TALES OF THE SPIN DOCTOR
THE BIRTH OF THE PSEUDO NEWS EVENT
"An adviser or agent, especially of a politician, who imparts a partisan analysis or slant to a story for the news media. From the motion of spin on a baseball or pool ball, which gives a deviant rather than a straight track; semantically related to throwing someone a curve".
New Dictionary of American Slang
Tales of the Spin Doctor is not unlike the old children's fairy tale called The Emperor's New Clothes. Indeed this is a tale of a journalistic elitist hierarchy peopled by single-minded reporters and their equally driven editors who find themselves operating in a political world that panders to visual style rather than news content. It is a tale of political media handlers who have found a way to circumvent the reporting process, replacing it with a public relations process instead.
I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on the White House Press Corps at work. It was 1969 and I was a young Army photographer covering the arrival of President Lyndon B. Johnson at Honolulu International Airport for a conference with the President of South Vietnam. The press plane landed first so as to allow these journalists access to Johnson's arrival ceremony. I watched with a mixture of amusement and disbelief as a plane-load of men scrambled off a United States government airliner, fighting and clawing their way across the tarmac towards the grandstands that had been erected for the press photographers covering the event. Grown men, many carrying multiple cameras, lenses and bags full of equipment jostled each other at a near dead run towards the platform where myself and a few other military and local press colleagues stood waiting. As the White House Press Corps struggled it's way onto the stand, pushing, sweating and cursing in the warm Hawaii sun, I vowed that if this was what photojournalism was all about I wanted no part of it.
Several years ago, after a visit by President Bill Clinton to The Philadelphia Inquirer's coverage area I found myself listening to the complaints of one of our bureau's photographers about the selection process that resulted in what pictures were used of the president in the next days paper. The picture in question involved President Clinton walking down a road on the campus of Bryn Mawr University, surrounded by a group of students and faculty. In the photograph Clinton appears to be talking to his fellow walkers in a candid, spontaneous manner. My bureau colleague had made a similar image, same situation, only President Clinton looked more presidential, waving off camera rather than talking to the group around him. A quick phone call to my boss downtown resulted in the explanation that the photograph that was published of the President talking to the group as they walked down this tree lined campus was chosen because it looked more natural...less posed than the waving picture of my angry colleague. Indeed. Realism and spontaneity are generally the goals of any news photograph. The answer seemed reasonable to me..for a moment.
However. This photograph was not taken in what I would consider a realistic or spontaneous context. President Clinton and his new-found college friends were walking down that path in order to have their picture taken. Photography had been restricted inside the conference itself. Clinton's appearance outside the conference building was one of the few opportunities for the rest of the press to get pictures. This was not a private moment between the President of the United States and a small group of academics on a small college campus. This was a major news event that had been set up and staged by the Democratic Party of Montgomery County Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, and the White House Press Office in Washington D.C. President and Mrs. Bill Clinton had come to this expensive private college to talk about entitlement spending and how it affected the federal deficit. It was also a political payback visit to the home ground of democratic congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky. Federal entitlement spending is mostly about benefits to the poor, the elderly and the retired. Bryn Mawr College, however, is located in one of the most affluent areas of the country. Those attending the conference were mostly young. employed, and affluent. So a photograph on the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer showing President Clinton walking past and in front of a wall of national and local media (cropped out of the frame) on either side of that tree-lined path and appearing to talk candidly to a group of Bryn Mawr students and faculty is hardly the stuff of reality. And yet we journalists continue to attempt to cover these kinds of news events as a kind of spontaneous reality.
Indeed. What we are often portraying to our readers is the emperor in his new clothes. In all reality naked as a jay bird...images as free of reality content as the captions that explain them. We allow ourselves to fall victim to the intentions of the president's media handlers. We report and photograph these pseudo events as real news when indeed they are mostly held only for show.
Part of the success of political media handlers...spin doctors if you will, is their understanding of the news gathering process. The spin doctors understand the power of the visual image much more than the majority of newspaper editors. They know that professionally, photographers are treated as second-class citizens by their print colleagues. Photographers are sent to cover those events the word editors considered too banal or demeaning to send a "real" journalist to. This professional division between the word and picture people in the newspaper newsroom has played right into the hands of the spin doctors. Words and pictures working together consistantley in an intelligent fashion continues to elude the printed press. The spin doctors understand this basic bias that most word editors hold about photography, the professional hierarchy this bias has encouraged, and that it has kept most photographers at the bottom of the editorial decision making process. Since most print editors considered photography editorial window dressing, the spin doctors found they could utilize this attitude to control the content of the photographic coverage. After all, photography was reserved for wars and natural disasters or for the stupid, the mundane, the banal....the President!
The notion of a completely controled political/media event can be traced in part to the national republican and democratic conventions. Press access to the principal players at these events has, over the years, become more controlled and more difficult. The conventions themselves have become carefully orchestrated events, designed to put each party and their candidates in the best possible public light. Sometimes the best of plans can go wrong. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was a public relations disaster. Television and still cameras caught the heavy-handed tactics of the Democratic party security people preventing media access to the convention floor. Millions watched as a young CBS reporter named Dan Rather was manhandled off the convention floor in a scene that looked more like Nazi Germany than The United States of America. Just outside the convention hall, television and still cameras captured on film the Chicago Police armed with clubs, tear gas and dogs beating up a large crowd of young war protesters. The protesters group chant, "the whole world is watching" was true. The American public was shocked.
According to Daniel J. Boorstin in his book THE IMAGE: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America, the first modern master of the staged press event was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Columnist Heywood Broun called FDR "the best newspaperman who has ever been President of the United States". Indeed, FDR sometimes even suggested to assembled reporters the lede and what direction he thought their stories should take. Roosevelt generated great warmth, a natural spontaneity and simple eloquence. Part of this public persona came in part through his utilization of his own media production team, made up of journalists, poets, playwrights and a regular corps of speech writers. Roosevelt also enjoyed the trust of the Washington Press Corps, his physical problems from a bout with polio gradually restricted his mobility, consequently press photographers chose to avoid taking pictures that showed him in a wheelchair or in any awkward, unflattering poses.
Roosevelt was the first president to take advantage of the new medium of radio as a way of getting his message to the American people. Visual events were restricted to the weekly newsreels shown at the neighborhood movie house or the pages of daily newspapers and weekly news magazines. At the time television was still being perfected and only a few thousand homes in major metropolitan areas had access to any programming. Because FDR's physical movement was fairly restricted, his media handlers had to rely on the power of his words as much as the power of his visual style. A later president, Jimmy Carter attempted to utilize FDR's historic 1940's radio "Fireside Chats" on the newer medium of television in the 1970's. Unfortunately Carter's text was often obscured by his obvious visual attempts at looking informal and relaxed. A man of intense convictions, Carter failed to learn how to look and sound as sincere as he actually was. It would take the next president in line, a man with considerable acting skills to do that.
Important to any discussion of pseudo events is this historic fact. The expression NEWS RELEASE first appeared in 1907. I bring this up now because this tidy bit of paper, also known as the PRESS RELEASE impacts as much on daily local journalism as it does on the more rarefied air of Washington journalism. The notion of an announcement of an upcoming news event brings up the question as to what is the "original" of this so-called news event? A kind of dramatic performance as the "newsmaker" acts out their prepared script? Much of what gets covered in local newspaper coverage starts as a press release from some organization or other special interest group. Indeed! The late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was a master of the pseudo event. He invented the morning press conference for the purpose of announcing the afternoon press conference which was supposed to contain some new exposure of communists subverting America. McCarthy understood the workings of daily newspapers in the early 1950's. By announcing a morning press conference the day before he gained himself headlines in the next days morning and afternoon papers. Then he might announce at this morning press conference that he needed more time to gather information, thereby gaining headlines that day in the afternoon papers and in the next morning's papers. All without saying anything. His non-event press conferences could air on that night's television news with McCarthy on camera announcing there would be further announcements later. By the 1950's, with the increasing competition between television and the print media, politicians began to recognize the intense pressure and competition the various media were under to cover the news... any news. Politicians began to recognize that this competitive edge the media brought to White House coverage could be used against it...like the Japanese self-defense method of jujitsu, the art of using your adversary's strength and momentum against them. The pressure to compete for stories compelled the media to report events as they appeared to unfold...even non-events.
In Senator McCarthy's case his desire for constant media coverage was eventually his undoing. The emerging media of television chose to cover his senate hearings on communist subversion in America live. This unprecedented scrutiny eventually exposed McCarthy as a dangerous fake. Unfortunately for the Senator, he hadn't learned how to totally control the media's access to his crusade against communism. While media coverage was necessary to continue the momentum of a political idea, controlling that access was also important. Senator McCarthy had one very large strike against him. He didn't look good on camera! As Marshall McLuhan was to write a few years later, the medium was the message. Visuals, it was discovered, contained a kind of forensic evidence, clues that could reveal the truth or if tightly controlled, create fictions or reflected representations of what the politician wanted the viewer to believe. Senator Joseph McCarthy did not understand the medium of pictures and it helped to ruined him.
Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon learned the hard way about image and substance during a series of televised debates with Senator John F. Kennedy during the Presidential race of 1960. The first sentence of the second chapter of Joe McGinniss' book THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968 reads, "Politics, in a sense, has always been a con game". McGinniss believes that Nixon lost the debate with Kennedy because the sharp unblinking eye of the television camera exposed him for what he was and the American people didn not like what they saw. Surveys of the television and radio audiences that followed those debates revealed that viewers thought Kennedy won the debates while listeners thought that Nixon had won. Nixon himself came to believe that Kennedy had won on style rather than substance. Kennedy had come across as handsome, relaxed, warm, sincere. Nixon was edgy on camera. The harsh television lighting highlighted his heavy five o'clock shadow beard. Kennedy had used makeup while Nixon didn't.
When Nixon reappeared on the political scene in 1968 to run again for president he did so with a public relations blitz that showed a Richard Nixon that was more relaxed, even mellow. Instead of fearing the media Nixon would have to embrace it. He would project the impression of a NEW Richard Nixon. He would smile more, even joke with the press. Combined with this was a series of slickly produced advertising campaigns for television and the print media, mostly for television. The campaign was centered on Nixon as metaphor for all that was good in America. Also central to his campaign was not to be caught making any political mistakes. Not making any statements the press could use against him. Indeed, Nixon's handlers saw to it that his live appearances on television were centered around answering questions from audiences full of carefully selected republicans or your average slob just off the street. No tricky questions from articulate, well read, smart-assed liberal reporters. Like a heavyweight fighter Nixon's moves were slow and cautious, calculated to reduce possible damage by his opponent democrat Hubert Humphrey. Minimize your own screw-up in the press and let the other guy screw himself in public by giving the wrong answer to a loaded question. It worked for Nixon in 1968 and 1972 and it has worked for presidential candidates ever since. The medium was the message!
By the time of the presidential race of 1980 and the two, four year terms that followed, the handlers for candidate and later President Ronald Reagan had learned from the lessons of the Nixon campaigns eight and twelve years before. What evolved was a candidate and later president who's contact with the press was carefully stage managed. A steady stream of positive, smiling, energetic Ronald Reagan photo opportunities were offered, no matter how bad the political news might be that day. The president was always kept at a distance from negative publicity. Reagan's staffers created a president who was, according to reporter Mark Hertsgaard in his book ON BENDED KNEE, "a nearly fictional, prime-time president", through an interplay of reality with a highly calculated media illusion. The photo opportunity became a important vehicle for selling the president to the American people. Reporters covering the White House gave little notice to this steady stream of seemingly unimportant photo sessions for photographers only.
According to Carol Squires in her piece NOTES ON PICTURING SCANDAL, "the photo opportunity remained highly visible but essentially unexplained because journalists and other political specialists who trafficked in words treated it as a poor relation. It was the triumphant visuals that shaped and promoted the Reagan presidency (even though) they were considered too pedestrian, too anti-intellectual, too simplistic to be dealt with seriously." Reagan's media handlers understood that if the public got to see five minutes or four column inches of Reagan looking energetic, patriotic, smiling and sweet, they didn't care what ten reporters were saying or writing about him. The visuals, no matter how absurd, always predominated over the printed word. Reagan's handlers designed and preconceived every Presidential appearance in terms of camera angles. Photographers felt they were on a movie stage. White House staffers came to believe that bad news could be offset by positive visuals. Indeed daily news coverage had become a series of media pseudo events! Reagan's press secretary Larry Speaks had a sign on his desk that read, "YOU DON'T TELL US HOW TO STAGE THE NEWS, WE WON'T TELL YOU HOW TO COVER IT".
So that's politics as usual you say. Thank goodness we don't get our news served up to us here in Philadelphia that way. Sez you I say!
Several years ago a press release passed over my desk at The Inquirer's Conshohocken Bureau. The "what" was a protest being held by The Chester County Coalition For Animal Rights and Environment. This event was being held to protest a proposed deer hunt to be held at nearby Ridley Creek State Park. This "news event" was to be staged in the form of a dance. According to the press release " The graceful, fawn-like Prima Ballerina of the New York City Ballet, will dance to bear witness to the coming slaughter of the equally graceful four-legged fawns at Ridley Creek State Park". A reporter and photographer were going to be assigned to cover this so-called event. Fortunately nature stepped in with a nasty blast of winter weather and the event was canceled.
Unfortunately, more and more local news is covered by our local media based on similarly absurd news tips. Even when the tips are not as silly, the basis for coverage is often just as flimsy. For instance, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited a day care program for the elderly in Newtown Township Pennsylvania. The photo assignment indicated she would be visiting the facility along with Pennsylvania State Senator Harris Wofford and the two of them would hold sessions with the families of the elderly being cared for in the home while promoting the administration's health care reform plan. Indeed. Senator Wofford happened to be running for re-election and a visit from the White House would also put the light of a lot of media attention on him, no matter how mundane the event. Again, the medium was the message, pictures of Senator Wofford and the First Lady caring about the elderly. Wofford got his political exposure with the White House and Mrs. Clinton got more media coverage for her health care plan. Other staged media events serve as a platform for free advertising for area businesses.
Borders Books and Music Store in Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania features weekly musical and literary events at their store. During any given month it is not unusual for The Inquirer's bureau in Rosemont to put in a photo assignment to cover at least two of these events. Therefore a supposed local "event" that merits photographic coverage by the areas largest newspaper ends up providing the host of that event with a large amount of free publicity. Interestingly, other area business have begun to cash in on The Inquirer's attempt to cover the community outside the city limits of Philadelphia. In one case a local business began getting itself listed as an area "event" in The Inquirer's weekend magazine section which is dedicated to covering things to do in the Philadelphia area. This same business, which is actually a collective of small trendy stores, began sending out news type press releases to area media announcing feature type events that would be happening on it's property. One such "news event" was a bird house building contest. Naturally a photo assignment was turned in. During a recent summer period photo assignments averaged one a week to the grounds of this better than average pseudo-event generator. Many of these "soft-news" events were designed to be covered by pictures only, which not unlike the strategy of the Reagan White House, provide a sense of news coverage without any reporting. Where does the media draw the line between genuine news events that deserve to be covered and staged media events that only serve some special interest.
Unfortunately pictures fill space for busy editors attempting to compete, despite shrinking news gathering resources, with smaller area newspapers. However, these same well intentioned editors often carry the same professional bias towards photography that enabled the Reagan press handlers to use the media for it's own spin on the news. Indeed. As the cartoon character Pogo once said, "we have met the enemy and he is us."