American Political Spin Cycle Is Out of Control

It?s here. It?s leached into the written and spoken words of our culture. It has invaded our television sets in the form of a sit com. It has even taken over an entire room at CNN.

It?s spin?the practice of manipulating the facts to profit the politician and allay public concern.

Political spinning comes naturally to humans. The first cave man, instead of going fishing for dinner, went into the forest and downed a few sweet nectars with his comrades.

However, when he came back from the “river,” the first cave woman did not banish him to the pre-historic doghouse. Why? He said he gave tonight?s catch (that was THIS big) to Igor in the next cave over. Igor, he explained, was too decrepit to fish.

Now we all sigh?the first cave man was also the first philanthropist?or the first spin doctor. But who can blame him? Spin reserved him a warm place in the cave that night and maintained, if not improved, his image in the eyes of the first cave woman.

The manipulation taking place on today?s political stage emulates this prehistoric narration. What politicians write and say dizzies the public?s mind on a grand scale.

Spin, a practice that public- relation consultants use to control public perception, has, itself, gotten out of control.

Case in point: the White House, America?s largest spin-producing institution. The venerated establishment plays generous host to a team of perception-savvy spin doctors. This public opinion posse performs damage control on subjects ranging from the administration?s fund-raising engagements and personal health to judicial appointments and love affairs.

In his Aug. 9 address to the nation, President George W. Bush tried out his own hand at spinning, assuring the American people that “60 stem-cell lines” exist. These lines, he extolled, “have great promise.”

Purse your lips and furl your eyebrows, Mr. President, because science isn?t as easy to spin as you think?especially with the nation watching.

On Aug. 17, solid objections emerged from the world?s largest (over 138,000 members) alliance of scientists. The American Association for the Advancement of Science called for Bush to immediately identify the 60 lines he claimed were available for federally funded research.

Until this information is verified, the statement said, it is impossible to “assess the potential values of the cells for research and potential medical advances.”

Others aren?t swallowing Bush?s spin either. Several national figures, including Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) have written letters to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thomson and leaders at the National Institute of Health (NIH), respectively. DeGette outlined 10 questions on the specific condition and ownership of the stem-cell lines. Kennedy demanded a response from NIH regarding similar concerns.

During Clinton?s presidency, spin-doctors made Olympian advances in evading the straight truth, “by chiding the press, browbeating reporters, referring inquiries to lawyers who will not comment or just plain changing the subject,” said Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. Bush cannot eschew the stem cell 60 line conundrum with such anachronistic techniques.

Even with an entire White House office?the Department of Communication?dedicated to producing and managing spin, Bush cannot evade the validity of scientists? concerns. Until the existence of all 60 stem-cell lines is confirmed, it looks as if Bush has spun himself an excruciatingly tangled web.

Spinning even its own moniker, the White House?s Department of Communication has been working double time over the past decade to develop new spin strategies. In this age of ever-proliferating peeping-Tom coverage, reporters climb over, drill holes through and generally destroy traditional reporting roadblocks.

However, the Spin Office, I mean, Communication Office, has developed fail-safe tactics that effectively keep the cork on news the White House doesn?t want reporters to use.

For instance, White House spinners don?t allow scandalous stories to break on the television. By not confirming the validity of a story until the reporter?s deadline passes, press aids have almost complete reign over information. If reporters choose to air the story anyway, they risk their entire professional career.

What?s unfortunate is that, for decades, the White House has lassoed typically trusted figures into their spin savvy corral. The White House has courted physicians in order to convince the public of the physical well being of our nation?s highest ranking representatives.

For over a decade, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the aid of doctors and the secret service, spun his paralysis. The spin team masked the severity of FDR?s disability from millions of potential voters with deceptive statements about his health, in addition to tall podiums with camouflaged railings to create a mirage of FDR?s mobility. He relied, literally, on family and friends for support while approaching venues and posing for photographs.

Unfortunately, spin-doctors have not done as well in concealing the severity of Vice President Dick Cheney?s health problems. Early in the presidential race, the Bush campaign provided the press with a well-edited report of Cheney?s medical history.

However, some things?like three heart attacks before the age of fifty?just can?t successfully be spun. Nor can checking into a hospital for, what Bush described as “mild chest pains,” but “not a heart attack.? He later retracted this statement, adding that it was a “very slight heart attack.”

The problem with our spin nation is this: In the process of our government telling the world white lies, we, as a society are not only frequently fooled by what we read but are also, albeit indirectly, sanctioned by the government to tell our own white lies.

Spin teaches me that tax evasion is OK. When the Internal Revenue Service comes pounding at my door, all I?ve got to do is spin my story. Instead of admitting I didn?t pay taxes, I?ll just say I made a “very slight miscalculation.” If slippery semantics work for our representatives in Washington, they work for me.

When it comes to issues like the environment, the Communications Office needs, instead of glossing over the threatening global situation with 30-second news clips of the president dressed in natural tones helping forest rangers in Colorado, to give it to us straight. The president wants to break the environment and take it for a big business ride, and most of America knows that already.

In a leaked White House memo, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman offered her advice to President Bush on global warming, asserting, “we need to appear engaged.” What a brilliant tactic?spin it like we care about the environment (instead of about poll numbers) then leave the earth to pillagers.

Bush himself throws out vague, meaningless phrases when contemplating the subject. His recent best is: “I deeply care about the environment.” In his stem-cell research address, he also used this ambiguous gem, professing to have “made the decision with great care.”

At this rate, perhaps Bush will begin to “deeply” and “greatly care” about the 42 percent (as calculated by ?U.S. News and World Report?) of his time in office spent en route to or on vacation. Just try to spin that one.

Laura welcomes feedback at: lweiss@chronicle.utah.edu or send a letter to the editor to: letters@chronicle.utah.edu.