Sinking in their own spin

By MICHAEL HARRIS*

(2 April 2004) -- According to a new book by Paul Rutherford, Weapons of Mass Persuasion, there are 20,000 more public relations experts in the United States doctoring the news than there are journalists trying to write it.

Information straight out of the spin dryer is bad news for democracy. When citizens get their take on reality from fiendishly choreographed news conferences, press releases, slick videos, and other one-sided tools of mass-marketing, truth is usually the first casualty. The measure of success is not whether the spin conveys good information, but whether it makes a sale, a convert, a self-interested point.

As Hemingway liked to say, it would be pretty to think that journalists are at least something of an antidote to the Gospel according to Madison Avenue -- whether it is trying to sell hydrogen cars or a world-view in a presidential speech. And to be sure, some are. But the truth is, journalism, or should I say the new norms of the business, particularly in the dead zones of television, has become a big part of the problem.

In his book, just released by University of Toronto Press, Rutherford notes that up to 40 per cent of what appears in American newspapers consists of items produced by press agents and public relations firms, which is then regurgitated by the "objective" news organs. News conferences which were once a mere clue to the real story are the story.

Events are dutifully reported verbatim even when the party giving the press conference refuses to take questions -- as President Bush did this week when he portrayed himself as a person anxious to have his national security adviser testify before the 9/11 commission. The man who had spent months stonewalling his own commission came off as a leader with a deep commitment to a public search for the truth about that awful September day. The new objectivity.

Quite a word, "objective." The Oxford English Dictionary is filled with the biographies of individual words that have changed their meanings over centuries of use. Objectivity used to mean an unbiased and independent search for the facts -- the touchstone of a free press. The new "objectivity" of the mass media is a mantra of equal time and no reality check, a free ride for those who would spin the news legitimized by the dubious proposition that insiders in a field like politics know best.

In Canada, the typical network television political panel now looks something like this: One talking head from each of the political parties given more or less equal time by a mellowed out moderator who rarely does more than start and click a stop-watch and buddy up to his guests.

That type of panel, (and that type of info-spin) is duplicated by the political insider panel, in which moderators defer to party hacks for their sense of what is really happening. In fact, these hosts often act as if they have the cultural memory of a fruit fly. We have moved from a profession where the handmaidens and spin doctors of politicians were the last people we turned to for our insights into public affairs to one in which we have made them the new stars.

George Stephanopolous stepped straight out of his role as a political adviser to Bill Clinton into a network public affairs show. George may have been connected in Washington, but it's a long way from Woodward and Bernstein. Nor is he alone. The television networks are awash with administration or former administration figures telling the public exactly what their former political masters want to hear. Their views are rarely challenged with independent facts.

Though it is the most shameless culprit of promoting partisan cant as the inside scoop, television is by no means the only "news" organ that has started sleeping with the enemy. The National Post recently handed over its front page to New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord to explain the historic watershed that the Conservative Party was about to reach at its leadership convention.

The Globe and Mail gave a column to Brian Tobin, a man who managed the media while in politics the way promoter Don King handles boxers. And the Toronto Star features Rick Anderson, Rasputin to former Reform leader Preston Manning and political adviser to a slew of conservative politicians. Newspapers used to know what was happening inside political parties from their own sources; now the party mouthpieces are not only the sources, they are the employees.

Could that be one of the reasons that the United States, for example, has become the Gridlock Nation, a populace so bombarded with partisan perversions of the facts they just can't decide which spin doctor, if any, is telling the truth? Journalists used to play, with varying degrees of success, the honest broker in that dilemma. But now that so much political journalism has either become entertainment (the mouse ears don't become Peter Jennings) or political agendas disguised as news, it's not a question of the guy with the best case winning the day, but the one with the best ad agency or kept network.

Instead of making the case, politicians these days largely make it up -- with a very expensive and sophisticated technology that will probably put a $200 million pricetag on running for president. And all those polls? They are not so much to allow politicians to find out what the public is thinking but how that thinking might be shaped. Again, not good for democracy.

But there is a hint at least that the public may be fed up. According to the latest Nielsen ratings, CNN has lost 52 per cent of its viewing audience for the first quarter of 2004. In fact, only one of CNN's news shows made the Top 12 cable broadcasts in the U.S. Over the same period, viewership of the Fox News Channel fell by 36 per cent.

Since these networks are the Big Daddies of passing off spin as news, of allowing their stations to be used as the informational sinks of the White House, it might be that Americans are ready to ask a lot more of their journalists.

After all, it's not about face-time, right?

* This article is reproduced from the Ottawa Sun, April 2, 2004.



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