Imagining A Spin-free Story

Late Tuesday night, returning to post-VP debate coverage after a commercial break, Peter Jennings reminded his viewers, “[ABC does not] indulge in spinmeisters coming around and telling us exactly who won.” He continued, in a somewhat mocking tone, that it was “amazing, or maybe amusing is the word” that the Bush-Cheney campaign had already released a statement declaring Cheney the unequivocal winner. With equal disdain he added, “It won’t be very long, I suspect, before the Democratic press release will be along.”

ABC made a decision that the rhetoric gushing from the campaign spinners is neither informative nor news. Part of that, of course, is self-interest — broadcast networks are forced to do their wrap-ups in a short half-hour, unlike cable news outlets that have the luxury of endless airtime to mix pundit analysis with live reports from the spin room, add the latest poll results, and throw in the occasional fact-check. ABC, for one, has wisely chosen to summon the voice of its own reporter on the road, rather than the blather of campaign surrogates.

One complaint Campaign Desk often hears from print reporters is that the space limits of newspaper journalism prevents them from elaborating on policy or clarifying distortions. One way to free up space would be to eliminate the endless quotations from campaign flacks. Yet in the days leading up to the debates we’ve yet to see a newspaper that has stepped up to the plate like ABC and decided that spinners are for the birds.

Today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes that “Both campaigns are, as always, setting the bar high this evening for their respective rivals.” Assuredly aware (“as always”) that the campaign posturing is meaningless the Post-Gazette nonetheless goes on to reprint quotes from Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman and Kerry advisor Joe Lockhart handicapping expectations, as if it’s news.

Likewise, from today’s Chicago Tribune. we learn that tonight “the rules of engagement could play to the president’s strength in commanding an audience with a Texas-tongued rapport.” This may or may not prove to be the case, but providing evidence of this, in the form of a concerned quote from Kerry spokeseman Mike McCurry, makes the Trib little more than an enabler in McCurry’s game to lower expectations for his man and raise them for the opposition.

The press does acknowledge, and tell readers about, the aggressive efforts of the spinmeisters to influence news reports. Why then the puzzling enthusiasm to shoehorn into a story every quote a reporter has in his or her notebook? Framing sound bites as just so much superfluous blather is only half the battle — the other half is choosing not to print the stuff at all.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.