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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.”

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:

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