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 Law.com, 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—Spinsanity.org, Factcheck.org 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 spinsanity.org. …”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 Spinsanity.org and Factcheck.org— 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.
: 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 Spinsanity.org 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
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".
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?
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?
Thanks for all the feedback. Just a couple more thoughts:
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.
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.
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.
PressThink: An Introduction
We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of the technology used. The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached...
The People Formerly Known as the Audience:
"You don't own the eyeballs. You don't own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don't control production on the new platform, which isn't one-way. There's a new balance of power between you and us." More...
Migration Point for the Press Tribe: "Like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them. When to leave. Where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life. They have to ask if what they know is portable." More...
Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over: "Here is one advantage bloggers have in the struggle for reputation-- for the user's trust. They are closer to the transaction where trust gets built up on the Web. There's a big difference between tapping a built-up asset, like the St. Pete Times 'brand,' and creating it from scratch." More...
"Where's the Business Model for News, People?" "It’s remarkable to me how many accomplished producers of those goods the future production of which is in doubt are still at the stage of asking other people, “How are we going to pay our reporters if you guys don’t want to pay for our news?'" More...
National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News
This American Life's great mortgage crisis explainer, The Giant Pool of Money, suggests that "information" and "explanation" ought to be reversed in our order of thought. Especially as we contemplate new news systems. More...
The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us. "Just so you know, 'the media' has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not 'get behind' candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.." More...
They're Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial: "I’m just advising Newsroom Joe and Jill: make room for FDL in your own ideas about what’s coming on, news-wise. Don’t let your own formula (blog=opinion) fake you out. A conspiracy of the like minded to find out what happened when the national news media isn’t inclined to tell us might be way more practical than you think." More...
Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class: "We’re at the twilight of the curmudgeon class in newsrooms and J-schools. (Though they can still do a lot of damage.) You know they’re giving up when they no longer bother to inform themselves about what they themselves say is happening." More...
Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality "The important thing is to show integrity-- not to be a neuter, politically. And having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well." More...
A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism "It's mine, but it should be yours. Can we take the quote marks off now? Can we remove the 'so-called' from in front? With video!." More...
The Master Narrative in Journalism: "Were 'winning' to somehow be removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?" More...
He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User "Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in." More...
Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism: "It's a "put up or shut up" moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like... distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting... and put them to work to break news?" More...
Introducing NewAssignment.Net: "Enterprise reporting goes pro-am. Assignments are open sourced. They begin online. Reporters working with smart users and blogging editors get the story the pack wouldn't, couldn't or didn't." More...
What I Learned from Assignment Zero "Here are my coordinates for the territory we need to be searching. I got them from doing a distributed trend story with Wired.com and thinking through the results." More...
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue: "Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform operating as a closed system in a one-to-many world." More...
The View From Nowhere: "Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for 'vocal critic,' and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism." More...
Rollback: "This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called 'feeding the beast'--because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country." More...
Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop: ""Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004." More...
Karl Rove and the Religion of the Washington Press: "Savviness--that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political--is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain." More...
Journalism Is Itself a Religion: "We're headed, I think, for schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway. Changing around us are the terms on which authority can be established by journalists. The Net is opening things up, shifting the power to publish around. Consumers are becoming producers, readers can be writers." More...
News Turns from a Lecture to a Conversation: "Some of the pressure the blogs are putting on journalists shows up, then, in the demand for "news as conversation," more of a back-and-forth, less of a pronouncement. This is an idea with long roots in academic journalism that suddenly (as in this year) jumped the track to become part of the news industry's internal dialogue." More...
Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One: "They're not equals, but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the userï¿½s experience no one has total control. There's tension because there's supposed to be tension." More...
Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die: "An industry that won't move until it is certain of days as good as its golden past is effectively dead, from a strategic point of view. Besides, there is an alternative if you don't have the faith or will or courage needed to accept reality and deal. The alternative is to drive the property to a profitable demise." More...
Grokking Woodward: "Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn't have such access, and this probably influenced--for the better--their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk." More...
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate: "This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the 'we're fair and balanced, you're not' crowd, wherever I may have located you." More...
Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News: "O'Reilly feeds off his own resentments--the establishment sneering at Inside Edition--and like Howard Beale, the 'mad prophet of the airwaves,' his resentments are enlarged by the medium into public grievances among a mass of Americans unfairly denied voice." More...
Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent: "Among foreign correspondents, there is a phrase: 'parachuting in.' That's when a reporter drops into foreign territory during an emergency, without much preparation, staying only as long as the story remains big. The high profile people who might parachute in are called Bigfoots in the jargon of network news. The problem with being a Bigfoot, of course, is that it's hard to walk in other people's shoes." More...
The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow: "The bias charges are getting more serious lately as the stakes rise in Iraq and the election. But there is something lacking in press coverage, and it may be time for wise journalists to assess it. The re-building story has gone missing. And without it, how can we judge the job Bush is doing?." More...
The Abyss of Observation Alone. "There are hidden moral hazards in the ethic of neutral observation and the belief in a professional 'role' that transcends other loyalties. I think there is an abyss to observation alone. And I feel it has something to do with why more people don't trust journalists. They don't trust that abyss." More...
"Find Some New Information and Put it Into Your Post." Standards for Pro-Am Journalism at OffTheBus: "Opinion based on information 'everyone' has is less valuable than opinion journalism based on information that you dug up, originated, or pieced together. So it’s not important to us that contributors keep opinion out. What’s important is that they put new information in. More...
Out in the Great Wide Open: Maybe you heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain Dealer with four "outside" voices brought in from the ranks of Ohio bloggers: two left, two right. Twelve points you may not have seen elsewhere." More...
Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media: "What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never." More...
Notes and Comment on BlogHer 2005 "I think the happiest conference goers at BlogHer were probably the newbies, people who want to start blogging or just did. They got a lot of good information and advice. Some of the best information was actually dispensed in response to the fears provoked by blogging, which shouldnï¿½t be avoided, the sages said, but examined, turned around, defused, and creatively shrunk.." More...
Top Ten List: What's Radical About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The weblog comes out of the gift economy, whereas most of today's journalism comes out of the market economy." More...
A Second Top Ten List: What's Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The quality of any weblog in journalism depends greatly on its fidelity to age old newsroom commandments like check facts, check links, spell things correctly, be accurate, be timely, quote fairly." More...
Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds: "Sure, weblogs are good for making statements, big and small. But they also force re-statement. Yes, they're opinion forming. But they are equally good at unforming opinion, breaking it down, stretching it out." More...
The Weblog: An Extremely Democratic Form in Journalism "It's pirate radio, legalized; it's public access coming closer to life. Inside the borders of Blogistan (a real place with all the problems of a real place) we're closer to a vision of 'producer democracy' than we are to any of the consumerist views that long ago took hold in the mass media, including much of the journalism presented on that platform." More...
No One Owns Journalism: "And Big Media doesn't entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn't. These things were always true. The weblog doesn't change them. It just opens up an outlet to the sea. Which in turn extends 'the press' to the desk in the bedroom of the suburban mom, where she blogs at night." More...
Brain Food for BloggerCon: Journalism and Weblogging in Their Corrected Fullness "Blogging is one universe. Its standard unit is the post, its strengths are the link and the low costs of entry, which means lots of voices. Jounalism is another universe. Its standard unit is "the story." Its strengths are in reporting, verification and access-- as in getting your calls returned." More...
Dispatches From the Un-Journalists: "Journalists think good information leads to opinion and argument. It's a logical sequence. Bloggers think that good argument and strong opinion cause people to seek information, an equally logical sequence. What do the bloggers bring to this? My short answer to the press is: everything you have removed."More...
Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes "Journalists, you can stop worrying about bloggers 'replacing' the traditional news media. We're grist for their mill, says Satullo, a mill that doesn't run without us. Bloggers consume and extend the shelf life of our reporting, and they scrutinize it at a new level of intensity.."More...
Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press: "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... Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good." More...
Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!: "How is it you know you're the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that's why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what's going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate." More...
Psst.... The Press is a Player: "The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst... the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for?" More...
Die, Strategy News: "I think it's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news."More...
He Said, She Said, We Said: "When journalists avoid drawing open conclusions, they are more vulnerable to charges of covert bias, of having a concealed agenda, of not being up front about their perspective, of unfairly building a case (for, against) while pretending only to report 'what happened.'" More...
If Religion Writers Rode the Campaign Bus: "Maybe irony, backstage peaking and "de-mystify the process" only get you so far, and past that point they explain nothing. Puzzling through the convention story, because I'm heading right into it myself, made me to realize that journalism's contempt for ritual was deeply involved here. Ritual is newsless; therefore it must be meaningless. But is that really true?."More...
Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime and Bloggers Have Their Credentials: "No one knows what a political convention actually is, anymore, or why it takes 15,000 people to report on it. Two successive regimes for making sense of the event have collapsed; a third has not emerged. That's a good starting point for the webloggers credentialed in Boston. No investment in the old regime and its ironizing." More...
Philip Gourevitch: Campaign Reporting as Foreign Beat: "'A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,' he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event. The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand."More...
What Time is it in Political Journalism? "Adam Gopnik argued ten years ago that the press did not know who it was within politics, or what it stood for. There was a vacuum in journalism where political argument and imagination should be. Now there are signs that this absence of thought is ending." More...
Off the Grid Journalism: “The assignment was straightforward enough,” writes Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, “talk to people.” When a writer dissents from it or departs from it, the master narrative is a very real thing. Here are two examples: one from politics, one from music. More...
Questions and Answers About PressThink "The Web is good for many opposite things. For quick hitting information. For clicking across a field. For talk and interaction. It's also a depth finder, a memory device, a library, an editor. Not to use a weblog for extended analysis (because most users won't pick that option) is Web dumb but media smart. What's strange is that I try to write short, snappy things, but they turn into long ones." More...