Journalists and spin-doctors

BY ninan| IN Media Practice | 12/03/2004
To avoid being taken for a spin journalists should start treating spin doctors for what they are: not news providers, but government workers running campaigns to get their bosses elected.
 

 Jaya Uttamchandani

  

"In this world of media reality, newsworthiness becomes a substitute for validity, and credibility becomes reduced to a formula of who applies what images to which events under what circumstances." - W. Lance Bennett1

 Across the globe, the central role of spin-doctors in elections and otherwise is an extremely recent debate. However, the act of ‘spinning’ in itself has indeed been ancient going back in time when the only form of mass communications was the radio. Who exactly are these spin-doctors and what exactly is their role?  

This is all worth thinking about while watching movies like ‘Wag the Dog.’ The movie is about a spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer who fake a war in attempt to save their client, the president of the United States, from an election-eve sex scandal. Diversion, proven to work time and again, forced the sex-scandal stories off the front page and instead, war, heroism and anti-terrorism campaigns took over. Results? The media got spun and the president re-elected. Is this purely fictional or a depiction of reality? 

Here is a slice of reality that explains a well-spun story, its effects and its life span. In the tense days leading up to the Gulf War, a young Kuwaiti woman appeared before Congress (then debating if they should approve the impending actions on sending military aid) and spoke about having Iraqi troops bayoneting newborns in Kuwait City hospital where she worked as a nurse. Congress and the American people were undoubtedly outraged. In actuality, it was a total lie- the entire story was spun. After the war, the shooting, gaining public support, and creating all those ‘war-time-hero’ images, reality bit. The young "nurse" turned out to be the daughter of a Kuwaiti embassy official in Washington.2  Her testimony was engineered, but since it was all over, who cares? Next…  

Spin-doctors are often referred to as the bad guys and that is completely justified upon studying such cases. However, are they, really? The government, under positions like- Public Relations Personal, Communications Officer, or Corporate Communications Officer hires spin-doctors. Put simply, they are merely government workers doing their job. They are hired to tell us how to think, interpret and how the politician’s speech is to be understood; they are meant to do all that they can to get the party they work for elected, re-elected and they are seemingly favourable to the public. They also help in agenda setting and are required to be as subtle as they can, after all, spinning won’t work if the public and especially the media get cynical about the information they receive. But can they be labelled as the bad guys when that is merely all it is- a job criterion? A party chooses its spin-doctors. However, a substantial sum of a taxpayer’s money (our money) goes to them. 

 

 

Spinning: step by step

1. Compose a simple message; incorporate an angle of thought for the audience, be it anger, sympathy, skepticism, with reference to the matter in hand. Or, create the matter to get your message across.

2. Saturate the mediums with the same message rather than have a compare and contrast situation.

3. Get the message across from a credible source in credible mediums, even if you have to create a credible figure or buy one. Your message has to be credible to get accepted.

4. Then, frame your message. This means deliver your message in a natural setting suggesting to journalists that it is an occurrence outside the political sphere and inside the news frame.   

Here are some facts that might intrigue you; governments spin-doctors cost millions. In some cases figures of full-time ‘communication staff’ employed by the government goes into digits like 340, adding up to more than 500 PR people. (www.scoop.co.nz)

 

Clearly those in the political and governmental circles are interested not only in getting publicity, but also in having it be favourable - this has come to be known as spin control. A process whereby the government officials influence what is said and how it is said by controlling the access that the news media have to them and their activities.3 To do so, they hire spin-doctors. 

Spin-doctors are frowned upon mainly because they bear no responsibility for the speech, their depiction or interpretations. But then again, it’s the media’s job to play watchdog, to differentiate between reality and fiction. Besides politicians are bound to do all they can to attain and retain power. For example, the BJP’s electoral strategy has always been based on attacking India’s Muslims and promoting the Hindu fundamentalist agenda of the Sangh Parivar. 4 And like Innocenzi states, "It’s my job as an advertising person to produce television commercials; it’s their [media] job to ferret out the truth and sniff out the bad commercials." 5 After all, ‘dirty politics’ and ‘watchdog journalism’ are labels meant to symbolize something.

 

Spinning and Elections

 "Once you’ve got all the forces moving and everything taken care of by the commanders, turn your attention to television because you can win or lose the war if you don’t handle the story right." - Colin Powell6  

A spin-doctor has a crucial role during elections. Professors have argued time and again that 20-30% of voters can switch parties during election campaigns and media messages almost certainly play a crucial role in influencing them, especially the ‘new’ and uncommitted voters.7  

The power of the media has always been a political issue. In a communist country, the media is directly and transparently controlled. However, in a democracy, the media is spun to enable the government to manage the news and set the political agenda; thus, the need for spin-doctors. Additionally, elections would be deemed ‘unfair’ if the governing party seemingly had too much or direct influence and control over information dished out. Besides it would lessen their credibility.  

 

PR and Spinning

 Anyone trained in PR could be a spin-doctor; the best are recruited- like Campbell. However, as much as spinning incorporates PR, PR does not involve spinning. PR looks into press releases, handling of information and maintaining public image, all that a spin Doctor does as well. Difference? A spin-doctor’s role is more interesting, less ethical, and certainly more secretive and private. PR is a more transparent and Spinning is purely politics. That is why it is important to question the role of spin Doctors in elections.

 

I asked a classmate how she would define ‘Spin Doctors’ and here is how she put it; ‘someone who has no morals, who will lie for the government and who will work for someone who they may be ethically at opposites with." In addition, she stated that their role has been ‘blatantly obvious’ with spin doctors from UK, USA, and Australian governments manipulating information to generate public belief and support that ‘Iraq was threatening and armed.’ Manipulating facts may merely be part of their job, but it definitely has some drastic effects, it definitely creates a bang!

 

 In the case of John Major, all it took was for Archer (on Major’s campaign team- yes, a spin doctor) to say: ‘No other leader in Europe has received 67% of vote of confidence. Imagine Kohl getting this, this is far higher than I expected, it’s overwhelming!’ just 20 minutes after the results were out. Initially the media was sceptical about the information being factual, but after 20 minutes and four people covering 21 channels with the same message, it was accepted. If not for the smart grab of microphones, it was not certain that Major could survive with one-third of the party withholding its support.8 A Media weakness for current information, a criterion that defines news, many times compromises facts. Now that’s a spin. 

Of course there are times when disillusioning followers leads to a shorter political life. In Bill Clinton’s case, the Republican used the forceful denial that he had sex with Lewinsky. Most part of scandals and flaps that fill the news before elections are products of politicians trying to discredit each other, or stories spun to credit themselves, or journalists try to play "gotcha" due to the lack of juicy material. It thus isn’t surprising that the confused public discredits both bodies.  

The journalistic advantage today is that we couldn’t have a worse reputation, so we could pick up, try and fix things and expect things to only get better. With all the given restrictions, the least we could do is avoid getting taken for a spin and starting to treat spin doctors like what they are; not merely news providers, but government workers running campaigns to get their bosses elected. The public relations tactics designed to create the grand illusion of political news shouldn’t so easily seduce journalists of high calibre. When the press turns critical focusing on an unpopular personal scandal, it could be a minor illusion and the result of a political spin so before giving it the front page, look elsewhere-- you might find something bigger and more relevant to the elections and voters.

 

Spinning and Journalists

 ‘Good spin doctors rely above all else on tame journalists remaining tame; exhibiting nice manners, personal restraints, a sort of mildly-embarrassed unwillingness to make a gauche scene in front of their journalistic peers.’  - Robertson9

 The rightful relationship between a journalist and a spin-doctor should be that of a journalist and a politician. It is disturbing to hear editors like George Pascoe-Watson say, "We speak to them all the time, and we rely on them far more than on any civil servant."10 Since when have spin-doctors (i.e. political parties) been allowed to tell journalists which questions they can or can’t ask, and when, and how? There are times when journalists know they are taken for a ride and meekly follow the rules. I mean, listen to this from the US President, "It remains my absolute personal conviction that there was a very compelling argument that Saddam was a serious WMD threat, and I made the appropriate decision based on my understanding of the facts, only after a profoundly serious consideration of all aspects of the debate, on merit." As Elkins states, this sentence means nothing, nothing, nothing. And yet we went to war thanks entirely to rubbish just like that.  

As much as one understands that spinning is part of politics, a profession in itself. Journalists should see past the spin-doctor clichés. The ‘go-easy-on-me-personally’ is a key that spin doctors use, the blurred and manipulated language that sound convincing and mean nothing, and the ‘I am your source of news,’ ‘I am merely doing my job,’ and the ‘trying to be straightforward look,’ has to be stopped, and labelled as absolute rubbish. Spinners have to stand accountable for their deeds and their employers.  

Currently, due to numerous reasons (private ownership, greater government support and shares, fear, professional norms and news sources), ‘far from being monitors or watchdogs of the elite, the media are more political transmission lines to the public- they are allowing themselves to be spun.11 Hopefully the upcoming elections will see a spin in the other direction.

 

 1 W. Lance Bennett, 2001, News: The Politics of Illusion, Fourth Edition, Longman

2 Rod Dreher, 1998, A Political Spin on Reality, Eutopia Online, Vol. 2, No. 4

3 Gross, Wartella, Whitney, 1998, Mass Making: Mass Media in a Popular Culture, Sage

4 Qazi Umar, 2004, BJP’s State election strategy confirms Muslim fears for general elections 2004, http://world.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/3599

5 Robert Fullerton, Media Influences U.S. Elections, but the People Play Bigger Role, Feb. 13 USIA Worldnet

6 W. Lance Bennett, 2001, News: The Politics of Illusion, Fourth Edition, Longman

7 Jones, Kavanagh, 1998, British Politics Today, Sixth Edition

8 Jones, Kavanagh, 1998, British Politics Today, Sixth Edition

9 Jack Robertson, 2003, When spin starts to kill it’s time to kill spin, www.smh.com.au

10 Lucy Elkins, 2001, Reforms of the Spinners, http://media.guardian.co.uk

11 W. Lance Bennett, 2001, News: The Politics of Illusion, Fourth Edition, Longman

 

 

Contact: jayau@hotmail.com

 

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