When comedian Jon Stewart accused journalists last October of being “part of the problem” by reporting canned campaign rhetoric from Spin Alley after presidential debates, he won huge points with a howling audience. “Jon Stewart is a god!” wrote Weblogger Cary Is A Geek. “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.”
What viewers, and even some journalists, might not have known, was that just such a movement—undeclared, unorganized and born of individual frustration— was already afoot among leading journalists and media critics. The plan: to bulldoze Spin Alley or, at least, to invalidate what happens there. During the past eight years, a growing number of journalists have publicly decried the ritual of Spin Alley, according to research I’ve done into its origins and practice. My research was done at the request of New York University professor Jay Rosen for his blog, PressThink. These reporters and media watchdogs point out the hypocrisy of journalists who participate: By stepping into Spin Alley, they set themselves up to be, at best, receptacles ofspin and, at worst, its recyclers. As a measure of this movement’s gathering strength, Adam Nagourney, chief political correspondent for The New York Times, boycotted Spin Alley during last fall’s presidential debates, calling it “degrading.”
Nagourney’s decision was not the only underreported media innovation that occurred during coverage of the 2004 election. It appears that the quality of election year coverage available to consumers improved as a result of unprecedented competitive pressures and audience criticism, spearheaded by bloggers and blog readers and assisted by the development of Web-based fact-checking sites. As a result, and as I describe below, some members of the often-maligned mainstream media did usher in a higher level of transparency in their campaign reporting, particularly in coverage of the debates.
The question now is what journalists and their newsroom managers will retain from this experience. Will we codify the rejection of Spin Alley and move into the 2006 and 2008 election seasons with higher standards for political coverage in place? Or will we earn more well-deserved heckling from two-time Peabody Award-winner Jon Stewart?
Encountering Spin Alley
What is spin? The most widely linked and commonly accepted definition of spin belongs to William Safire. His “New Political Dictionary” describes it as “deliberate shading of news perception; attempted control of political reaction.” While spin has to be as old as our species, politics has given the word a second career. Long before spin had anything to do with politics, its practitioners sought to win at sports such as pool and baseball, according to Graeme Donald’s “Dictionary of Modern Phrase.” Donald, who wrote about words for The Courier- Mail, does not provide dates for these historic uses, but notes that spin, as in “slant” or “interpretation,” dates from about 1984.
Indeed, spin, as we know it today, was reinvented in 1984 at two key events—one journalistic, one political. Researching Donald’s term, “spin doctor,” led me to The New York Times’s archive and an article in which Jack Rosenthal, a former assistant managing editor, launched spin into the political lexicon. What follows is an excerpt from what Rosenthal wrote that October in “The Debates and the Spin Doctors.”
“Tonight at about 9:30, seconds after the Reagan-Mondale debate ends, a bazaar will suddenly materialize in the pressroom 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.”
I Googled Rosenthal’s piece and learned that National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent Linda Wertheimer tackled the history of Spin Alley in November 2002 as part of her station’s “Present at the Creation” series. Her piece opens by recalling events that led to Rosenthal’s description, and she unveils the original “spin doctor,” at least according to legend. “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,” Wertheimer reported. “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] ….”
Fixing the precise birth date of Spin Alley is likely impossible, but from the mid-1980’s on journalists began to recognize that spinning by political operatives was becoming an accepted part of reporters’ debate ritual. In doing so, the nation’s leading journalists appeared to acknowledge Spin Alley as a necessary evil, as they urged readers, viewers and listeners to trust them to filter the spin out and offer “real” news. Those operatives who worked the system well, such as Atwater, were considered worthy adversaries by journalists. Regarded as “superstars,” they performed at peak level in spin situations and were much admired for their skills. With them, word-to-word combat was intense, since the better the spinner was, the better the reporter (listener) had to be to “catch” the master.
Spinning Outed as ‘Lying’
During the past three election cycles, however, opinions about Spin Alley have shown gradual signs of a shift. In 1996, a countervailing perspective began to form, one that treated Spin Alley not as a necessary evil—just as an evil. In the minds of many, spinning had become tantamount to “lying,” and journalists had begun to publish columns and books complaining about spin and denigrating “spinners.”
In October 1996, former CBS and CNN correspondent Deborah Potter inaugurated the Spin Alley countermovement with her op-ed, “Wanted: Less Spin, More Substance,” in The Christian Science Monitor. Potter complained that spinmeisters’ verdicts were “as irresistible to the news media as a sold-out fundraiser to a cash-strapped candidate.” She warned her colleagues, “What’s missing in debate coverage is not speed, but reflection. Replacing the snappy sound bites of the spinmeisters with the pseudoscientific results of an instant poll adds none of the context viewers need to understand a debate.”
Journalists’ condemnation of spin took a leap forward when Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel published “Warp Speed” in 1999. Their book quotedWashington Post executive editor emeritus Ben Bradlee’s bald definition of spinning as “lying” and criticized mainstream media from the inside out, calling for a return to high-quality standards in journalism. Soon other journalists were echoing these sentiments. Even though USA Today’s political reporter Chuck Raasch didn’t stay away from Spin Alley during the 2000 presidential election, he was among those who trash-talked it as “the most absurd exercise in American politics.” He aired his concerns about its effect on the campaign trail when he wrote: “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.”
Such comments went largely unheeded by newsrooms. Attendance at each successive installation of Spin Alley grew larger and more popular, as debate sites were forced to accommodate more live satellite trucks and more local, national and international media, along with more pundits for reporters to interview. Scrambling to compete for “eyeballs” with new media technologies, such as 24/7 live cable television and the Internet, many news organizations eschewed the relatively genteel environment Rosenthal had described and competed fiercely with each other to be first with the sound bites—the spin.
While a growing number of journalists continued to be more than willing to point fingers at the anointed spin doctors and cry foul, most of them, unlike Potter, stopped short of proclaiming an undeniable truth about Spin Alley: Its success required journalists who were willing to disseminate spin.
As George W. Bush began his reelection campaign, bloggers and some journalists began to point accusatory fingers at those in the press who participated in Spin Alley. Origins of this accusatory movement can be traced to blogger Rosen’s November 2003 essay called, “Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press.” After pointing to Raasch’s excoriation of the ritual during the 2000 election, Rosen suggested what ought to be done to Spin Alley. “Blow it up,” he wrote on his PressThink blog. “… 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 the fall of 2004, Adam Nagourney, chief political correspondent for The New York Times, did just that by staying home to cover the first presidential debate between Bush and John Kerry. Nagourney explained his decision to a reporter for The Miami Herald (then later the Columbia Journalism Review), by saying that Spin Alley was “degrading” and “a waste of time” and “essentially a disingenuous exercise.” Soon after this, Rosen wrote: “When the lead correspondent of The New York Times won’t play in your game, your game has been downgraded some …. 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?”
Fact-Checking: Bloggers vs. Journalists
During the 2004 election cycle, most political journalists kept showing up at Spin Alley. Meanwhile, other bloggers joined Rosen in trying to decertify Spin Alley and, as they did, more members of the mainstream news media picked up on the idea—or, at least, they arrived at the same conclusion: Spin should be replaced by fact-checking what the candidates actually said.
Journalists and bloggers began to fact-check the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns in earnest. Many television, radio and print outlets placed a renewed emphasis (and resources) on this newsgathering effort. On the blogger side, notably Eschaton, INDC Journal, DailyKos, and my blog, Surfette, devoted many hours in pursuit of gathering this information. Though mainstream and not-so-mainstream media continued to cover the debates, Spin Alley started to be treated as a suspicious game.
When Washington Post columnist/ blogger and Nieman Watchdog deputy editor Dan Froomkin compared blogging and mainstream reporting in this regard, he decided that mainstream media won hands down over bloggers. “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,” Froomkin wrote in the Post on October 1, 2004. “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.”
The next week, following the vice presidential debate, I blogged on Surfette an analysis of its coverage, noting that “reporters, editors and producers are describing debater behavior with headlines, words and clichés that are stunning in accusation and tone” when compared with the descriptive language used in prior election coverage. This surprised me. Though I expected to see the use of such critical language in blogs, I had not expected to find such direct hits from political reporters with the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and NPR. In the Los Angeles Times, Janet Hook wrote these words: “Throughout the 90-minute debate, Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John Edwards each frequently overstated his case, stretched the truth or ignored facts that did not suit his argument ….”
Not everyone agreed with what Froomkin or I was saying. In a story Tara Weiss wrote for The Hartford Courant, she quoted Peter Hart of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting as saying that CNN’s fact-checking was “pretty poor.” In Weiss’s article, three Web sites—Spinsanity.org, Factcheck.org and the Columbia Journalism Review’s campaign desk—were positioned as alternative news sites devoted entirely to fact-checking presidential campaigns and filling the void left by mainstream journalists, who had neglected their bread-and-butter task. In this same article, Brendan Nyhan, one of the three founders of Spinsanity.org, was quoted as saying, “The debates are one of the few things that the press actually factchecks. [But] it’s like, can you do this the other 364 days per year?” And he added, “The explosion of spin has outstripped the media’s ability to counter that. Sites like ours are a response to that.”
Leaving Spin Alley
Fact-checking and getting correct information to voters is so fundamental to election coverage that it’s rather surprising to suggest that these changes in focus represented an innovation in election coverage for many news outlets. But by adding this fact-checking to—and in some cases substituting it for—what had become traditional talking-heads banter after debates, news reporters were able to demonstrate the core value they bring to this coverage—context. And by reading and sometimes quoting from bloggers and their interactive community— on the debates and about news coverage of them—journalists began to place a higher priority on serving the needs of their news consumers.
This new tone and approach of news organizations in reporting on the 2004 presidential election stands apart from their coverage during the past 20 years in some small but very encouraging ways. I say encouraging because this is happening at a time when recent studies about the news media reveal that their consumers want more transparency in the reporting they receive and more ability to interact with those who report the news than ever before.
“In effect, the era of trust-me journalism has passed, and the era of show-me journalism has begun,” cautions the State of the News Media 2005 report, published by the Project for Excellence in Journalism on March 14th. “Journalists aspire in the new landscape to be the one source that can best help citizens discover what to believe and what to disbelieve—a shift from the role of gatekeeper to that of authenticator or referee. To do that, however, it appears news organizations may have to make some significant changes. They may have to document their reporting process more openly so that audiences can decide for themselves whether to trust it. Doing so would help inoculate their work from the rapid citizen review that increasingly will occur online and elsewhere.”
Spin Alley might represent just such an opportunity, if journalists will tackle it in a unified way rather than by relying on lone whistleblowers. Nagourney took his stand, and now perhaps others will follow, particularly as recent surveys tell us that journalists are increasingly dissatisfied with the job they now do.
Should journalists stop going to Spin Alley? Can they stop? Some excellent challenges have been offered:
- Raze Spin Alley, as Jay Rosen suggested.
- Boycott Spin Alley by following Adam Nagourney’s example.
- Replace Spin Alley with voters whom journalists could interview about what they learned, as Deborah Potter suggested.
- Replace Spin Alley with actual experts in the specific fields, such as tax and health care policy, as Peter Hart suggested and the State of the News Media 2005 report echoed.
- Raise funds to expand Web sites such as Spinsanity.org and Factcheck.org in scope and format, for easy syndication into video, audio and print.
The opportunity to debunk Spin Alley comes at a time when public trust in journalists is bottoming out, as many reporters are agonizingly aware. Consumer faith in news media is so bad that publisher Rupert Murdoch won praise from journalists and bloggers by voicing a warning at the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April: “Newspapers as a medium for centuries enjoyed a virtual information monopoly—roughly from the birth of the printing press to the rise of radio. We never had a reason to second-guess what we were doing,” Murdoch said. Then he added, “But those days are gone. [U]nless we awaken to these [audience] changes … we will, as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans.”
As midterm election coverage approaches in 2006 and consumers’ interest in getting their news online represents the strongest area of audience growth, one thing seems certain: Campaign debates will need to be reported differently. How differently depends upon our ability as journalists to absorb lessons we learned last fall and transform them into improved, fact-oriented news that serves voters. If we are to succeed, it seems highly unlikely that journalists can continue to participate in this absurd non-news event.
Lisa Stone, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is a freelance writer, blogger and media strategist. Her blogs are at www.blogher.org and http://surfette. typepad.com. This article is adapted from an essay she wrote for Jay Rosen’s PressThink, “Kind of a Drag: A Short History History of Spin Alley and the Press.”