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Analysis & Commentary

The Spin Cycle

"Spin": A primer for voters
May 23rd, 2004
By Ira Basen

Ira Basen
Ira Basen  

We've already heard a lot in this campaign (and pre-campaign) about "spin," and we will undoubtedly be hearing much more of it, and about it, before election day. But what exactly is spin, where did it come from, and how did it come to play such a central role in the modern political campaign?

In his New Political Dictionary, William Safire, the New York Times columnist and former spinner for Richard Nixon, defines spin as "a deliberate shading of news perception; attempted control of political reaction." According to Safire, the verb "to spin" dates back to Old English, but by the 1950s, it had come to mean "to deceive," perhaps based on the expression "to spin a yarn."

According to Toronto writer Paul McFedries, who has written a book called The Word Spy, and runs a website of the same name, spin refers to changing the direction of something, and would likely have come from sports such as baseball and billiards, where players put spin on a ball to change its course. Safire agrees. "It's what a pitcher does when he throws a curveball," Safire has said. "The English on the ball causes it to appear to be going in a slightly different direction than it actually is."

Safire believes modern political spin can be traced back to Nixon's second presidential campaign in 1972. Democratic opponents were derisively referring to the president as "the new Nixon," as a way of signalling his deceptiveness. Safire managed to convince Nixon to admit that he was indeed the "new Nixon," and by so doing, demonstrate his willingness to change with the times. "That was spin," Safire has written. "It was taking the momentum of a question and turning it around jujitsu style."

The earliest print citation for spin that Paul McFedries can find comes from the Washington Post of March 20, 1977. In an article about a powerful lobbyist on Capitol Hill, reporter Spencer Rich wrote that the lobbyist was accused of "putting his own philosophical 'spin' on options´┐Żin short, of acting like the 101st senator."

But many American political commentators believe that it was the 1984 presidential campaign that raised spin to a new level. It was also the campaign that saw the phrase "spin doctor" introduced into the political lexicon. It first appeared in a New York Times editorial on Oct. 21, 1984.

It was the day of the second presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. Editorial writer Jack Rosenthal described the "bazaar" that would begin as soon as the debate ended: "A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won't be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release.

"They'll be Spin Doctors, senior advisors to the candidates, and they'll be playing for very high stakes. How well they do their work could be as important as how well the candidates do theirs." Twenty years later, that exact scene is played out following every leaders debate. The area where it takes place has even been given the name "spin alley."

It's not clear when Canadians began using the word spin in a political context. Certainly "the deliberate shading of news perception" goes back a long way in Canadian politics. But spin as we know it today can probably be traced back to the arrival of advertising and public relations people in the political back rooms of Ottawa in the 1940s.

Their power and influence grew as television became an increasingly important tool in "selling" candidates at election time. By the early 1960s, Keith Davey, who began his career hustling ads for a Toronto radio station, had emerged as a significant power within the Liberal party, and though he was widely known as "the rainmaker," he could probably just as easily lay claim to the title of Canada's first spin doctor.

There are, of course, other ways to define spin. Some people think of it as synonymous with "lying," but no reputable spinner would advise a client to tell a lie. Admittedly, there are times when spinning can sound awfully close to lying – "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" – but the objective is always to come up with a "managed truth," namely that version of the truth that is credible enough to be believed and, at the same time, succeeds in advancing the interests of the client. It is a truth that can work.

Which is why Safire's definition of spin is probably the most useful. "Shading" is a more accurate way of describing what a spin doctor does to the truth than "lying." And spin is almost always "deliberate." It can sometimes emerge spontaneously, but more often than not it's a part of a strategic communications plan.

And Safire is also right that, in most cases, the battle is not about the facts of the story, but about how the facts will be perceived – as the spinners like to say, how the story will be "framed."

Take, for example, the sponsorship scandal that is destined to play such a big role in this campaign. At this point, there are few actual "facts" about what really happened to the money that was allocated to the sponsorship program. The government's spin on the story is that it has done everything possible to identify the problems, deal with the culprits, and correct the abuses. The opposition parties say the scandal is symptomatic of the deep-seated corruption that pervades the Liberal party.

Everyone in Ottawa earnestly professed their desire to get to the "truth" of what happened before going to the polls, but it was hard to take any of them seriously. In fact, that would be the last thing they would want right now. It's far easier to campaign on possibilities than on facts.

The "truth" of this story will emerge one day, and it will likely lie somewhere in the middle of the extremes currently being offered by both sides. But what good would that do for a campaigning politician? It's far more useful to go into battle spinning perceptions than having to explain facts.

As voters, we would all like to know more about what really happened in the sponsorship scandal, and our politicians probably want to help us find out – just not quite yet. We are in an election campaign, after all, and their need to spin stories to their own advantage trumps our hopes for the truth.

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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