The Virtuosos of Spin Control  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   May 1998

The Virtuosos of Spin Control   

Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton
Propaganda Machine

By Howard Kurtz
The Free Press

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton
Propaganda Machine
By Howard Kurtz
The Free Press
324 pages; $25

In "Spin Cycle," Howard Kurtz presents a blow-by-blow account of a high-stakes, never-ceasing bullfight: Clinton administration handlers vs. the maddened beast of a press corps.

It is a timely and disturbing book, an interesting backstage tour of spin mastery that is also, sadly, almost an obituary for the Search for Truth.

Kurtz, the Washington Post's indefatigable media writer, pries behind the scenes to tell the story in lean, fast-paced, anecdote-laden prose. The action covers most of last year, when Paula Jones and campaign finance scandals dominated the agenda. Heading the cast is Press Secretary Mike McCurry, presented with respect and balance as a likeable pro but one tirelessly devoted to protecting his boss. Backing McCurry is a regiment of other spin specialists, from the out-front Lanny Davis and Ann Lewis to background powers like Don Baer and Rahm Emanuel.

Their trade secrets aren't surprising, but Kurtz parades one specific after another: the prolific use of selective leaks and "scooplets" to curry favor and punish; the embarrassingly successful "charm offensive," background schmoozes between reporters an? Clinton; the "preemptive strike," the infuriating tactic of ruining a reporter's exclusive by leaking it to dilute the impact; and the "avalanche," the massive release of documents and data that overwhelm the media so "the details got lost in the dustj" Plus the usual stonewalling, dissembling, half-answering, not-remembering and, at times, fit-throwing.

It's amusing theater to a point, but then something occurs to you: You are learning virtually nothing about what really happened with Paula Jones or campaign finance.

What is striking is how little the truth seems to matter. The spin masters don't want to know; what they don't know, they don't have to lie about. With gotcha journalists and subpoena-wielding lawyers lurking everywhere, no one wants to risk even minor admissions.

The press corps doesn't fare much better. Journalists seem to have lapsed into a professional agnosticism, so burned and spun that they won't accept a mother's kiss at face value. Cynical and trigger-happy, they are so bent on picking apart every claim that they can't seem to let anything stand as believable.

Kurtz shows how these two contending groups inhabit different worlds with irreconcilable mindsets.

To reporters, Kurtz writes, "Clinton had an almost congenital inability to tell the unvarnished truth." The more he dodged, the fiercer they snapped.

To Clinton operatives, reporters were scandal-mongering hypocrites, "so invested in the story that they had to believe in its ultimate importance." When one scandal didn't pan out, "the focus would shift to another... They seemed to have a bottomless appetite for the most trivial semblance of an allegation."

Take the case of Clinton friend Webster Hubbell, imprisoned for defrauding his Arkansas law firm. Did administration officials help Hubbell find work to buy his silence?

For the Clintonites, "there was no public scandal in Hubbell's downfall, only the ignominy of personal disgrace... A few old friends had tried to help him out..by lining up some consulting work for him. The man had four children to support."

For reporters, "everything about the Hubbell mess smelled funny... Hubbell was an old friend of the Clintons..and he surely knew some unsavory secrets of the Whitewater scam. Suddenly he's under criminal investigation and is being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for minimal work by companies with connections to Clinton."

In episode after episode, the pattern holds. Jaded reporters doubt everything; paranoid politicians see traps everywhere. Discrediting each other seems more consuming than working together toward balanced truth.

"In the harsh light cast by the media," Kurtz writes, "Clinton was a slippery, dishonest, cash-obsessed, sex-crazed opportunist who, by sheer dint of his political skills, had managed to fool the voters, coopt the Republicans, and outrun the prosecutors." In the White House view, "the president was a proud, hard-working, consensus-building, unfairly pilloried figure who kept overcoming the odds on behalf of average American families."

Kurtz is a superb play-by-play man, but he offers little analysis of the consequences of this stalemate or suggestions for reform. His book, admirably reported, does have some problems: His sources are not always clear. He reconstructs direct quotes from Clinton and others, sometimes even reporting what they supposedly were thinking. And he falls into the patronizing habit of referring to the first lady as "Hillary."

In total, "Spin Cycle" is a well-done book that underlines a discomforting question. How, amid this endless gamesmanship, can the public rely on anyone's version of anything? If the Search for Truth isn't dead, it needs a champion. And soon.

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