Getting Off the Spin Cycle

October 27, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Hi Margo,

I admit it: I’m a fan of “The Daily Show,” even though I don’t quite fit the 25-to-35 demographic. Minus the occasionally tasteless remark (and you know which ones I mean, Jon!), the Comedy Central show takes the same skeptical view of power that I have. But more than that, it showcases the increasingly difficult world in which traditional journalists live.

Our attempts at objectivity in the face of political and corporate spin often make us look gullible and inform only to a degree: As Jon Stewart asked pointedly one night, what happened to the media as filter? Well, he and his fellows to the rescue! They don’t just dissect the news. They put it in a bowl, mash until some humor comes out, and then serve it up as smart entertainment.  

This brings me not to the now-famous Stewart-Tucker Carlson spat on “Crossfire,” but — naturally, given our charge — to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction.”


Currently Numero Uno on the Amazon.com bestseller list, the book ironically enough arrived at that spot as a result of Stewart’s celebrity and its publisher’s shrewd promotion. Talk about spin!

It doesn’t need our applause. So let’s move quickly to the less touted books that confront politics as usual. Taken together, this gaggle suggests an America that’s not divided red-blue or left-right, as the TV pundits in their reductive mode keep telling us, but includes a whole other band on the color spectrum. (I’m struggling with my image here: I can’t use purple because it represents the monarchy; yellow suggests cowardice; green the environment. Orange? Am I safe with orange?) 

Enter “All the President’s Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth,” by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan. Out since August, the paperback — with a blurb from Tucker Carlson on the back, no less — has spent time on The New York Times bestseller list, not least because it got a big plug on “The Daily Show.”

The title implies a partisan slant, but Keefer insists that he and his band of fellow twenty-somethings are equal-opportunity slammers. Along with FactCheck.org, their 3-year-old website SpinSanity.com has had one goal: to upend the misleading claims of both major presidential contenders.  

According to Keefer, whose day job is assistant manager of the Columbia Journalism School’s CampaignDesk.org, the basic trouble with the media is that “they have a bias toward conflict … There’s a sense you either love Bush or hate him, when my sense is that Americans aren’t that far apart on the issues.”

I agree. From all that I read and watch, I believe that the American majority is made up of sensible types whose impulse is to be both tough and generous and capable of holding two competing ideas at the same time. So little of this is reflected in public discourse or, frankly, the extraordinary outpouring of political books this year. Am I right? Digging through the stacks on your desk, what do you see that addresses the truth behind the spin?

Hey Ellen,

Well, I waded through the books on American politics that have come into my office since January. I divided them into three piles: Books on America’s Invasion of Iraq (the largest); Books Bashing Bush (the second largest); and Books Bashing Liberals (the third largest). I was left with three books that at least attempted to address the nasty political divide you describe. They are:



  • Stanley B. Greenberg’s “The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It”

  • Bill Hillsman’s “Run the Other Way: Fixing the Two Party System, One Campaign at a Time”

  • Peter G. Peterson’s “Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It”

Okay, Greenberg, a self-described Democrat, isn’t exactly a nonpartisan observer, and his book is more of a guide for Democrats to retake the country, but at least he rejects the simplistic “red” and “blue” divisions in America and offers more nuanced groupings. And, he does get praise from BOTH Mary Matalin and James Carville.

And, okay, Hillsman also has leaned more to the left, working as a political consultant to Paul Wellstone in his 1990 U.S. Senate Campaign, Jesse Ventura in his 1998 gubernatorial campaign, and Ralph Nader in 2000, but in his defense of the political rebels among us, he attacks both parties and what he calls Election Industry Inc., denouncing overpaid consultants, big money, political party control, phone autodialers, junk mailers, and the overuse of polling.

And, of course, in a previous column we praised Peterson, a Republican, for taking on both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party for their fiscal irresponsibility.

But the point here is the slim pickings you get when you try to find books with even the semblance of a bipartisan approach to politics. And why not? The books that make the bestseller list are full of spit and vinegar á la Ann Coulter and Michael Moore.

Books by people seeking a political consensus don’t sell as well as the more polemic tomes and are not promoted by journalists as much because, as you say, journalists are looking for conflict (where’s the crossfire?). Now there’s a spin cycle that will be hard to break.

Margo,

Funny that Greenberg would get a book endorsement from BOTH James Carville and Mary Matalin. I’m surprised their two daughters didn’t chime in as well.

But back to our subject: When the appeal to reason doesn’t work, try the funnybone. The appeal to civic duty may have worked in another generation. Now, judging from “The Daily Show” and “America (the Book),” what works to rev attention and interest is humor and scorn.

Of course, this combo didn’t spring out of one side of Jon Stewart’s head. The Onion deserves a lot of credit for showing how a good sense of the comic can pull the props out from under the most self-important politician. And the combination isn’t always foolproof. Reference: George Carlin’s latest, “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?” The comic, always mordant, seems to have evolved into someone so cynical that he’s no longer funny. Apparently dark comedians like Carlin don’t die. They just get more bitter.

But I don’t want to diss the younger generation as so self-absorbed that they must be entertained to be informed. Rather, I conclude they’re too smart to sit still for the partisan bickering, seeing it for what it is — small-minded or, just as bad, a marketing device. And they’re not just laughing; they’re getting involved. 

Besides the crew of young people energized to get out the vote, the SpinSanity guys are a case in point. Unlike FactCheck.org, which is sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, SpinSanity.com is a labor of love, underwritten by its three founders and some reader donations. Their unpaid toil is part of the reason that the three did the book, to add a few bucks to their bank accounts. The other reason was to take themselves to a forum in which they could write long and more analytically (this in addition to their election-season column for the Philadelphia Inquirer).

Power to the people who have brains and actually use them, who are sick of the same old election-year spin and want the media to call the candidates (and the loudmouth authors, and the pick-a-fight press) on it. Democracy inaction, my foot.