of Spin Cycle, by Howard Kurtz
Book review by johnny_red
Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine
by Howard Kurtz
368 pages, Touchstone Books (September 1998)
$11.20 at Amazon.com Buy
sick draw of Spin Cycle is that it's simply a day to
day account of non-stop crisis management and all the petty
little offenses involved in the front lines of a character
war. Reading it is like watching a car wreck in slow motion:
hypnotic, memorable and highly informative, but thoroughly
nauseating and at times dehumanizing in its endless gory detail.
Howard Kurtz gives us a detailed inside account of the interactions
between elite media and the Clinton administration during
the mid 90's. Based in large part on interviews with Clinton's
Press Secretary Mike McCurry, Spin Cycle paints a damning
picture of the blasť corruption of image politics. The elitist
contempt for democracy combined with the irresponsible careerism
of all parties documented leaves the reader with a distinct
feeling that our government is nothing but a caricature of
In the electric Washington atmosphere, each side of the information
battle was doing everything it could get away with in order
to control the next day's headlines. This was no-holes barred
trench warfare, with investigative journalists frantically
digging through the White House dumpster, McCurry totally
controlling access to the President and parceling quotes to
his favored reporters, Ken Starr illegally leaking juicy scandal
bits like a pornographic sieve. After all, these were professionals
at the height of their careers; nobody expected anything less
from the best reporters, lawyers, and image consultants money
The book opens with McCurry and Joe Lockhart discussing how
to phrase a negative leaning non-answer to a hypothetical
question based on a rumor about a possible impending official
apology for slavery, a rumor that didn't seem to originate
from anyone in the administration. He conferred with the boss,
planned a semantically inoffensive primary and secondary answer,
and practiced his lines; and the press never even asked the
question. "Rhetorical warfare was like that sometimes. You
spent hours in training, sizing up the enemy, mapping plans
for battles that never took place" (Kurtz 12).
From timing leaks in order to insure maximum coverage to
orchestrating coordinated pundit show saturation campaigns
to publicly humiliating reporters that pushed him too far,
McCurry and the Clinton administration exhibited a thorough
understanding of media culture and a cynical, Machiavellian
willingness to play it to their advantage. At the same time,
the administration was constantly forced to respond to scandal
allegations in the press, thereby allowing the media to shape
much of their agenda. "The mundane reality of White House
life was that the top players spent perhaps half their time
either talking to the press, plotting press strategy, or reviewing
how their latest efforts had played in the press" (Kurtz xx).
That comes out to be four years of Clinton's term that could
have been focused on rising inequality, urban blight, the
mental health crisis, education, or any of a million issues
that ordinary Americans are concerned with.
If anyone needed proof that the Heisenburg Uncertainty principle
applies to complex social situations, they need look no further.
The observer, the spotlight, the "media vortex" as Kurtz puts
it, was perhaps the defining factor for the Clinton Presidency.
The White House was "competing for airtime with every sensational
or titillating tale around the world" (Kurtz 121). This awareness
colored both the reporters and the newsmaker's decisions.
It was taken as given that the President's message was "just
another piece of programming to be marketed, and high ratings
were hardly guaranteed" (Kurtz xix). Everyone seemed to have
the attitude that important civic information could and indeed
should be packaged and sold to consumers. The muckraking of
Upton Sinclair has been replaced with a hyperbolic soap opera
that is designed to fill the holes between commercials.
Of course, the media had little control over the forces which
lead to this style of journalism. Driven by competition, professional
ambition and righteous indignation, reporters dredged up every
single fact and rumor that could possibly feed the fires of
scandal. The lowest common denominator style of tabloid-journalism/talking-head
infotainment that was coming into vogue had nothing to do
with it, nor of course did the agendas of the corporate parent
companies that owned these media outlets. No indeed, this
smear campaign was done because an enquiring public truly
wanted to know who was giving Clinton money and head, his
fairly steady 60% approval rating notwithstanding.
There are no good guys in this book, no saving graces. It
is as morally ambiguous as the Clinton character war itself,
which lends the book an aura of authenticity and believability.
The lack of partisan spin in reporting on partisan spin is
refreshingly honest, but it lacks the polished perfection
of sound byte journalism. Kurtz offers a stinging critique
of the White House press establishment, but Spin Cycle itself
offers no solutions on how to clear the haze of spin and counter-spin
that surrounds Presidential coverage.
With news passing through as many as half a dozen or more
pairs of hands before reaching the newspaper-reading public,
it seems impossible to separate the commentary and spin from
the facts. This elaborate game of 'whisper down the line'
makes the straightforward propaganda of Josef Goebbels or
Pravda look pretty good by comparison. At least in those systems
there was accountability: people knew who was lying to them
and what their basic ideologies were, and could judge the
quality of the information they received accordingly.
After reading other reviewer's takes on Spin Cycle, I realized
that the book had affected a paradigm shift in my understanding
of the news. I could hear a level of "media feedback" that
I had never noticed before: a subtext dialogue between the
reporters and the newsmakers that occurs along with the message
to the general public. For example, in the review written
by Chicago Tribune Washington bureau chief James Warren there
lays a not-so-subtle rip on McCurry's penchant for favoring
the elite media over regional news organizations. I would
not have noticed that as a message to McCurry and his successors
before Kurtz introduced me to the intensely personal world
of newsmaking and spin.
Johnny_red is not to be trusted. He has no idea what he is
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