All the President’s Spin: George W. Bush, the Media and the Truth
By Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan
Touchstone, 352 pages, $11.20.
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Many people have accused President Bush of misleading the American public. The editors of Spinsanity.com, a nonpartisan Web site “dedicated to debunking political spin and fact-checking the media,” put it differently: George W. Bush simply has taken American political spin to a new level. “All the President’s Spin” depicts a cunning White House obsessed with scoring points in the daily news cycle and in the “permanent campaign,” with little regard for truth, nuance or long-term policy goals.
Fritz, Keefer and Nyhan emphasize that they are not attacking Bush’s policies; instead they are criticizing the way he markets them to the public. Nor do they claim that Bush is solely responsible for our country’s manipulative political messaging; he is simply the “current leader of the arms race of deception.”
“All the President’s Spin” catalogs Bush’s statements on major issues from the 2000 campaign and his presidency — primarily tax cuts, environmental science, the Iraq war and weapons of mass destruction. The editors argue that on all these issues, Bush has used vague language and selective facts to blur the truth, spin the media and confuse the public.
The authors’ examples will be familiar to newspaper readers: Bush claimed that his tax cuts would benefit “all taxpayers,” but the “millions of Americans” who pay only payroll taxes received no tax cuts. The Bush team repeatedly implied that Al Qaeda and Iraq were working together, despite scant evidence to support the claim. When no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, Bush still announced, in May 2003: “We found weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories… for those who say we haven’t found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they’re wrong, we found them.” The authors lament that the president has caught little flak for these inaccurate claims.
Shouldn’t someone hold the president accountable for the errors? Fritz, Keefer and Nyhan say the media is failing to do its part. They describe today’s reporters as more comfortable repeating politicians’ spin and writing “he said/she said” accounts of political debate than actually trying to evaluate veracity and logic. The authors believe this tendency is rooted in a simplistic conception of objectivity that requires journalists to “give equal play to both sides — even if one is misleading.” The book argues that the Bush team is comfortable exploiting the practice to amplify its deception.
While the editors are meticulous in their coverage of Bush’s statements, they only offer vague, cursory recommendations on how to reduce spin: Journalists must reconsider objectivity standards, more people can get their news from “infotainment” sources like “The Daily Show” and Internet Web logs should empower more grass-roots fact-checkers. It’s not exactly a 10-point plan.
More importantly, the authors do not prove their assertion that Bush’s marketing techniques have damaged “the American political system.” America’s divided electorate is divided about Bush. Partisans on both sides say the media is biased and unfair, yet neither group appears to be swayed by the opposition’s spin or the media’s failures. And unlike the editors of Spinsanity.com, Bush’s leading critics are focused on his policies, not his salesmanship. While they might agree with the authors that the commercials are bad, they think the product is much worse.
Ari Melber, a former legislative aide in the U.S. Senate, is a contributor to “MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country.”