A Review of SpinSanity’s “All The President’s Spin”

Posted on 1st September 2004 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

Our goal is to show how Bush has attempted to deceive the nation and why he has escaped serious consequences for doing so. In the process, we hope to spur discussion about a political system under siege by the forces of public relations and spin. Bush may be the current leader of the arms race of deception, but his presidency reveals a deeper problem at the heart of American democracy. (Preface XI)

I am a long time reader of SpinSanity.com. The site was like a long-sought sanctuary in the mad mad world of political punditry. Here was a site that not only deconstructed the rhetorical abuses of pundits I disagreed with, but also revealed the dishonest tactics of people now formerly my political heroes.

SpinSanity is the only place on the Web where liberals and conservatives meet in the comments section to actively discuss the issues of the day. The regulars, Hubris, pyrrho, JD, Batman, Averroes, sweetchuck, hrun, Winston Smith, and many others who are slipping my mind presently are all committed to a constant debate with no end. This is a user community I greatly appreciate for their never-ending disputation and I am thankful to SpinSanity for inspiring it.

“All the President’s Spin” is the first book by SpinSanity’s authors Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan. The introduction points out the author’s past liberal and Democratic political activities but also correctly points out their long record of tackling spin from across the political spectrum, and the resulting hate mail they receive for it. As any regular reader of SpinSanity knows, the comments section of the site is forever being filled with accusations of bias from both liberals and conservatives, and the authors are justified in claiming this attests “to the fact that we effectively challenge the left and right on a regular basis.”

A Bridge Book Masquerading as a Liberal Book

Let me start off with my one criticism: This book will scare away Conservatives. If I were a Bush supporter, I doubt I would have the strength of will to read almost 300 pages of research into the dishonesty of my candidate. To disassociate the individual from their unfair statements requires a level of sophisticated reasoning that very few everyday people possess–even SpinSanity readers. People who support Bush identify with him. Attacking his methods, therefore, becomes an attack on him and then on the individual, who must shut-out SpinSanity as a source to protect their cognitive integrity.

The book’s purpose is much deeper than the mere “Bush Hating” or “Bush Lies” genre of literature so popular at the moment, but addresses a problem that is deteriorating discourse in this country. It is possible to criticize George Bush’s propagandizing and disinformation tactics without coming down so hard on the individual.

So I must criticize the authors for their occasionally insensitive phraseology. For instance: “…the Bush White House’s dishonesty is ultimately different, and more insidious, than that of Reagan or Clinton.” (pg 27) Such a statement might have been better left up to the reader to discern for themselves. The authors certainly have the right to argue the exceptional nature of the Bush Administration’s deceptions, but in the interest of persuading all readers, such a charge might best be left aside.

In a world of red and blue readers who never read the opposition’s books, SpinSanity has written one of the few “Bridge” books that all can enjoy. The propaganda and spin are the enemies, not the individuals disseminating them, and I urge conservatives to read this book with that concept in mind.

Love the Spinner, Hate the Spin

Readers who are able to disassociate the individual from their methods will find this an invaluable resource. Don’t look at this as another “Bush Bashing” book, but rather a case-study in media manipulations and controlling public perceptions. The methods are crafty, shocking, and Bush’s playbook will certainly be used by future administrations to control us. In fact, the authors provide several examples of the proliferation of these deceptive techniques.

In the chapter “Conclusions” the authors come down justifiably hard on liberal institutions such as the Center for American Progress, FrameWorks Institute, and Rockridge Institute, for their “fight fire with fire” approach to Conservative rhetoric.

The chapter on the 2004 Presidential campaigns removes any argument one might make that this book is attempting to turn voters away from Bush. The play by play evaluation of the equally manipulative rhetoric being employed by each candidate is admirably even-handed. The purpose here is not to sway voters, but to help them see through the smokescreens and become better informed. SpinSanity wants their readers to come to a closer understanding of the truth, because substance is the more important than anything else in defining our country’s direction.

Exhaustively Researched, Documented, and Academic

Adhering to a very academic approach, SpinSanity defines what constitutes “Deception” early on (pgs 5-6), and then provides almost nothing but facts. Statistics, public statements, and concise explanations of the rhetoric construct a powerful argument. The references listed in the back of the book are thorough, the most accessible I have ever encountered, and easily verified. SpinSanity has nothing to hide. The authors want us to check their sources, see for ourselves how their research led them to these theories. Such openness in revealing their methods serves as a testimony to their veracity and the veracity they want to promote in America’s political system. These are authors who respect the intelligence of their readers.

SpinSanity also makes excellent use of Historical background. From Wilson and FDR, Kennedy and Nixon, Reagan and Clinton to Bush we see the evolving application of the “permanent campaign,” where the PR power of the Presidential Office is exploited to manipulate the public and Congress. During an account of the Bush administration’s lead-up to the Iraq war, the authors remind us several times that misperceptions of Saddam Hussein’s capabilities were merely an extension of the Clinton administration’s characterizations of them.

Successful Persuasion

A book that makes me see things in a new perspective automatically rises to levels of greatness in my mind. Here the SpinSanity team has caused me to reevaluate my concept of journalistic “objectivity,” making me realize that truly objective news sources merely relay competing statements without context or critical analysis. It’s merely one person’s word against another with no way for the audience to evaluate them.

For this reason, SpinSanity surprises me when they give credit to the left-leaning Washington Post and the right-leaning Fox News for their critical analysis of political statements. The Economist, my personal favorite newsmagazine, also comes out with some praise for its fair-minded libertarian deconstruction of American politics.

I was also impressed with the authors explanation of the dilemma candidates face in regards to their persona and the press. It reminded me of 1988’s “Wimp or Shrimp” characterizations of Bush Sr and Dukakis. In 1996 and 2000, the candidate could either be a slimy dishonest intellectual or a loveable doofus. Which is preferable? Which will earn your statements a free pass with the press?

This is not a book about George Bush. This is a book about rhetoric. That has always been SpinSanity’s mission, to make us aware of how we are being manipulated. I consider SpinSanity’s first book a glowing success in this regard, and I eagerly await their second book, whatever topic they choose to focus on next. One day, I hope to have a small library of their works, what will surely be an invaluable resource in the “arms race” of rhetoric and awareness.

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