A New Direction for Spin

In today’s media environment, most major news stories are accompanied by healthy doses of spin.

This week, BP issued a 193-page report that attempts to shift much of the blame for the world’s biggest offshore spill to two other companies. Last month in New Jersey, when the state lost out on $400 million in federal education because of a clerical error on its application for the funds, Governor Christie attempted to turn the table and blame the Obama Administration for acting “like mindless drones” and not contacting state officials for the needed information.

Spin may be more prevalent today, but by no means is it new. Franklin Delano Roosevelt conducted press conferences on a regular schedule so he had the ability to set the agenda for the press and provide reporters with a regular flow of news. In addition, members of his staff often would plant questions with reporters so that they would ask about a topic the President wished to stress.

Other Presidents continued to manage the news, but not as overtly as FDR. In order to keep the news about the Eisenhower Administration positive, the President’s press secretary, James Hagerty, used the White House as his venue for announcing favorable missile tests, but when there were failures, shifted the announcements to military locations. It was a subtle but effective mechanism.

The practice of spin today, however, is much more overt.

For example, in an Oval Office speech to the nation on August 31, President Obama announced that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. That sounds great, but the 50,000 American troops remaining in Iraq probably would not describe the situation in the same celebratory tones that have been used stateside since the President’s announcement.

Likewise, with many questions still unanswered about the gaffe that cost New Jersey $400 million in federal education monies, Governor Christie declared an end to the controversy last week and told reporters it was time to move on.

Earlier this month, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer took things one step further. When reporters challenged her to provide evidence to support her claim that illegal immigrants had beheaded people in an Arizona desert, she simply ignored the question. The Governor paused and smiled, said “thank you,” and then walked away. (A few days later, she admitted that she had “misspoke” when she made the claim.)

Even New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi is getting in on the act, setting the terms for discussion of rumors that he may leave the Bronx Bombers next season to manage the Chicago Cubs. “I’m going to talk about it for a few minutes today and that’s going to be it,” he told the media.

So why are politicians and other public figures acting so boldly today?

Public attitude toward the media has a lot to do with it. According to a 2009 Project for Excellence in Journalism report, the American public believes that the news media are politically biased, that stories are often inaccurate, and that journalists do not care about the people on whom they report. With public opinion of the press so low, it becomes easier to take a shot at the media – and get away with it.

The poor fiscal condition of the industry also is a factor. News organizations no longer have the personnel and the resources to cover stories with the same scrutiny as in the past. Just this week, The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, announced plans to cut salaries and offer buyouts to keep the publication in business. This will mark the newspaper’s third round of buyouts since 2008.

Nevertheless, journalists continue to report the news and serve as watchdogs regardless of the financial status of their employer. It was The Star-Ledger that broke the story about the error that cost New Jersey the $400 million in federal funding. And the Associated Press is not buying the claim that the war in Iraq is over. “To begin with, combat in Iraq is not over, and we should not uncritically repeat suggestions that it is, even if they come from senior officials,” AP Standards Editor Tom Kent wrote in a September 2 memo to his colleagues.

In the memo, Kent also addressed claims that the remaining 50,000 American troops are merely serving in advisory and training roles: “Our own reporting on the ground confirms that some of these troops, especially some 4,500 special operations forces, continue to be directly engaged in military operations. These troops are accompanying Iraqi soldiers into battle with militant groups and may well fire and be fired on.”

Back in 1964, when American troops in Vietnam also were being described advisors and trainers, singer/songwriter Phil Ochs wrote a song that made a point very similar to Kent’s memo: “A sniper tried to shoot us down; he must have forgotten, we’re only trainees,” he sang in “Talking Vietnam.”

Ochs, who studied journalism at Ohio University, described himself as a singing journalist. He lived in an earlier era, but if were still alive, he might not be that uncomfortable in today’s world of spin. As an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, he wrote a song declaring that the war was over.

Perhaps that song, “The War Is Over,” would make a good addition to President Obama’s iPod.

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One Response to A New Direction for Spin

  1. Joan Goldstein, Ph.D. says:

    Nice reporting, Rich Lee. If memory serves me though, FDR gave “fireside chats” on the radio to Americans on the state of the country during the economic depression; and later World War II. Maybe I’m romaticizing that President, but I believe that he was offering solace and support for a worried nation. There was comfort in that – the leader was with us and in charge. I wouldn’t call that “spin”. Your other examples by contrast, are of avoidance and distraction to dealing with problems. See my TV30 show, “Back Story with Joan Goldstein” on The Future of Newspapers. http://www.vimeo.com/8553500

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