The headline in USA Today was eye-catching: “Obama faces uphill battle for reelection.” But what was even more arresting was the accompanying graphic depicting poll results that matched him up against his potential GOP challengers. It demonstrated that he was in a statistical dead heat with all of them, and he was actually leading against at least one. So why didn’t the headline say “GOP challengers face uphill battle to unseat Obama?” Well, because of a little thing called spin, which is the next in our series of propaganda tools.
We’ve all heard of spin, and we’ve hall heard plenty of spin. We’re surrounded by it, bombarded by it, saturated with it. And its power to alter perception is very much in proportion with its pervasiveness.
For better or for worse, President Obama almost certainly is headed for a second term. Indeed, it has seldom been in serious doubt. It’s not a definite thing, mind you; never underestimate the effectiveness of swiftboating and ACORNization; but you’d be much wiser putting your money on him than against him. Examine the chart on InTrade, which has become a very reliable predictor of such matters, and you’ll see that the probability of his reelection has hovered at around 60 percent for most of the past year or so, and only briefly dipped below 50 percent. Yet the conventional “wisdom” has always been that he has a better chance of building a cat house on the moon. Why? Because the media have relentlessly pursued the narrative that his electoral glass is half empty instead of (at least) half full, apparently hell-bent on making his November defeat a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Spin is not, strictly speaking, a technique in itself, but a species of technique application. And it isn’t strictly a political activity, but its application to politics certainly trumps any other usage these days – even commercial advertising, which previously was the primary domain of spin.
You also might notice that spin sounds very similar to framing; and in fact, they’re often used interchangeably. But in practice, there are generally certain distinctions between the two. Framing usually promotes one of a number of possible interpretations, while spin generally means reversing the polarity of a given perception — i.e., making an unfavorable result appear favorable, or vice versa. Framing might be thought of as a preemptive strike to mold perception of future events, while spin may be thought of as damage control to reshape perception of past events. (Even in the example cited, the spin is applied to poll results that already have occurred.) You’ll witness spin in action after just about any election, as the losers and/or their backers try to explain to the public that defeat didn’t really mean what it meant.
One of the most brazen (and most successful) political spin campaigns ever occurred after the 2000 election, when the supporters of George W. Bush — who, at the very least, lost the popular vote — hailed the 5-4 Supreme Court decision that put him in office as a sweeping mandate that reflected the overwhelming will of the people. They sported maps that colored in the “red” and “blue” states and proclaimed, I kid you not, that three-fifths of the nation had voted for Dubya. Fox “News” hawked T-shirts blazoned with such a map, reflecting “Bush’s stunning victory”. Not to be outdone, the reactionary blog Free Republic zeroed in on California, publishing a map that showed Bush carried more counties in that state, and declaring that he “beat Gore to a bloody pulp” — in a state Gore won by a 12 percent margin!
We should note that spin descends into such grotesque silliness not necessarily by providing false information, but by seizing on the wrong information. What those maps really proved was that Bush voters were spread out among a wider expanse of real estate than Gore voters. Which is about as relevant as saying that Gore voters tended to live in taller buildings. (Hey, why not a 3-D electoral map that stresses depth rather than breadth of voter distribution?) That vast red territory is occupied largely by cattle, rattlesnakes and scorpions — none of which cast ballots in that election (at least to the best of our knowledge).
But, as in the example of the Obama polls, another way to spin is just to offer a strained interpretation of the facts. For an all-time classic textbook example we turn, as we so often do, to the great Rush Limbaugh. And the topic was not politics but, as you might expect, he did his damnedest to politicize it. It was the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which damaged a portion of freeway around Los Angeles. Here’s how FAIR compares Limbaugh’s comments to events in the real world:
LIMBAUGH: On California contractor C.C. Myers completing repairs 74 days early on the earthquake-damaged Santa Monica Freeway: “There was one key element that made this happen. One key thing: The governor of California declared the [freeway] a disaster area and by so doing eliminated the need for competitive bids…. Government got the hell out of the way.” (TV show, 4/13/94) “They gave this guy [Myers] the job without having to go through the rigmarole…of giving 25 percent of the job to a minority-owned business and 25 percent to a woman.” (TV show, 4/15/94)
REALITY: There was competitive bidding: Myers beat four other contractors for the job. Affirmative action rules applied: At least 40 percent of the subcontracts went to minority or women-owned firms. Far from getting out of the way, dozens of state employees were on the job 24 hours a day. Furthermore, the federal government picked up the tab for the whole job (L.A. Times, 5/1/94).
Unable to wrap his brain around the notion that the big bad guvmint actually might be able to operate effectively on occasion, Limbaugh just blotted it out of the picture altogether. His recipe for turning reality on its ear was (1) Select some actual facts– i.e., that repairs were completed by a private contractor well ahead of estimated schedule; (2) Stir in some made-up facts — i.e., that the government cut corners on affirmative action and other regulatory measures; (3) Extrapolate an interpretation that is contrary to truth — i.e., that the efficiency of the project was due to the government “getting the hell out of the way”; (4) dish it up to the masses (serves several million).
That, folks, is spin at its spinfulest.