I found—a journalist airing serious public concerns about Spin Alley—appeared in The Christian Science Monitor in 1996. In an opinion column Oct. 9, former CNN and CBS correspondent Deborah Potter described the institutionalization of Spin Alley: For the first time, reporters were required to present press credentials to gain entry to the spin room after the 1996 presidential debates. Therefore it had become an “official” space. Controlled access meant elevated status for the event. Did “spin” deserve it? Potter put spin and Spin Alley into critical perspective and she urged her colleagues to cover presidential debates differently:

Who won? Who lost? Who made the biggest gaffe? …The news media base their judgment, in part, on the consensus of those semi-professional referees known as spin doctors. Their presence is now such a fixture at debates that press credentials this year allow access to a location officially known as “Spin Alley.” The spin meisters’ verdicts are just as predictable as their presence, but they seem as irresistible to the news media as a sold-out fund-raiser to a cash-strapped candidate.

Tom Tomorrow wrote in Salon in 1996 of his experience in “the small section therein blatantly designated ‘Spin Alley.’ … I felt like I was standing in the middle of one of my own damn cartoons come to life.” (From Jay’s post a year ago, Raze Spin Alley.)

Most mainstream journalists, however, continued to report spin evenhandedly, quoting equal numbers of spinners from each side, in the typical style of horse race coverage. If anything, Spin Alley expanded in every election since 1984 by any measurement we have—size of room, number of reporters, number of live trucks capable of satellite feeds. As former Mondale campaign manager Dayton Duncan describes in Wertheimer’s audio report, the campaigns recruited local politicians as spinners simply to meet post-debate demand by an ever-growing number of journalists, which now included local live news reports as well as 24/7 Internet coverage. The call went out to friends and those who would prove themselves friends: come and spin for us. Therefore you had more people who were there to spin.

Outside of Spin Alley, journalists increasingly exposed their bad experiences with spin and their consternation with the spinners. Witness this 1998 USA Today story, Spin: Behind the walkout that wasn’t, in which reporter Jill Lawrence provides an anatomy of journalistic failure—an urban myth spread across every major network and newspaper via spin. The same year, Howard Kurtz tracked the transformation of spin and Spin Alley from cordoned-off gamesmanship between politicians and the press to bare-knuckled war game in his book, “Spin Cycle: How the White House and the Media Manipulate the News”. Kurtz wrote:

In recent years, the modern practice of spin has come to occupy a sort of gray zone between candor and outright falsehood. Larry Speakes, [President Reagan’s spokesman], kept a sign on his desk: “You don’t tell us how to stage the news and we don’t tell you how to cover it.”
As upset as journalists sounded about spin, however, they tended to point accusing fingers everywhere but at themselves. Lawrence, for example, saved her criticism for the spinners and went so far as to describe one reporter as a “victim in the spin wars.” Spin Alley as game—albeit an increasingly bloody one—was still afoot. But the game wasn’t looking so innocent. Nor did the filter, the press, seem so reliable.

Then, in 1999, journalists’ condemnation of spin took a leap forward when Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel published “Warp Speed”. Their book quoted Washington Post executive editor emeritus Ben Bradlee’s bald definition of spinning as “lying”. (That was Ben being clear.) They also criticized mainstream media from the inside out, calling for a return to quality standards in journalism:

The notion that author Daniel Boorstin introduced in The Image in 1961, in which what was true was becoming less important than what one could make seem true, had thoroughly saturated the political culture by the late 1990s. Politicians had created an environment in which lying became respectable by calling it “spin.” They invented “doctors” to administer it. The effect was acute. Pointing out one of the principal differences between the Watergate scandal and the Clinton scandal, journalist Benjamin C. Bradlee observed, “People lie now in a way that they never lied before — and the ease with which they lie, the total ease…. People expect no consequences…. This word ‘spinning’… is a nice uptown way of saying lying.”

Other journalists began saying the same thing. USA Today’s Chuck Raasch didn’t abdicate from Spin Alley during the 2000 presidential election, but he trash-talked it as “the most absurd exercise in American Politics,” and aired his own concerns about its effect on the campaign trail: “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.” (Hat-tip: Raze Spin Alley.)

Witness Chris Mooney’s 2001 review of CNN’s new show, The Spin Room, a sort of Spin Alley as program co-hosted by none other than Tucker Carlson. Commenting on a remark by Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes, Mooney wrote, “This kind of partisan nonsense-spewing, ranging from half-truths like Hughes’s to downright lying—has become a fixture of American political discourse.”

In a 2002 Slate piece explaining how Enron CEO Ken Lay could urge his employees to buy Enron stock at the same time he was selling it, Michael Kinsley outed spinning as (a) worse than lying and (b) essential to the game of American politics:

”What’s the difference? It’s often said that there is none. (Come to think of it, I’ve said this myself.) But there is: Lying means flouting the truth. Spinning means indifference to the truth. The culture of spin is one in which the relation between what you’re saying and what happens to be true is a question that doesn’t even arise. This doesn’t make spin less objectionable. In fact, it’s more objectionable precisely because it’s culturally ingrained. We all know that it’s wrong to lie. The signals we send and receive about spin are very different. … In the political world, though, spin is not merely tolerated: It is required. It is regarded as a basic test of competence.”

What fantastic insight, I thought, as I read this comparison of lying and spinning. But then Kinsley and other journalists who criticized spin had stopped short of an inalienable truth about Spin Alley: its success requires journalists willing to disseminate spin.

Even the first journalist to put Bradlee’s definition of spin as “lie” on a public radio broadcast still blamed only the spinners. Here’s NPR’s Linda Wertheimer in 2002:

LINDA WERTHEIMER: So what are we really talking about here? Partisan commentary that tells us a candidate is doing well even when he isn’t? Isn’t that more like lie?

LYN NOFZIGER: I think it comes very close to that, I really do. It certainly becomes propaganda. Yeah, it becomes lie because you are telling something that is not altogether truthful, so if it’s not lie, it’s, ah, comes pretty close.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: So is spin so last election? I don’t think so. If a clever reinterpretation of an event can wriggle its way into a reporter’s story, why not keep doing it?

There was an answer to that coming.

2003-2004: “Spin Alley: absurd, corrupt and degrading.”

During the 2004 election cycle, bloggers and journalists alike called a halt to the tradition of absolving journalists for their complicit role in Spin Alley. To use Wertheimer’s language, “clever reinterpretations of events” were no longer to be allowed to “wriggle” into stories— journalists were instead ordered back to their factchecking roots.

Jay Rosen’s November 2003 essay, Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press pointed to Raasch’s excoriation of the ritual during the 2000 election. Rosen’s suggestion was “blow it up:”

…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.”

In a post called “Weblogs: The unspun zone,” Jeff Jarvis agreed: “If established media were smart, they would not to go spin alley after the debate. They would go to blogs to hear what opinions and fact-checking and new information the people, the voters, the citizen journalists have.”

One year later there was widespread blogger delight with Jon Stewart’s on-air demolition of Spin Alley. “Jon Stewart is a god!” wrote blogger Cary Is A Geek in this representative post:

In what could well be the strangest and most refreshing media moment of the election season, “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart turned up on a live broadcast of CNN’s “Crossfire” Friday and accused the mainstream media — and his hosts in particular — of being soft and failing to do their duty as journalists to keep politicians and the political process honest.

If bloggers threw down the gauntlet to de-certify Spin Alley, others in the news media picked it up immediately— or came to the same conclusion. Both groups factchecked the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. On the blogger side, notably Eschaton, INDC Journal, DailyKos and countless others, myself included, logged many hours. Mainstream and not-so-mainstream media continued to cover the debates as in ‘96 or 2000, treating Spin Alley as a suspicious game but reporting on it anyway, (here, here and here, for example). At the same time, however, leading television, radio and print journalists placed a renewed emphasis on fact checking, which, like spin, needed informed people who would spring into action as soon as the debate was done.

What an idea! After the candidates debate, journalists check their facts. The results were, arguably, fantastic. When Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin compared the two types of sources for The Washington Post, he said professional journalists won, hands down:

I challenged bloggers in yesterday’s column to help fact-check the debate, and from what I can see this morning, blogger fact-checking looked shallow and strident by comparison to the press corps’ — although there were some good catches…So if you thought for a minute that trained, professional journalists had lost their value in the Internet age, today’s coverage proves that when it comes to helping the public assess the veracity of politicians, there is simply no substitute.

Blogging an analysis of mainstream media coverage of the vice presidential debate, I noted that “reporters, editors and producers are describing debater behavior with headlines, words and clichés that are stunning in accusation and tone,” compared with previous elections. I expected to see critical language in blogs, but didn’t expect such direct talk from the Los AngelesTimes, Newsweek and NPR. For example, Janet Hook’s biting write-up in the LA Times: “Throughout the 90-minute debate, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards each frequently overstated his case, stretched the truth or ignored facts that did not suit his argument…”

Not everyone agreed with Mr. Froomkin and me. In this story by Tara Weiss for the Hartford Courant, Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting called CNN’s fact-checking “pretty poor.” In the story, three Web sites—, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s campaign desk— positioned themselves as alternative news sites devoted entirely to fact checking presidential campaigns, filling the void left by mainstream journalists, who had neglected their bread-and-butter task.

The debates are one of the few things that the press actually fact-checks. [But] it’s like, can you do this the other 364 days per year?” said Brendan Nyhan, one of the three founders of …”The explosion of spin has outstripped the media’s ability counter that,” Nyhan said. “Sites like ours are a response to that.

The Alley’s original value to the press was having a group of campaign experts around after the debates but before deadline. They were convenient. And to be fair, that logic—using Spin Alley for choice access to blue-chip experts in time to file—still holds for smaller fish in the pond and the foreign press covering presidential campaigns, as Mark Leibovich reported for The Washington Post.

No factchecking site (no matter how good) could have the same impact as a single whistleblower if the whistleblower chose the right time to make his point. That sums up what New York Times chief political correspondent Adam Nagourney did, when he called Spin Alley “degrading” and “a waste of time” and stayed home to cover the first 2004 presidential debate—resigning from Spin Alley with some juicy quotes about how lame it was. As Jay wrote in his follow-up post, “Nagourney’s Challenge:”

When the lead correspondent of the New York Times won’t play in your game, your game has been downgraded some. From small movements like that bigger patterns of non-compliance might emerge. … Nagourney says Spin Alley is degrading to the people who volunteer in it. The spinners might claim to enjoy making the sale, or take pride in their ability to “handle” journalists. Nagourney says there is no pride for anyone. The better you are at spin, the less hope there is for you, friend. You improve as a journalist when you stop. So why don’t they stop?

2008, anyone? What more should journalism do with this moment of truth, if anything? Some early contenders:

  • Raze Spin Alley (his idea)
  • Boycott Spin Alley (his idea)
  • Replace Spin Alley “with actual experts in the specific fields discussed, such as taxes and health care.” (his idea)
  • Change Spin Alley into diverse constituents speaking freely (his and her ideas)
  • Raise funds to expand and— in scope and format— like podcast, radio. (my idea)

Maybe Dan Froomkin is right, and the substitution of fact-checking for spin “is a seminal moment for American political journalism.” Or maybe Jon Stewart is right, and it’s obvious why spin is a drag. Lyn Nofziger: “And I must tell you I was very uncomfortable spinning it.” In a way that says it all.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Dan Froomkin, Mr. President, will you answer the question? (Salon/Nieman Watchdog) “President Bush has a special talent for avoiding tough questions and reporters who ask them. Here’s what the White House press corps should do to smoke him out.”

Bryan Keefer, You Call That News? I Don’t (Washington Post, Sep. 12, 2004)

What’s particularly striking to me is how politicians have figured out how to use the media’s weaknesses against them. I’ve always been a news junkie, but after watching the coverage of the 2000 campaign and the spin from the candidates (and even the interest group I then worked for), I couldn’t take it anymore. Along with two friends, I founded to truth-squad politicians and political spin. And for the past three years, I’ve seen how politicians have exploited both the media’s desire for the scoop and their pretense of objectivity — something both Bush and Kerry are doing repeatedly in this campaign season.

More from NPR’s 2002 segment on the history of spin meisters (transcript not online):

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Although the term “spin” was new, the idea of course was not. Dayton Duncan thought an early example might be Adam, who took a bite of the apple and then blamed Eve for what happened next. But why did spin happen when it did? Why was there suddenly a market for it? Jack Rosenthal blames all-news radio and CNN.

JACK ROSENTHAL: What had used to be a quaint two news cycles turned into a 24-hour news cycle. No story lasted for more than an hour. It had to be updated. So you needed to get the opinion making effects into play instantly. And so you created in effect your own columnist, your own spin.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Dayton Duncan blames technology for the creation of spin. Local stations were buying satellite trucks and sending them to debates. The campaigns gave all those local stations reporters something special: spin, to send home by satellite.

DAYTON DUNCAN: It was a classic case of demand creating supply. IN other words, demand was there, because of of all the extra reporters who were trapped and needed somebody to say something. and so we created the supply. In the form of local politicians and flooded the area with them.

Previously at PressThink:

Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press (Nov. 22, 2003). 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.

Nagourney’s Challenge: Quit Spin Alley (Sep. 29, 2004) When the lead correspondent of the New York Times won’t play in your game, your game has been downgraded some. Plus: The Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin calls the post-debate analysis “a seminal moment for American political journalism.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 9, 2004 1:32 AM   Print


Is Spinning It the Same as Framing It?

As a followup to the investigation of the origins, meaning and usage of "spin," let me suggest an evolution to the term "framing."

Framing started as a sociological term in the early 1970s. It became a widely used theoretical framework for studies in communications, sociology and political science in the 1990s, then a term of art in journalism in about the year 2000.

Here's the discussion quiz question: Is shaping the message by framing the debate the same as spinning it?

Posted by: Glynn Wilson at December 9, 2004 11:31 AM | Permalink

In baseball, the knuckleball is thrown to be unpredictable. Spin is deliberately put on a curveball to make it appear to go one way, but go another instead, under the control.

In pool, spin is more used to control where the cue ball goes AFTER it hits the target. Like backspin.

Lazy journalists AND an infotainment industry, trying to get "facts" about the future, rather than honest analysis. Best case, worst case, likely case.

In valuing a company, models of the future are generated, and then different assumptions are used to generate these cases, scenario testing.

Where was this analysis framework for the war in Iraq? Any critics with a Best case, worst case, likely case -- that include US Casualties?

Or the US economy?

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at December 9, 2004 1:07 PM | Permalink

[remembering manners, despite being late.] Great post, thanks!

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at December 9, 2004 1:08 PM | Permalink

Even those of us who are not journalists are exposed to a lot of "spin" if we watch cable news. It gets to the public with or without journalisms filters. Journalists cannot stop spin getting to the public, they can just ignore it if they choose.

Reporters should listen to spin. Not believe it uncritically, but listen to it. Nobody has all the ideas, and spinning frequently brings additional facts to bear on an argument - facts that the reporter may not think of in that context, or may not be aware of. That the facts are presented for political advantage - to change the reporting - is no different than the situation with facts from a leaker.

In other words, sometimes spin contains additional relevant information. It also contains lies, misdirection or clever rationalizations that may fool the unwary.

But isn't one job of the press sorting out the wheat from the chaff? Spin has a high chaff to wheat ratio, but there is sometimes wheat in there somewhere.

I would hope those reporting, would be aware of as many relevant facts as possible, regardless of what sort of slime ball may have produced it.

I think the danger is lazy journalists or those not bright or disciplined enough to sort out the truth, from spin sometimes prepared by very clever people and possibly teams of those people.

Posted by: John Moore at December 9, 2004 1:29 PM | Permalink

We all know that politicians spin, but not enough attention has been focused on how the press "spins" or "frames", if you will, the news. I think most of the massive hysteria surrounding Fox News is about how they dare to frame the news in a different way than MSM. Otherwise, it makes no sense to make a big deal out of a news outlet with viewship less than CBSNBCABCPBSNYTimesWaPo, etc. Prove me wrong.

Posted by: paladin at December 9, 2004 4:14 PM | Permalink

I enjoyed the history lesson, but it's rather premature to suggest that Spin Alley has now "fallen from legitimacy" or that journalists have "transcended" it. We saw the usual handwringing about it during this election season, but the airwaves were full of spin doctors nevertheless, and I see no signs that things will be any different in future elections.

And of course, Spin Alley isn't the only place where spin happens in politics. In fact, its rituals are positively quaint, innocuous and transparent compared to, for example, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, where the spinners pretend not to be spinners at all but merely "war veterans" seeking "truth."

Posted by: Sheldon Rampton at December 10, 2004 8:49 AM | Permalink

In covering a political campaign, the most important thing journalists can do is fact-check. Everything else they might do needs to be weighed against that imperative.

Molly Ivins, IIRC, puts it slightly differently, saying that the three most important things political reporters must do are 1) look at the record, 2) look at the record, and 3) look at the record. Same deal.

Posted by: Lex at December 10, 2004 9:06 AM | Permalink

Lisa Stone responds:

I'm glad you're as interested in this topic as I am. Here are some thoughts:

Glynn and Paladin:

Thanks for invoking "framing." I think we can make it part of our discussion--as evidence of how, via Spin Alley, spin made its way into news coverage of Election 2004. IMHO, spin doctors spin--you have to be inside the media to "frame".

My favorite definition of "framing" comes from Michael Parenti's "Inventing Reality". Here's his definition:

"The most effective propaganda is that which relies on framing rather than on falsehood...Framing is achived in the way the news is packaged, the amount of exposure, the placement (front page or back, lead story or last), the tone of presentation (sympathetic or slighting), the accompanying headlines and visual effects, and the labeling and vocabulary. Just short of lying, the media can mislead us in a variety of ways, telling us what to think about a story before we have had a chance to think about it for ourselves."

In other words, "framing" allows a journalist to use incoming spin without looking like he or she has been spun. Or perhaps--aha!--without feeling as though he or she has been spun. Many media outlets, for example, have used Bush administration spin to frame stories on Iraq--right down to the fonts or graphics we see on television news: "War on terror", "homeland", and "axis of evil".

Tom Grey:
Thank you. I want to make sure I understand you correctly. Do you question whether anyone in the media is systematically analyzing the Iraq war or the economy in order to predict outcomes? Rather than writing reactive news stories based on the day's Pentagon briefing or press release, for example?

John Moore and Sheldon Rampton:

First, Sheldon, you run the Disinfopedia yes? Great site for news on everyday spin. (See sponsor Center for Media and Democracy's site for their goals for "open content" media and countering public relations propaganda.)

To your points above, Jay asked me to focus specifically on Spin Alley--rather than pervasive spin. You are quite right that Spin Alley isn't the only place where spin happens in politics! I agree, John Moore, that spin can be revealing and it's the job of journalists to separate wheat from chaff. I don't think journalists have an option not to hear at least some spin, and the best journalists are trained to do as Lex points out, and "look at the record".

But even the most brilliant reporter--as I think the all-star gallery I quote above indicates--can falter in a flawed system. I confess that I don't consider the ritual of Spin Alley "quaint" as you do, Sheldon--I find it threatening to our political process. The presidential debates represent the few chances most American voters get to watch our wannabe commanders-in-chief talk policy and politics, albeit on a stage. Particularly for voters who don't live in swing states or who live in out of the way places or who work jobs that won't allow them to attend a rally, debates are a big deal (just look at how the numbers stack up on a regular night of television programming).

Thanks to Jay's assignment, I now have a deeper appreciation for the evolution of Spin Alley. But Spin Alley as it exists now is not news--it's a red herring. Media organizations and journalists are not covering Spin Alley--they're creating it.

By participating--and this participation often takes the form of streaming audio or video or quotes without challenge--journalists enable spinners, usurp the debates and disseminate lies. Never mind any long-term affect this spin has on how the media later "frames" the debate.

Bottom line: Given the effect post-debate spin has on news coverage, I think it represents a dereliction of duty for reporters to attend. Potter almost had it right in '96. Then Jay threw icy water on us, Jeff Jarvis agreed and Nagourney made the right call in September.

I myself see many signs that things will be any different in future elections, such as this year's rash of factchecking by mainstream media and indie sites, and bloggers, too. I propose we continue to foment change. Especially since Jon Stewart has armed any journalist with the public support necessary to argue with the boss against participating in Spin Alley as usual (though I worry he did make the media world unsafe for bowties, and more's the pity).

I can think of no better tool than the Disinfopedia to bring pressure on mainstream journalism to up the standard of coverage in 2006 and 2008.

How about you?

Posted by: Lisa Stone at December 10, 2004 5:53 PM | Permalink

Interesting stuff, Lisa, although I'm not sure you have to be a media insider to frame the message, practically and theoretically.

True, reporters in print and broadcast frame their stories in certain ways, and each media outlet has layers of institutional pet peeves about what will make it and what won't. Manufacturing Consent is a good book on that subject.

But when reporters are faced with a solid wall of not just spin on each individual issue that comes up but on the entire "picture frame" of what an administration or an opposition campaign says they are like, reporters have no choice but to use quotes from the speeches they are confronted with, the press releases they are given. They can find the opposition and quote them too and probe with investigations and questions in public and provide context and analysis.

The Bush campaign, though, was a brilliant example of framing not just individual campaign messages, but the entire range of what could be discussed and how.

For instance, did it have a chilling effect on what made the evening news and the front page when any opposition to the war in Iraq was treated by multiple actors in the administration as "unpatriotic?"

If the president says, "You are for us or you are against us," and backs that up with Rove's Christian army, what is ABC or Newsweek to do?

Whether you agree or not with the assertion that the American media has a responsibility to be patriotic, the bottom line in the end dictates it. Just for the heck of it, here's the cartoon page again for those who missed it before.

Press Depictions in Editorial Cartoons

The question is, are there cases where we can identify the press as either a watchdog of government, a lapdog to government, or a guard dog for the status quo? And are there circumstances when they should be one of the above?

Or are there other ways of looking at it that helps us understand the role and performance of the press?

Posted by: Glynn Wilson at December 11, 2004 1:22 AM | Permalink

First, thanks for the kind words about Disinfopedia. We're a long way from perfect, but we're trying.

Second, my use of the word "quaint" was not intended in any way to suggest that I think Spin Alley is harmless. Far from it. My point was simply that there are other, even more pernicious forms of spin.

Also, I thought your original article left the impression that Spin Alley was a dying institution, when in fact I think it remains alive and well, to the continuing detriment of democracy and good journalism. I gather that you don't entirely disagree with this assessment, so maybe we don't really disagree about anything at all. In any case, I liked your article quite a bit, quibbles notwithstanding. (One thing I liked in particular was that it provides the best explanation I've seen for the origins of the term "spin.")

Posted by: Sheldon Rampton at December 11, 2004 4:22 PM | Permalink

In a world of increasing information connectivity and bandwidth, is it appropriate to consider letting the news consumer see the raw information as it happens? Doesn't filtering, framing, etc. sometimes imply that the consumer needs the counsel of the reporter, at least in the mind of the reporter?

What if everything of possible interest was available as live video to anyone in the country (ignoring privacy aspects). We are moving in that direction. What would that do to the society, the politics and the press? The consumer can now make his own judgement, without guidance. He can watch events raw, watch discussions of them, watch them filtered, watch spin about them, watch politicians, reporters, commentatoers, neighbors and anyone else opine on the subject. How would a spin alley fit there?

The blogosphere, webcams, amateur videographers tied to the web, and other technologies and trends are leading us in this direction.

Would journalists have a place then? If so, what?

Posted by: John Moore at December 11, 2004 10:02 PM | Permalink

It is ludicrous to think that the masses will turn to citizen journalists on the Web anytime soon, even in most of our lifetimes.

Maybe the tech-heads and blogging world can dream these dreams, and there is an audience for it perhaps.

But the fact remains that most people turn to TV for news. More than 70 percent say local TV news. That's "happy news" for those who missed my earlier posts on the subject. Dream big, boys and girls, but also be realistic.

Most news consumption involves people checking the weather and keeping up with local sports and crime.

Political junkies have C-SPAN, cable talk shows and the Web. Most people still rely on the tube and will for the foreseeable future. Not that I would necessarily call local newscasters journalists. But that's another beaf.

Posted by: Glynn Wilson at December 11, 2004 10:17 PM | Permalink

Thanks for the tutorial, Lisa. It's interesting that you think politicians "spin" but the media "frames". I don't know yet if I agree, or disagree, but you have given me something to think about.

Posted by: paladin at December 12, 2004 4:57 PM | Permalink

Thanks for all the feedback. Just a couple more thoughts:

Glynn -

Great questions--but what are your opinions?

Sticking (myopically!) to the subject of spinning v. framing, I'll limit my answer to your point here:

"The Bush campaign, though, was a brilliant example of framing not just individual campaign messages, but the entire range of what could be discussed and how....If the president says, "You are for us or you are against us," and backs that up with Rove's Christian army, what is ABC or Newsweek to do?"

Answer: Do. Your. Job. Anyway.
He did. They did too. So did they--with their editor's blessing. A soldier was happy to help this guy. I'm sure they'd agree.

And if a journalist cannot or is not allowed to do his or her job in these circumstances, (s)he should take their honor and their personal brand elsewhere. Try a blog--It worked for this guy.


Ah! Thank you. I agree, there are many forms of spin. We may yet disagree, since you have accurately described my opinion: I do believe Spin Alley is a dying institution, for the reasons outlined above. However, you are quite right that we need to speed its death, and the 2,500 or so hangers-on who didn't follow Nagourney's example did so "to the continuing detriment of demoracy and good journalism" as you so aptly state.

Let's call for an institutional boycott and nail this coffin closed.

John Moore:

Though not to the comprehensive degree you describe, I think raw footage of Spin Alley already exists. Many news organizations offer post-debate soapboxes to spin doctors in the form of live video and audio coverage.

If voters choose to watch and listen to post-debate spin, that is their choice. But rather than risk repeating myself ad nauseum, I think the job of journalists covering presidential debates is to report on the statements and behavior of the men who would be commander in chief: from accuracy to behavior and back again.

Posted by: Lisa Stone at December 13, 2004 2:23 PM | Permalink

Glynn -

Great questions--but what are your opinions?


I think I hinted at my opinions. Although you know what they say about reporters - our opinions don't matter, right?

There's no way I could get all of what I know about this subject into a blog comment anyway. It would take a dissertation, or at least a book.

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this, but I've been discussing some related issues on the UPI downhold wire listserv today (Monday).

I was trying to help your discussion along and point it in some directions I see. Hope it was helpful.

As I said from the outset, journalists have only known about the term framing for about four years now. Sociologists having been using it since about 1972. Political scientists used the heck out of it in their literature in the 1990s, and communications scholars have used it since.

It implies a lot more than spin. I was not totally enamored of the theoretical framework as a doctoral student myself after spending a couple of years reading hundreds of journal articles and a number of books in that particular research area.

Framing is related to agenda-setting, but two different sets of scholars come to different conclusions about their impact. It's a bunch of academic minutiae that doesn't even interest me anymore, so I'm sure you would not be interested in all the details.

I could provide you with a rudimentary literature review off blog if you really are interested. But I would have to dig into my academic files, which are stored in boxes and on zip disks.

As for all the little newspapers and blogs that you say do their jobs anyway, you know what the smart folks at the New York Times think about that. If the Times (and the national TV networks) don't consider a story big enough to do it themselves, is it really news?

It's a version of the old saw: "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, did it really make a sound?"

We can all blog away for nothing. Until a story has critical mass, it will not have much of an impact.

That may seem unrelated to your point, and maybe it is. But it's like this: If every blogger in the country posted a message saying George W. Bush was a deserter, but none of the national papers or TV networks did stories concluding the same thing, the masses who depend on local TV for news would know nothing about it. If the all the president and all his men say on the subject is, "I did my duty. I'm proud of my service."

Every newspaper and TV news outlet in the country will use that quote or sound bite. And that's "the frame" that the mass public takes away from the situation.

I tend to use my own mother to gauge how the mass public reacts to news. It's like this.

"Well, the liberal press asked, and he said he did his duty. End of story."

There's nothing a little blogger can do about it, really, no matter how big his (or her) head might be.

Posted by: Glynn Wilson at December 13, 2004 8:58 PM | Permalink

Student loan company offering student loans, Federal Student Loan consolidation, scholarship search engine, Stafford Loans and Federal PLUS Loan Applications.

Posted by: Kelly Miller at December 14, 2004 2:52 AM | Permalink

From the Intro