Stalemate

Salon Media Circus: Howard Kurtz's 'Spin Cycle' paints a damning portrait of the sterile battle between Clinton's PR team and the terminally cynical White House media.


Gary Kamiya
March 27, 1998 10:17PM (UTC)

The spin in the blurbs on the back of Howard Kurtz's new book is better
than any inside it. According to Pete Hamill, the book "takes us into the
sick little world of obsessed, self-important, prosecutorial journalists
and their opposing cadre of self-important, image-mongering White House
flacks." For Fred Barnes, however, "Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton
Propaganda Machine" is a "riveting account of how President Clinton and
press secretary Mike McCurry make the national media knuckle under." And
for Dan Rather, the book's publication means "now it's the Clinton
administration's turn to sweat." Even books about spin, it seems, can be
spun.

Of these various spins, Hamill's rotates closest to the truth. "Spin
Cycle" does provide an intimate portrait of Clinton's image-burnishing
machine, but there aren't any big surprises here, unless you fell asleep
before 1968 and missed the PR revolution that has been deodorizing the
presidency since at least the days of Richard Nixon. And only the crudest spinner,
his mind perhaps softened by too many appearances in the friendly padded
confines of "The McLaughlin Group," could try to get away with asserting on
the evidence of this book that Clinton's team has made "the national media
knuckle under." Indeed, you could argue that exactly the reverse has taken
place: that much of the press's animosity toward Clinton is due not to the
man himself or his policies but to the blazer-wearing semioticians
surrounding him.

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"Spin Cycle" is a lively insider's look at the weird, formulaic dance
between state-of-the-art spinners and an elite journalistic establishment
whose determination not to be spun imparts its own distortion. It is a
portrait of an aggressively jaded, postmodern press going head to head with
a high-tech, postmodern presidency: Both sides know the other's moves in
advance, both sides view everything the other side does as a mere tactic,
and both sides are determined to beat their enemy to the punch. The result
is an infinite regress, a stalemate, a cynical miasma in which either
side's claims to sincerity or dedication to higher principle are seen as
just another gambit in a strange, interminable game. Unfortunately, the
only loser in this game is the truth.

Kurtz himself, the media reporter for the Washington Post, doesn't draw
that conclusion -- or, indeed, many conclusions about the larger
implications of this closed, self-looping system. He writes in a flexible third person voice, half seeming to reflect the
thoughts of the players, half historically omniscient: "What really
infuriated the president, and Hillary, was the way the press kept changing
the parameters of scandal." This narrative technique allows him to walk in
and out of the minds of his characters, but it often leaves ambiguous what
his own opinions are. Still, "Spin Cycle" is such a solidly reported book that it doesn't need grand authorial theories.

Kurtz appears to embrace conventional Beltway wisdom about Clinton: "The central mystery of Bill Clinton's fifth year in office was how a President so aggressively investigated on so many fronts could remain so popular with the American people." As a colleague of the journalists he writes about, it's
understandable that Kurtz doesn't openly criticize them -- and in any case,
individual journalists aren't the real issue here. But implicit in "Spin
Cycle" is a sense that the whole system of Washington reporting has somehow
gone terribly wrong. To Kurtz's credit, he doesn't put his thumb on the scales: He presents
the arguments and attitudes of administration officials as fairly and
thoroughly as he does those of journalists. Indeed, the most interesting
thing about "Spin Cycle" is not the minutiae of leaks, access fights,
document dumps and other familiar spin techniques -- which may be more
sophisticated but don't seem any more egregious than those practiced by the
last four administrations -- but the running argument between the two
sides, which are, as Kurtz writes, "joined at the hip in a strangely
symbiotic relationship." That relationship is, to put it mildly, highly dysfunctional. The elite
media's intense dislike of Clinton is one of the more mysterious phenomena
of recent years. On the face of it, the president and the media ought to
get along: They share the same liberal-centrist politics, came of age at
the same tolerant time, worship at the same shrine of urban
professionalism. Why, then, have the media, in particular the New York
Times and the Washington Post, been so hostile toward Clinton -- far more
than they were toward his predecessor, George Bush, with whom they had
much less in common?

A reader looking for some smoking-gun answer to
this question in "Spin Cycle" will
search in vain. The most intriguing insider revelation is that some
journalists felt seduced and abandoned by Clinton. Before the 1992
elections, Kurtz writes, Clinton reached out to "a small group of younger,
New Democrat-style reporters and columnists, such as Joe Klein of New York
magazine, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, and Ron Brownstein of the Los
Angeles Times ... Some of these favored reporters naturally came to feel that
they would have access to Clinton in the White House, perhaps be invited to
kick around ideas. After he won the presidency, however, Clinton no longer
bothered with his formerly favorite journalists ... 'All of them came to the
conclusion that the schmoozing was fake and they had all been pawns in his
campaign,' a Clinton friend said."

But the main reason "most" White House journalists had a "jaundiced view
of Clinton," according to Kurtz, was their belief that he was a slippery
scoundrel, a Teflon Willie. Before Monica Lewinsky, they "had been supremely
frustrated ... as Clinton kept slip-sliding his way through the scandalous
muck ... Clinton, in their view, had gotten away with it. Until now." The
reporters "knew that Bill and Hillary Clinton had a particular tendency to
fudge the facts ... Truth was an early casualty in this administration, the
reporters believed, and it was their responsibility to keep pounding on the
door until they, and the public, got some adequate answers. They viewed
themselves as the cavalry, the last line of defense against a corrupt White
House that had perfected the art of the cover-up, the one force in society
that could charge through the fog and uncover the truth." The journalists
"were filled with moral fervor, determined that readers and viewers should
care and that somehow they would make them care."

This heroic-scribes-battling-corruption story no doubt contains elements
of truth, but it seems inadequate to explain the depth of the press corps's
dislike of Clinton -- if only because the corruption doesn't seem quite
vast enough to inspire such high-minded fervor. Whitewater, Filegate,
Travelgate, the soft-money scandal -- none of these approach the big leagues of Watergate or
Iran-contra. The New York Times' brilliantly poison-penned Maureen Dowd's
self-defense comes across as particularly disingenuous. "George
Stephanopoulos had once accused Dowd of hating Clinton," Kurtz writes. "She
believed that he simply didn't get it. Her job was not to like or dislike
Clinton, but to render judgment on whether he had a good week or gave a bad
speech or was sinking into sanctimony ... The White House seemed to long for
the days when journalists were royal courtiers in JFK's Camelot. But times
had changed; the culture was coarser, more confrontational." In fact, of
course, Dowd's "job" as the sadistic Freudian of the Op-Ed Page is
precisely to "like or dislike" Clinton and any other patient unfortunate
enough to find himself lying on her couch of pain. As for the culture's
descent into coarseness and confrontation, it would of course be impious to
suggest that the once-august New York Times and its star columnist might
have anything to do with that.

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In fact, Dowd's invocation of the culture of coarseness goes a long way
toward explaining the press's evil eye for Clinton -- and suggests that
even if Clinton, for some reason, arouses special ire, subsequent
presidents are likely to suffer the same fate. As James Fallows has argued
in "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy," the
press's coverage of politics has become increasingly sensation-driven,
horse-race obsessed and cynical. These attitudes may have been exacerbated
by the various Clinton scandals, but it's difficult to escape the
conclusion that they exist independently of them, that they are built into
the very structure of how contemporary journalism works.

Of course, some of this mutual mistrust is both natural and healthy. The
media should be vigilant and, when appropriate, adversarial: Who would want
journalists to return to the lap-dog perch they occupied during the Reagan
administration, when a know-nothing, TV-savvy president and his handlers
were treated with such gentleness that, as Mark Hertsgaard points out in
"On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency," even those handlers
could find nothing to complain of? And much of the negative press coverage
of the Clinton administration has been perfectly legitimate.

But one need not be a Clinton "loyalist" -- to use a term somewhat too
promiscuously wielded by the machos at the New York Times -- to see
that something has clearly gone wrong. The media's adversarial stance has
hardened into a dogma; the laudable journalistic impulse to expose evil
deeds has degenerated into the far more problematic desire to expose
hypocritical motivations.

In this climate, it is disturbing, but
not particularly surprising, to learn that the elite reporters "liked
(Kenneth) Starr and his prosecutors and tended to give them the benefit of
the doubt." The fact that Starr's office is one of their most important
sources of information may play some role here. But it may be larger than that: Journalists seem increasingly unable to distinguish their role from that of prosecutors. Witness National Public Radio correspondent Nina Totenberg, who has referred to Starr as a "friend and a colleague." Since when are reporters colleagues of prosecutors?

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Since the culture of permanent suspicion took over in Washington. As Kurtz writes, White House journalists
are "interested in conflict, in drama, in behind-the-scenes maneuvering,
in pulling back the curtain and exposing the Oz-like manipulations of the
Clinton crowd. It was their job to report what the President said, but
increasingly they saw it as their mission to explain why he said it and
what seedy political purpose he was trying to accomplish along the way."

This sneering skepticism, once the province of the editorial page, has
crept into straight news reporting. Again, this can be warranted: The "he
said, she said" school of even-handed reporting can be moronic. But
reporters at the Times now routinely insert so much nudge-nudging and
rhetorical counter-spin into their news pieces that the good gray paper of
record has begun to feel like a slick national magazine with a bad case of
'tude. And as the Times goes, so goes the rest of the press pack. When the best paper in the
country begins to tilt, it sets the agenda. The "magazine-ification" of the
Times, subtle as it is, is disturbingly reminiscent of what has happened at
the New Yorker, which has become virtually indistinguishable, in its
frenetic, all-too-worldly obsessions, from the rest of the slicks.

Certainly a journal like the one in which this piece appears is in no
position to cry out for a state of permanent media gravitas -- for sheer
pointless, sensationalistic gossip-mongering, it would be hard to exceed Salon's "review" of Monica Lewinsky's mother's
"Private Lives of the Three Tenors," to choose only one of hundreds of
bottom-dwelling examples. But it seems legitimate to hold the newspapers of
record to a different standard.

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Some of the more thoughtful reflections on the press's new attitude
come from the Clinton advisors and flacks interviewed by Kurtz, including
Mike McCurry, Rahm Emanuel, Dick Morris (who is, incidentally, referred to
as a "maniac" by various insiders numerous times) and Don Baer. Much of the
media's attitude, these men argue, is the result of peer pressure to be
tough -- a charge that rings true to anyone who's ever spent much time in a
newsroom. "(Joe) Klein would sit in Baer's office and complain that even at
the New Yorker, the bible of the Manhattan intelligentsia, the pressure to
be cutting and ironic was intense. In covering the president, Baer
believed, it was hip to be hostile. Otherwise your colleagues thought you
were in the tank, the charge hurled at Klein's predecessor, Sidney
Blumenthal." This no-presidential-pussies-need-apply attitude explains the
derision that spilled out of seemingly every Times piece on Blumenthal in
the days after he was subpoenaed.

For his part, Emanuel believed that "the press operated within
paradigms, neat little belief systems that fit the contours of elite
opinion. The notion of objective reporting was hogwash; Washington
journalists were incredibly, if subconsciously, biased. Their preconceived
take on Bill Clinton, he believed, was that he was a petulant little child
with an uncontrollable appetite."

Above all, the impression that one gets -- not just from Clinton's
spinners, but from Kurtz's reporting -- is that the media is playing a
giant game, the object of which is to get the president. The reporters want
red meat -- impeachment is the grand, Woodward-and-Bernstein prize, with
indictments, humiliations and sagging polls as consolations. The great
investigative tradition of American journalism, by this portrait, has sunk
into the country's acquisitive culture: Power, professional advancement, prestige, fame and
money are showered upon the winners.

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Reporters like to tell themselves that the very spin at which the
Clinton team is so adroit is responsible for this ugly atmosphere -- if
some slick PR guy is constantly telling you something, you start to think
the truth is the exact opposite. There's some justification for this belief
-- but it may also be that postmodern journalists are too quick to
associate slickness with malevolence. What if, behind all the Machiavellian
manipulation, there might be, on occasion, a sincere belief in a given
policy? Cynicism, too, can be misleading -- and it may have led the press
astray on Clinton, whose presidency and personality seem to be an
inextricable, almost unfathomable mixture of sincerity and calculation.

In any case, to ask a modern president to give up PR is a bit like
asking a man walking through a dark alley to wave his wallet over his head.
As Fallows points out, the press savaged as a political dunce and hayseed the one
recent president, Jimmy Carter, who dared to venture into the public arena
without a smoothly functioning spin machine.

Is this sterile scenario of mutual suspicion destined to play out again
and again? Maybe not: There are cycles in media culture, and this one too
may pass. After Watergate, the press backed off -- too far -- on Reagan.
But there's not much reason for optimism. The media seems increasingly
unable or unwilling to resist larger trends afoot in the culture -- the
fast-food lure of cheap conflict, the crack high of scandal, the opiate of
cynicism. Spin begets spin begets spin. Turning and turning in this
widening gyre, we wait eagerly for the next edition, for the 11 o'clock
update on the anarchy we've loosed upon the world.


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Rahm Emanuel White House

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