All the President's Spin
Jon Elliston, Independent Weekly [Raleigh-Durham, NC] (9/29)
The only antidote for this ailment may be a good ol' fashioned dose of reality, and here to dispense a spoonful are the whizkids from Spinsanity (www.spinsanity.com). In 2001, three 20-something college students, Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan, created the now wildly popular Web site, where they painstakingly deconstruct the lies, damned lies and questionable statistics that have plagued politics during the Bush administration. And now, they've published a detailed, extensively documented and surprisingly readable collection of reports that pull down the curtain on the White House's backroom spinmeisters.
Nyhan, 25, is a Ph.D. student in political science at Duke University. In an interview last week, he reported on the brisk sales of All the President's Spin: the book recently climbed to 14 on New York Times' list of best-selling nonfiction paperbacks. "We think it speaks to how frustrated people are with the media and the state of political debate in this country, and how much they're looking for good solid information," he said of the book's success.
That sort of solid information stands in stark contrast to the White House's disinformation on an array of domestic and foreign policy issues, the authors argue. "George W. Bush has done some serious damage to our political system," they write in the introduction. "His deceptions span nearly all of his major policies, were achieved using some of the most advanced tactics from public relations, and were designed to exploit the failings of the modern media."
An interesting early chapter traces the origins of the Bush team's hardball--and often effective--PR techniques from the early months of the 2000 presidential campaign. Other chapters explain how the administration managed to distort debates about such crucial issues as the 2001 tax cuts, Bush's science and environmental policies, and the war in Iraq. Perhaps the most chilling section of the book addresses the ways the administration has wielded the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks to undermine political dissent at home.
Nyhan is quick to point out that despite their harsh critiques of President Bush, the Spinsanity crew still pulls no punches when it comes to exposing misinformation from the Left. "We really do believe the book is nonpartisan and it's not about defeating Bush," he says. "We see it as a case study of a much larger problem, and the other side is far from innocent on these same things." And indeed, Nyhan himself recently penned a biting review of several distortions in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.
While the Bush administration has clearly "advanced the state of the art, everyone else is scrambling to catch up right now," Nyhan warns. "Unfortunately, the march forward in this is never-ending, and what Bush has done may not necessarily even be the state of the art in a few more years. That's why we're trying to sound the alarm now and say that this is really reaching a critical point, and we need citizens to be on their guard and try to fight against political dishonesty in all its forms. The next president, no matter who it is, is going to have the same incentives to do exactly what Bush did in this past term."
Cary Darling, Fort Worth Star-Telegram (9/12)
All the President's Spin seems at first like just another liberal hand grenade lobbed at the White House. Certainly, Bush doesn't come off well in this detailed, 338-page allegation that he and his crew contort the truth into something misshapen and alien.
But the authors also go after Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry for the same sins and -- to a lesser extent -- former presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan as well. And the biggest culprits here aren't elected officials at all: they're journalists. The media, the writers claim, are failing in their job as watchdogs, thus allowing Bush, Kerry and everyone else in D.C. to spin them -- and the rest of us -- senseless.
This bipartisan blast is in keeping with the spirit of www.spinsanity.com, the political Web site founded by the authors three years ago that goes after Republicans, Democrats and the media with equal-opportunity glee. Their goal is to get to the facts behind the whirlwind of political spin...
Bush is the focus of the detailed, if often dry, All the President's Spin. Although all politicians engage in spin, it's maintained here that the president and his team have taken it to new levels. Take, for example, the setting for a Bush appearance: "In one instance, when Bush gave a speech at a Missouri trucking company, volunteers used stickers to cover up labels on boxes around him saying they were 'Made in China.' Behind him, the White House put up a backdrop with images of boxes that said 'Made in U.S.A.' Television viewers, of course, were none the wiser."
It's this sort of smoke and mirrors that they claim has been at the heart of much of Bush's public profile, whether it's selling tax cuts, the post-9/11 response or the war in Iraq. And it's a convincing argument, backed with more than 40 pages of footnotes and source materials.
But if Bush is the star of the show, the media are the Greek chorus, often a frenzy of commotion and conflicting, shallow stories that keeps the audience entertained but ill-informed. And, no matter who's president, such a performance can never lead to a happy ending.
Eva Ciabattoni, Los Altos Town Crier (9/10)
In "All the President's Spin: George W. Bush, the Media and the Truth" (Touchstone, 2004), the editors of the bipartisan watchdog site spinsanity.com, Ben Fritz and Bay Area natives Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan, meticulously examine the way policy has been packaged and sold since the 2000 presidential campaign...
The questions the authors raise are whether everyone loses when real debate is pre-empted by public relations and whether the shining promise of democracy loses a bit of its luster with every crank of the spin machine.
Paul Abercrombie, Tampa Tribune (9/9)
Reading "All the President's Spin" feels like having stumbled onto the secret manual revealing how a famous magician performs his seemingly impossible tricks.
Only, this wizard isn't coaxing a bunny out of a hat; he's conning the public.
Now if you're a Bush supporter, take it easy. Granted, this book is hardly a love letter to Dubya. But then, it's no Kerry crush note either.
The book is not about whether Bush's policies are sound; it's about how he has sold them to the public. And its authors make a convincing case that Bush (and increasingly, Kerry) is but the latest and greatest user of PR and marketing black arts to mislead the public.
Maybe more troubling, the book also reveals how the media have let the public down, behaving less like watchdogs of public officials than lapdogs.
Indeed, this book could have been called "How Politicians Are Using PR To Poison Democracy And How the Press Lets Them."
The book's trio of co-writers, founders of the nonpartisan bull detector Web site, www.spinsanity.com, from which much of this book comes, succeed in exposing the Bush administration's mastery of spin by doing, well, what the media should: They scrutinize what Bush and other administration officials say (and don't) in selling a particular policy to the public, be it tax cuts or the war in Iraq, and then carefully compare this rhetoric with what the policies and the people behind them actually do.
What's more, the authors explain in plain English just how a handful of major strategies for spinning the press and public used by Bush has been so effective. And, maybe most importantly, they show just how this administration exploits the inherent weaknesses of the media, most notably the phony objectivity of presenting "both sides" of a story while failing to sort out the truth from either.
The results are plenty disturbing. Especially because they reveal how much further Bush has gone in using PR techniques to deceive the public than even PR-savvy predecessors Reagan or Clinton.
Having been a newspaper reporter who now works as a public relations consultant, I'm all too aware how pervasive (and pernicious) spin can be. Yet in reading these chapters (some of which read like plot summaries for some would-be "flacks gone wild" TV show) I was amazed by how neatly I'd been duped, too.
That's why this book's real value isn't just in debunking Bush's deceptive sales tactics, but as a kind of citizen's primer on detecting spin everywhere. Armed with the knowledge of how spin works, and the press often doesn't, you'll never watch or read the news the same way again.
And you, and our democracy, will be stronger for it.
Publisher's Weekly Online (8/30)
George W. Bush vowed to restore "honor and integrity" to the White House during his 2000 presidential campaign, but instead he has launched an "assault on honesty," argue the authors, who founded the watchdog Web site Spinsanity.com after concluding during the 2000 election that the "national debate had been reduced to an endless barrage of spin." In this lucid critique of Bush's "permanent campaign of policy disinformation," the authors evenhandedly point out instances when other politicians, including Kerry, Clinton and Reagan, have distorted the truth to their advantage, but they contend that Bush is the "current leader of the arms race of deception." Bush's weapons: "emotional language designed to provoke gut-level reactions, slanted statistics that are difficult for casual listeners to interpret, and ambiguous statements that imply what Bush does not want to state outright." The authors support their claims with many solid examples. For instance, when commenting on the method that Bush used to imply a connection between Saddam and September 11, they point to a televised address that aired prior to the war in which Bush linked Iraq, al Qaeda and September 11 without saying directly that Iraq was responsible for the attack. The book isn't just a critique of Bush's spin tactics, however. The authors also reproach the media for letting statements like this go unchecked and for being so overly concerned about objectivity that they've become a mere outlet for politicians' "talking points." Well organized and heavily referenced, this passionate indictment will pique readers' awareness of political spin and of the outlets--bloggers, publications like the Economist and "infotainment" programs like Comedy Central's The Daily Show--that are purportedly fighting it.
John Moe, Amazon.com (8/22/04):
It's no shock that an American president would employ skilled PR pros to carefully hone a message that makes the administration's objectives more palatable to the general public. It's a tradition that dates back decades. But it's another matter entirely to base an entire presidency on the bending, twisting, and distorting of the truth. According to authors Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan, the George W. Bush administration tiptoes around the definition of lying but still uses ambiguous language, selective use of facts, and shaky evidence to sell the American people on issues like the effect of tax cuts, the impact of a business-friendly environmental policy, and the reasons for going to war in Iraq. While the authors have plenty of blame to place on the administration, the news media are also fingered for parroting administration spin and reporting it, without verification or context, as objective fact. Fritz, Keefer, and Nyhan, founders of the political analysis web site Spinsanity, detail how Bush and company, more than any administration in history, cherry pick information that they find helpful, regardless of how representative it is of the overall truth, and then package it with a forceful and persistent presentation that eventually takes on the patina of reality. Democrats will also find that 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry appears very much up to playing the political game on Bush's terms as the authors dissect and deflate plenty of misleading primary season anti-Bush charges made by the Democratic nominee. All The President's Spin is richly detailed, not surprising given the sound bite-free task of picking apart political spin, and while it is intensely critical of Bush's messaging, it does not pass judgment on the wisdom or efficacies of the policies themselves. Any politician could take a lesson from the authors' clarity and comprehensive scope.
Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" (8/12/04):
What I really like about this book - and I have to tell you, I donít recommend books, because I'm on television and you're basically taking food out my baby's mouth. But I have to recommend this. It is an absolutely, I think, non-ideological, very well-researched case of how it's done. It's sort of like that Fox show, ďMagicianís Secrets Revealed.Ē And I really enjoyed it... All the Presidentís Spin Ė itís on the bookshelves now, you should really get ahold of it.
Matthew Yglesias, staff writer for The American Prospect, on The American Prospect Online (8/8/04):
How does a candidate go about getting nearly a majority of the votes while advocating a tax program that will overwhelmingly benefit a tiny, super-wealthy elite? As the invaluable All The President's Spin, a new book from the editors of Spinsanity.org, ably documents, you mislead people. You say your plan will benefit all taxpayers when, in fact, the millions of workers who pay no federal income tax but do pay payroll tax get nothing at all. You say that under your plan "a single waitress supporting two children on an income of $22,000 ... will pay no income tax at all," when such a person already pays no income tax. You say your plan will dedicate 25 percent of the surplus to tax cuts when the real figure is 35 percent. Last, but by no means least, you say, "the highest-percentage tax cuts go to the lowest-income Americans." As the book explains, "By this logic, a low-income person whose income tax liability was reduced from $100 to $50 (a 50 percent cut) would have benefited more from the tax cut than someone whose income taxes fall from $100,000 to $75,000 (a 25 percent cut)."
Matthew Yglesias, staff writer for The American Prospect, at yglesias.typepad.com (8/8/04):
"Reader Paul Krugman (really!) writes in to note that he was onto the whole 'technically accurate, actually false' scene way back when:"
"For example, some commentators have suggested that Mr. Bush should be let off the hook as long as there is some interpretation of his prewar statements that is technically true. Really? We're not talking about a business dispute that hinges on the fine print of the contract; we're talking about the most solemn decision a nation can make. If Mr. Bush's speeches gave the nation a misleading impression about the case for war, close textual analysis showing that he didn't literally say what he seemed to be saying is no excuse. On the contrary, it suggests that he knew that his case couldn't stand close scrutiny."
"Along these lines, let me issue a hearty recommendation to All The President's Spin by the Spinsanity folks, which is all over this stuff. I know a lot of people don't like the way this crew bends over backwards to go tit for tat criticizing liberals and conservatives, but the book in question is purely anti-Bush stuff, so don't let that worry you. Better, they very effectively move beyond the whole "media bias" thing to a sound structural look at what's going on. The issue, as they correctly frame it, is not that the administration has gone about behaving in such-and-such a way and the press has failed to call them on it because the press is full of bad people. Rather, the press was there first and established a tradition of going about its business in such and such a way. The Bush team very adeptly studied the practices of the erstwhile liberal media and developed a set of rhetorical and other public relations strategies that, when processed by the press in their habitual manner, would leave the public with a grossly misleading impression of what's going on."
Mark Evanier, comic book and television writer, at newsfromme.com (8/6/04):
"One of my favorite political sites on the Internet -- because they give it to both sides and play fair -- is Spinsanity, run by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan. In their spirit of utter honesty, I should confess that Ben has become a pal of mine but I was praising his site in my weblog before we ever met. I am only continuing that praise as I recommend a new book by those three folks, All the President's Spin, which is subtitled 'George W. Bush, the Media and the Truth.' It's a meticulously-researched, non-hysterical examination of statements that have been made by or about the current administration. As you might expect from the title, there are hundreds of examples where the authors quote Bush, Cheney, Powell or someone of that sort, then offer what seems like pretty solid proof that the statement is at least misleading and perhaps utterly wrong."
"But this is not exactly a hit book on Bush -- though anyone who wants to believe that he and his staff are honorable will probably think as much. There are plenty of places where Ben, Bryan and Brendan correct misstatements and misquotes of what Bush said, or point out the factual inaccuracies of his opponents. The cumulative effect creates a book that, to me, makes a pretty strong argument that no one who is currently front and center in the political world is above mangling the truth, and that the press does a spectacularly poor job of catching them when they do. (Equally appalling are the many cited instances where reporters either misquoted or excerpted a real quote in a way that distorted its meaning.) Since I like the website and agree with the premise of this book, I am happy to give it a glowing recommendation. Hell, I'll even go so far as to post this link via which you can order it from Amazon and -- again, making full disclosure -- give this site a small commission on the sale. This is a book with more integrity than anyone quoted within its pages."
Chris Mooney, freelance writer, at chriscmooney.com (7/26/04):
"My friends at the website Spinsanity.com now have their first book out, with Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. It's entitled All the President's Spin, and I was fortunate enough to read and provide comments on it in manuscript form. I recommend that everyone buy the book, first of all. But second, I recommend training your attention on Chapter 5: 'The Nature of the Truth: Science and the Environment.' The Spinsanity guys dissect the Bush administration's spinning of science on climate change, embryonic stem cell research, ANWR, and abortion-breast cancer links. They do it with gusto and explain in detail precisely what the facts were, and how the administration twisted them. It's deadly stuff."
Jonathan Chait, The New Republic (advance praise):
"A clinical, dispassionate, and intellectually bulletproof analysis of the ways President Bush has manipulated public opinion. The authors meticulously paint a troubling picture of the way our national debates function. It ought to shame the press corps into mending its ways."
Tucker Carlson, CNN (advance praise):
"Politicians talk so much that hardly anyone pays close attention to what they're actually saying. Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan do, staying up late to match words with reality. It's a tough job -- imagine the migraines -- but the rest of us can be glad someone's doing it."
Neal Pollack, author of Never Mind the Pollacks (advance praise):
"A chilling and comprehensive account of how the government has polluted our country with a thick mist of foul propaganda."
Comments by YACCS