We're all familiar with the warning, "Don't believe everything you see or hear." Bill Press, the popular co-host of CNN's Crossfire, will have you wondering whether you should believe anything at all.
Spin -- intentional manipulation of the truth -- is everywhere. It's in the White House, in the courtrooms, in headlines and advertising slogans. Even couples on dates -- not to mention book jackets -- are guilty of spin. Now, analyst Bill Press freeze-frames the culture of spin to investigate what exactly spin is, who does it and why, and its impact on American society as a whole.
Depending upon who is doing it, spinning can mean anything from portraying a difficult situation in the best possible light to completely disregarding the facts with the intent of averting embarrassment or scandal. Using examples drawn from recent history -- the Clinton presidency, the Florida recount, and the Bush White House -- Press first probes spin's favorite haunt: politics. In addition to surveying the incarnations of spin in the fields of journalism, law, and advertising, Press also chews on the spin of sex and "dating," a word that has become the very embodiment of spin. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Press argues that spin isn't all bad, and that without it the harsh truths of our times might be too tough to swallow.
With the same keen sense of humor that helped make CNN's Crossfire television's premier debate show and the limited run of The Spin Room so popular, Press turns the tables on the prime purveyors of spin -- called spin doctors -- noting some of their biggest guffaws and blunders. As Press notes, it has become abundantly clear that the twenty-first century, beginning as it has with a president who was "spun into office," will be a fertile stomping ground for spin.
Press, the liberal cohost of CNN's Crossfire, has the credentials to study "spin"; after all he is a respectable political pundit who has necessarily practiced the not-so-noble art and has been in turn spun by the best political operatives. Happily for readers, he appears no worse for the experience and maintains a downright playful persona in this lighter-than-air look at the subject. He manages to score direct hits on politicians, fellow members of the press, dead presidents, advertisers and lawyers. He takes obvious joy in the skewering of everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Gary Condit, from Hillary Rodham Clinton, to, well, everyone. Here's his description of a typical reader hitting the snooze button in the morning: Spin: "Just nine more minutes, that's all I need." Truth: I can't stand one more day at that goddamned job. Underneath the mirth, Press also manages to make the important point that spin can be corrosive, misleading and can undermine democratic institutions. Orwellian "Newspeak" has, in Press's view, strong parallels with what he calls "Washingtonspeak." But this book is primarily fun and funny. Especially clever are Press's "translations" of various "spins." Senator Lott upon Senator Jeffords becoming an independent: "There's something liberating about being in the minority" (translation: "I hate no longer being able to wear my Leader's uniform..."). Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill on nuclear power: "If you set aside Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the safety record of nuclear power is really very good" (translation: "If you set aside the mountains, Switzerland is really like New Jersey"). (Nov. 13) Forecast: Since humor is on hiatus, this may be an unfortunate casualty of recent events. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 01, 2001
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Excerpt from Spin This! by Bill Press
"Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on.
"I do," Alice hastily replied; "at least -- at least I mean what I say -- that's the same thing, you know."
"Not the same thing a bit!" said the Hatter. "Why, you might as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as "I eat what I see'!"
"You might just as well say," added the March Hare, "that 'I like what I get' is the same thing as 'I get what I like'!"
"You might just as well say," added the Dormouse, which seemed to be talking in its sleep, "that 'I breathe when I sleep' is the same thing as 'I sleep when I breathe'!"
"It is the same thing with you," said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped.
-- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter VII: A Mad Tea Party
This book was born in shock: the shock of sitting down as co-host of Crossfire for the very first time, in February 1996. I asked a straightforward question, expecting a straightforward answer. What I got instead was spin.
Our guest was conservative Republican Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma. But it could have been liberal Democratic Senator Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts. No matter. The result's the same. We ask. They spin.
There is no good definition of spin. It's easier to say what it's not than what it is: It's not the truth. Neither is it a lie. Spin lies somewhere in between: almost telling the truth, but not quite; bending the truth to make things look as good -- or as bad -- as possible; painting things in the best possible -- or worst possible -- light.
Spin is nothing new. As we shall see, it has been around since Adam and Eve. But we are more aware of it today. It is used more outrageously today. And we've finally given it a name.
Spin is everywhere. It is part of our daily vocabulary. It colors and shapes every arena of human endeavor. Grownups do it; kids do it. We live in a world of spin.
Of course, politics is one of spin's most fertile breeding grounds. Many political campaigns establish official "spin rooms." Consultants are hired to put the "best spin" on a candidate's resume. The candidate himself learns to spin, rather than answer a question directly. Party leaders are recruited to parachute into campaigns and serve as "master spinners." Today's variation of an old cynicism reads: How can you tell when a politician is spinning? When his lips are moving!
Spin is not limited to political campaigns. It not only helps people to get elected, it helps them to stay in office and build public support for their programs. Whether in the city council, or in the U.S. Congress, spin is a big part of getting bills passed. When Tom Daschle took over as Senate majority leader in June 2001, he created a special "intensive care unit" for members of the media with questions on the pending patients' bill of rights. Reported the Washington Post: "No media ICU would be complete without spin doctors, who will offer reporters quick rebuttals to attacks by the health care industry and its allies in Congress."