Democratic Underground  

A Review of Spin Cycle, by Howard Kurtz
May 4, 2002
Book review by johnny_red

Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine
by Howard Kurtz
368 pages, Touchstone Books (September 1998)
$11.20 at — Buy it!

Click here to buy this bookThe 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 itself.

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 could buy.

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 talking about.

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