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Analysis & Commentary

The Spin Cycle

Can you handle the truth?
By Ira Basen

June14th, 2004

Ira Basen
Ira Basen  

"They're all a bunch of liars." "They make promises and then they don't keep them." "It's all spin." "Why can't they just tell the truth?"

Why indeed! In this, the springtime of our discontent, the nation's wrath seems focused squarely on politicians who can't or won't keep their promises. Much of this anger, understandably, is directed towards the party that has been in power for the past decade, since its record of broken promises is freshest in people's minds. In Ontario, there appears to be considerable anger towards the provincial government that last fall, promised not to raise taxes, and then last month, proceeded to raise them.

So why can't politicians tell the truth? What's their problem? Well, perhaps the problem, dear voters, lies not in our politicians, but in ourselves. Perhaps the answer to the question "why can't they tell the truth?" was expressed most succinctly and accurately by Jack Nicholson's character in the movie A Few Good Men: "You can't handle the truth!"

As a group, politicians are no more mendacious than any other. At least, they are no more mendacious than other people who make their living in sales. And that is, after all, the line of work that politicians are in. It is no coincidence that when Canadians are asked to rank various professions in terms of trust, most place politicians close to the bottom alongside real estate agents and used car salespeople, two other professions where stretching the truth to close the deal is not uncommon.

Politicians are in the business of constantly having to sell themselves and their ideas, always, in the words of Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman, "way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back - that's an earthquake." Many politicians these days are feeling that earthquake out on the campaign trail.

Voters demand high standards from their politicians, and they should. But maybe one of the reasons why politicians so often seem less than truthful is that we appear to have developed a preference for simplistic answers to complicated questions. The solutions to our great social and economic problems are never easy. And yet our political and media culture has become so infused with spin, so dependent on eight second soundbites, carefully constructed "messages" of ten words or less, and meaningless slogans, that we seem to have left no room for nuance and complexity.

Take the issue of taxes. It is one of the trickiest of all issues for Canadian politicians to navigate, as Dalton McGuinty can attest. Economists are divided on the issue. There is no consensus on whether tax cuts stimulate economic growth, or whether our current rates are competitive with other countries. Are deficits inherently evil or can they sometimes be justified? And yet out on the campaign trail, the debate often seems to be reduced to its most elementary equation. Are you a "tax cutter" or a "tax and spender?" It seems you can only be one or the other.

We drive our politicians to declare simplistic solutions to complex problems and then pillory them when it turns out that the real world of government is more complicated than it appears from the outside. There are many politicians, probably more than we would imagine, who are genuinely interested in telling the "truth", and would probably prefer to couch their responses in more conditional and realistic terms:

"I have no plans to raise taxes but if the deficit is as large as some people are speculating, I will have to change my plans and raise taxes, because if you expect me to re-invest in health care and education that is the only way I can do it, because I will not try to fool you by saying there are billions of dollars of "waste" in the system, or that I can make billions of dollars of cuts to other government programs without negatively affecting people and harming essential services. Therefore, yes, under certain circumstances, and depending on what your expectations are of me, I will raise taxes."

This sounds fairly simple and straightforward. So why wouldn't a politician say something like this during the campaign? Their spin doctors would certainly recommend against it. They would remind the candidate that the only way to get their message across on the campaign trail is to keep it short, unambiguous and unequivocal. Otherwise, you are presenting a neatly wrapped gift to the opposition and the press. Depending on their perspective, they would accuse the candidate of being indecisive and long-winded, of not showing leadership, and they would likely ignore the qualifiers altogether and simply declare "he will raise your taxes". Maybe they would even accuse the candidate of "flip-flopping", that most damning of all of today's political sins, as if altering your position in light of changing realities is something to be condemned rather than rewarded.

The spin doctors would remind the candidate that it wasn't the politicos who invented the eight second soundbite. It was television people who told the politicians that unless they were able to state their case in clear unequivocal terms in ten seconds or less, they would not often find themselves on the evening newscast. That's why "I will not raise taxes" is a more effective, if not necessarily more realistic soundbite than "maybe I will and maybe I won't, depending on the circumstances". The former is often spin disguised as policy, while the latter might be someone actually struggling to tell the truth.

We are told that the reason why the soundbite has shrunk so dramatically (from 42.3 seconds in the U.S. in 1968, to roughly eight seconds today) is that audiences today have short attention spans. They want their news to be entertaining, they want it to move along briskly and not get bogged down in detail. Otherwise, they will simply move on to something that provides more instant gratification. That's their choice, but let's not pretend that it doesn't have an impact on the level of our political discourse. Why don't politicians tell the truth? Maybe we don't give them the time. Maybe we're paying the price for our short attention spans.

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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