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From AJR,   June 1999  issue

A Wizard Of Spin Tells Us About Us   

In the next stage wed better know the land of Spun.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Next stage in the new world of nanosecond journalism and media manipulation:

Reporters and editors, having advanced far into the jungle of Spin, with all its camouflaged traps, had better get on to the yonder grasslands of Spun, where they should know how to unspin but not necessarily counter-spin, on the way to, and not past, Deadline.

They already know they're being spun. They just need to learn more about how and why they can be spun. As the old newsroom saying goes, it's Journalism 101.

You couldn't start in a better place than a 1998 book named "Spin," by Michael S. Sitrick. His public relations firm is headquartered in Los Angeles, where the Times has called him "the Wizard of Spin."

He's got us down pretty well. He's wrong some. Oversimplifies. Exaggerates. Seductively simplistic in what he tells CEOs about the press.

But let's pay attention. We should know what their guys know about our guys. And their guys don't need to know that we know that they know.

Sitrick was a successful young journalist. His main message might be described as understand what drives journalists, don't lie (but you don't have to tell all), get reporters the access they need when they need it, build the story on your own terms, sometimes get good coverage by doing good deeds, stay ahead of the curve.

The spiritual father of most American journalists, he writes, is Finley Peter Dunne, whose fictional, cynical, Irish saloonkeeper Mr. Dooley told us to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. (He also said "Politics ain't beanbag" and "Thrust ivrybody, but cut th' ca-ards.")

Most journalists, says the Wizard of Spin, have things in common:

"The kind of people who choose journalism as a career...share a certain sort of temperament and a similar set of motivations," he says.

They almost all believe in the idea of the "story" as the best possible way to recount events, trends and developments. They tend to see the news as "a series of little mini-dramas." And drama needs conflict, preferably with a surprising twist and a satisfying resolution.

So Sitrick describes how to heighten that particular distortion, in the interest of the client. He's an advocate in the way a trial lawyer is. It's not his job to try to establish the truth insofar as it can be determined, because there are many versions of it.

Nothing attracts people to journalism, he believes, as much as the appeal of being visibly on the line just about all the time: "the inspiring challenge of being able to prove yourself every day." It's not the hope of making the big score someday, but the desire for the small score: the pat on the back, the approval of a colleague.

Journalists as a class are skeptical, idealistic, naive, sometimes relentless, with egos tending to be "both larger and more fragile than the average person's." They think of themselves "as public servants of a sort," each one "a guardian of truth and morality in a corrupt society, a powerful force in the culture."

Right. And I say: nothing wrong with that. They just need to know what the Spinners know about what they know and how to....