Monday, December 04, 2006

Lying Through Her Lipstick

So I'm sitting here listening to Torie Clarke telling Worldview host Jerome McDonnell that, by challenging her assertion that America has entered a "no-spin era" in which it's basically no longer desirable or even possible to spin stories, he is engaged in just such profitless spinning

If you hear faint popping sounds, that's my incredulity triggering explosions in various portions of my cerebral cortex.

Torie Clarke is a CNN analyst (and Comcast consultant) probably best known for having been Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under Donald Rumsfeld (2001-2003), in which capacity she helped justify preparations for the invasion of Iraq.

If one takes a first-grader's definition of "spin," one might be able to grant her claim as a claim that somebody could plausibly make. That is, if one thinks that "spin" simply means lying blatantly and persistently through one's teeth despite the ready availability of contrary facts, it's possible to theorize an era in which screamingly obvious lying is so easy to expose that politicians shouldn't even bother trying. Recent, ancient, and middlin' history of course suggests that such an era is a fantasy. But at least it's a conceptually plausible fantasy: more Leave it to Beaver than Lord of the Rings.

But, come on. We all know that spin--real spin, effective spin--isn't only lying outright about factually verifiable things. For spin to work, that sort of lying is sometimes necessary but never sufficient. You need to mix lies with facts, miscontrue facts, or simply withhold crucial and inconvenient facts.

Clarke's approach during her interview with McDonnell (in which she's discussing her new book Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game) is a particularly good example of how the most effective form of spin is often the pretense that one is simply, as she's saying over and over is, "providing facts" rather than presenting a position. This is a favored tactic of debaters and spinmeisters of all varieties. It's been a particularly widespread and effective tactic for the right-wing punditry--it's not a coincidence that the subtitle of Clarke's new book echoes Bill O'Reilly's famed "No-Spin Zone" (spin central on O'Reilly's show). O'Reilly is particularly obvious in framing his opinions and assertions as facts, and Clarke is doing a much more sophisticated version of the same tactic with McDonnell.

The ostensible point of Clarke's new book (at least, as she's just represented it to McDonnell in the now-finished interview) is that public officials who screw up should admit it--fast--or reporters will be all over them. It's a nice thought. Maybe it's even true, sometimes at least. (Let's set aside that it took years and an invasion before reporters decided to ask tough questions about Saddam Hussein's phantasmagorical weapons of mass destruction or that it took Hurricane Katrina for the national press to make a big deal out of the fact that experts kept saying that neither New Orleans nor FEMA was ready for a Category 5 hurricane.)

But Clarke is either being naive or dishonest when she goes on to say the news media themselves need to learn to focus more closely on the facts than on the spin. For one thing, the claim undercuts her central argument--if the media are too easily caught up in their own spin, how likely are they to be voracious predators of haplessly spinning politicians? Moreover, what she means as "the facts" seems often to simply mean "the administration's stance."

In a revealing example of the easy slide between facts and opinion, Clark criticized reporters for obsessing over whether to call the mess in Iraq a "civil war" because doing so kept them from looking carefully at "the facts." But the whole point of those stories is an attempt to look at the facts in order to form a responsible opinion about what's happening. What counts as a fact? What facts count? Those are the basic questions of journalism. Claiming that it somehow distracts from the "real" task of journalism to figure out whether Iraq is in the middle of a civil war is downright peculiar. Virtually all journalists have to speak or write, even if it's just captions. That means they're going to have to name whatever they're covering. The phrase "the situation in Iraq" has one set of implications, as do the phrases "the Iraqi insurgency," "the Iraqi resistance," "the sectarian conflict in Iraq," "the violence in Iraq," etc. None of these are purely factual--they all result from and encourage particular appraisals of the situation on the ground.

And that's inevitable. The real problem isn't that kind of "spin." The real problem is the kind of spin that pretends complex problems are simple and that the spinner's opinions are facts.


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