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Analysis & Commentary

The Spin Cycle

"Cognoscenti of their own Bamboozlement":
Inside the Campaign Strategy Story
By Ira Basen

June 7th, 2004

Ira Basen
Ira Basen  

The TV anchor was asking his political specialist about the Liberals' strategy of making Stephen Harper an issue in the campaign. The specialist replied that he had "talked to Conservatives about it and they told me they were delighted because they think he can manage it. He can take those attacks and turn it back on them... If they want to make Stephen Harper the issue, bring it on."

This is a prime example of a peculiar genre of election coverage that has become increasingly popular in recent years: the strategy story. According to the McGill University Observatory for Media and Public Policy, which has been tracking campaign coverage in seven Canadian newspapers, 51 per cent of the stories written about this election so far have been about the "horse race" and campaign strategy, compared to 44 per cent that have been written about "issues." Now that the parties have released their platforms, and we are headed towards the "finish line," it is likely the gap between the issue and horse race stories will only get wider.

The strategy story is ultimately all about winning and losing. It will typically adopt the vocabulary of war, sports, or, as in the example described above, schoolyard bullying. It often focuses on a candidate's performance, style and appearance, as well as how the campaign is being received by the audience. Information derived from public opinion polls often figures prominently in strategy stories, and the narrative is frequently driven by quotes from anonymous "insiders."

But recently, the whole rationale behind strategy stories has come under attack, particularly from media critics in the U.S. Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University, and writes a weblog called "PressThink," described the strategy story as a "bankrupt form":

"It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news´┐Ż My question to the press team would be: What is a strategy story trying to be good at, and why is that a good worth aiming for in journalism?"

Rosen raises interesting questions. It is not hard to understand why reporters enjoy doing strategy stories. It allows them to present themselves as experts and pass judgment about how a campaign is being run, a luxury not ordinarily available when dealing with complex policy issues such as taxation or health care. And the use of anonymous insider sources gives the impression that the reporter is inside the backrooms where the big boys play, and the big decisions are getting made. But is it really news that one candidates' spin doctor thinks that the other candidate is running a weak campaign? Too often in these situations, the reporter simply becomes a conduit for someone else's spin.

Defenders of the strategy story would argue that it is important that we understand the various ways that campaigns try to win our votes. Media critic Todd Gitlin has written that it allows readers and voters to become "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement." And there is no doubt that it is important to know what they are thinking and doing in the backrooms. Where it gets dangerous is when the strategy story becomes the dominant form of election coverage, and that appears to be the direction that campaign coverage has been going over the past 20 years.

Before television re-wrote the rules of election coverage in the 1970s and 1980s, reporters rarely did stories about strategy. One American study revealed that only six per cent of the reports filed during the 1968 presidential campaign were about strategy, and the term "photo-opportunity" was used only once. By 1988, more than half the stories were about strategy, and "photo-op" had become part of the everyday political lexicon.

The reason for the rapid rise in strategy stories is not hard to find. The modern campaign, with its carefully crafted media events, its meticulously crafted sound-bites, its relentless effort to spin and control all verbal and visual images, sometimes leaves precious little else to talk about. And so reporters, in an effort to wrest control of the campaign back from the spin doctors, began to talk about the bamboozlement and not the issues. American author Kiku Adatto noted that "political reporters began to sound like theater critics, reporting more on the stagecraft than the substance of politics."

But one of the problems with the modern campaign strategy story is that reporters can sometimes take their role as theatre critics a bit too seriously. They become the people they are reporting on. They like to talk strategy and tactics with the "wiseguys," not necessarily because it will show up in their reporting, but because it is an interesting game to play.

They adopt the language of the spinners. They talk about candidates being "off message" and moving into "damage control." This is not how real people talk. It might narrow the gap between the media and the politicos, but it widens the gap between the media and its audience. Which side are they on? A survey conducted a few years ago by the BBC concluded that in many viewers' and listeners' minds, there was no real difference between the politicians and the people covering them. "He's in there with them," is how some of those surveyed described the relationship.

Strategy stories are a necessary and important part of contemporary campaign coverage. But it is not healthy for journalists to be perceived as lying in the same bed as the spin doctors, and that is precisely where strategy stories can sometimes lead even the most well-intentioned reporters. In trying to expose the machinery of spin, a journalist can unwittingly become a cog in that machine. Jay Rosen's questions are important ones to ask. What is the real purpose of these stories, and whose interests are really being served?

Past Spin Cycles

Ira Basen has been with CBC Radio since 1984 as a documentary maker, senior producer and executive producer. He has written for Saturday Night, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus, and has taught a course titled "Spin: PR, Journalism and the Search for Truth" at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Ira's book on public relations and the media will be published by Penguin Books in 2005.

You can subscribe to Ira's column and have each new edition e-mailed to you.

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