Taking Aim at ‘Arms Race of Spin’

RALEIGH, North Carolina – Everywhere Duke University graduate student Brendan Nyhan and his partners in the political website spinsanity look, they see spin.

It comes from both sides of the political spectrum, they say – from President Bush’s campaign distorting John Kerry’s health-care proposals to over-the-top liberal rhetoric comparing the Bush White House to Nazi Germany. It comes from U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, who says the president should be above criticism in a time of war and from Democrats who exaggerate the nation’s job losses under Bush.

“We’re in an arms race of spin, and John Kerry is going down the exact same road as Bush has, and that’s going to lead to disaster if everyone in the political system tried to do this, Nyhan said recently.

Nyhan, Ben Fritz and Bryan Keefer are founders of spinsanity – where the slogan is “Countering rhetoric with reason” – and authors of the recent book All the President’s Spin: George W. Bush, the Media and the Truth.

Collectively, they’re on a crusade to rescue a political system and media they believe are seriously off track. Reporters, they say, are too soft on President Bush, while the president spins his message with half-truths better than any of his predecessors.

The result: a vacuum of shallow news stories and an uninformed electorate, according to Nyhan.

The threesome and their analysis are getting big play this election year. Their work has appeared on the web magazine and is a weekly feature on the commentary pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer. And their book has made The New York Times‘ paperback nonfiction best sellers’ list and ranks 390th in sales on Amazon.

Nyhan, 25, Fritz, 27, and Keefer, 26, all have past ties to liberal or Democratic politics, but believe their work on political spin is evenhanded. In a recent posting on the website, Nyhan criticized “a long pattern of Democratic trickery with net job loss figures.”

Kerry and his party have repeatedly presented the number of private sector jobs lost during the Bush administration – currently 1.6 million – as if they were the total net job loss during Bush’s presidency, which is actually 913,000, Nyhan wrote.

He quoted Kerry as saying in a radio address earlier this month, “Over the past three years, we’ve lost 1.6 million jobs in the United States.”

Nyhan, who is studying toward a doctorate in political science, said his discontent with political coverage peaked while working in 2000 as a spokesman for the failed U.S. Senate campaign of Nevada Democrat Ed Bernstein.

“Coming out of that election, I was frustrated with the state of political coverage in the media, and I felt like there was a void there in terms of watchdogging,” he said. “I had this very vague idea for a website to try to change that.”

The site launched in 2001 and was followed by last month’s publication of the trio’s book, which maintains that Bush has taken the spin and public relations techniques of Presidents Reagan and Clinton to a new and dangerous level.

The book has won praise from national pundits ranging from Jonathan Chait of the liberal New Republic magazine to CNN conservative Tucker Carlson.

While Nyhan, Fritz and Keefer criticize Democrats, Republicans and the media alike, they reserve special venom for Bush.

“He has added something far more destructive to the mix: a willingness to engage in day-to-day dishonesty on nearly every major issue he has addressed,” they write of the president. When Bush addressed the nation about Iraq in October 2002, the authors write, he carefully chose his words to link al Qaeda, Iraq and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Each of these statements was true, but Bush’s words were carefully constructed to leave a false impression,” the authors write.

The book also criticizes the media for not digging deeper, particularly during the buildup to the war in Iraq. The New York Times, for one, has written that its prewar coverage of whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction “was not as rigorous as it should have been.”

The ability of the Bush White House to stay on-message and avoid leaks has left reporters with less to write about than they had during the scandal-ridden Clinton presidency, Nyhan said.

“Their message discipline is incredible, it’s kept the media largely focused on what the White House wants them to be talking about,” Nyhan said.

Tim Vercellotti, a political science professor at Elon University, disagrees with the assessment that Bush has gotten an easy ride from the media. Questions about Bush’s National Guard service are one example of the media pounding the president, he said – although those resulted in the recent faked-documents scandal at CBS that has raised more questions about the media’s political coverage.

Vercellotti added that some of the most critical stories about the administration aren’t being written from Washington, but from Iraq and places across American where jobs have been lost during the Bush presidency.

“I think the bottom line is this: Since Reagan, every White House has wanted to limit leaks and stay on message, and this White House does that better than most,” Vercellotti said. “And the media and (Bush) opponents find that fairly frustrating.”

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