PRWeek Q&A: Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan, authors, <i>All the President's Spin</i>

With the Democratic National Convention coming to a close tonight and the Republican convention descending upon New York City in August, the world is replete with campaign slogans, spin, and political commentary.

With the Democratic National Convention coming to a close tonight and the Republican convention descending upon New York City in August, the world is replete with campaign slogans, spin, and political commentary.

Three young writers combined the latter two in 2001 to create the website, Spinsanity.com, and, recently, All the President's Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth, a nonpartisan book that hits bookstores on August 3rd. In it, Ben Fritz, a technology reporter for Variety and editor of the satirical entertainment news website Dateline Hollywood, Bryan Keefer, the assistant managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk, and Brendan Nyhan, a graduate student in the department of political science at Duke University seek to repudiate and expose the spin of the presidential office. While the three all claim left ties, their book also investigates deception on the part of previous presidents, including Bill Clinton, and expected Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. PRWeek.com talked to Nyhan and Fritz about the growing divide between Republican and Democratic political machines, the duplicity of Michael Moore, and the media's role in all of this. Q: How did you guys first meet? Brendan Nyhan: Bryan Keefer and I grew up together in Mountain View, California. We went through school together, and our families are friends. I met Ben at Swarthmore College. I worked on a campaign in 2000. Afterwards, I thought, someone should be a watchdog for [political spin]. So I contacted the two people I knew who might be interested in the same thing. The three of us got together for months and hashed out what Spinsanity would be, and we launched it in April 2001. Q: What's the buzz about the book? What are you doing to publicize it? Ben Fritz: We're trying to do the 2004 version of the grassroots campaign, which is a lot of online promotion and working with a lot of bloggers that write about politics or these types of issues. We got a lot of books out to them. It wasn't sent to just the top professional journalists. We've been talking to them about it, and getting them to talk about it will be key. Through our publisher, we're already setting up a lot of local talk radio interviews around the country. Of course, national media would be great, but the kind of the people who are talking about politics either online or through small communities are where we're starting our campaigns, since we ourselves started as a little website. Nyhan: The combination of the grassroots buzz and national attention will [contribute] to success. We think that this book can break through in a way that the partisan books about Bush can't. It can reach a wider audience. It can reach conservatives and moderates who aren't going to read a partisan, liberal book about Bush but might take the time to read another book out there. Q: Some people claim that a large percentage of a conservative book's readers are liberals who want to get incensed and vice versa. Do you think that that's the case and will this book be positioned as educational? Fritz: I don't want to think it's like a textbook. It's a good read. Our goal is not to [target] people who are looking to have their politics pumped by something outrageous from the other side or their own side. That's not our book. I think there's definitely an audience of people who are interested in politics but are tired of that stuff, or people who want to understand political dishonesty but don't want to read partisan carping, especially if that is what turned them off from politics in the past. Q: Are you worried that people, judging from the title, will misread it as a attack on the right? How do you think that will play out in terms of media coverage and sales? Nyhan: People may make that assumption, but we have a lot of non-partisan credibility. People who know our work will realize that this is a fair-minded book. If you pick it up and read it, you'll find it's about presidential dishonesty. We can't possibly cover everybody, but we talk about Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. And we talk about how Kerry, in the context of the current campaign, is going down the same road that Bush has been pursuing. We feel we can broaden the audience. We also feel like you have to write about what is important. And we feel, in the context of what we do, that President Bush's dishonesty is a huge democratic issue. Regardless of whether people think it's partisan to say that, we believe that that's true and we have a responsibility to make that case. Q: With the portion of the book that deals with Kerry, did you wait until Kerry became the presumptive nominee or was their writing about other candidates like Dean that had to be scrapped? Fritz: Luckily since we're keeping track of the campaign on our website, the stuff about Kerry is based on what we've done on our website. If it had been Dean, we had plenty of stuff about Dean on our website. If it had been Bob Graham, we would have been kind of screwed. Nyhan: We wrote [that part] last, and we wrote it after he 'won the nomination,' in the context of him becoming the front-runner. It's not written in the context of Kerry over the last 30 years and what he was saying in 1977. Q: With the lack of incredulity from the mainstream press in the lead-up to the war and bloggers scoring scoops like the Edwards nomination, what is going on here? Are blogs less resistant to spin? Where do the fit into the media mix? Fritz: Blogs are part of the solution. Because they come at things from a certain perspective, you know where they're coming from. They are free to critique things. They're not as beholden to what can be some of the problems with the professional objective media where they're trying to balance everything and don't always point out dishonesty as a result. That's one of the blog's strengths. You understand the lens in which blogs are seeing things. That can be a good check on the professional media. That being said, they are certainly not a substitute for people that do real, original reporting. Bloggers are typically linking to things and providing commentary. You still need people to find the facts out in the first place. Q: If we assume that there's a flawed approach from the media currently, do you think it has more to do with the consolidation of media or with the political bent of a particular paper or reporter? Nyhan: What we discuss in our book is that it's not so much politics or ownership; it's the way the media approaches political reporting. The mainstream media sees itself as needing to present 'objective' news reporting. In practice, that ends up meaning a lot of 'he said, she said.' What Ben was driving at with blogs is that we think everyone has to go beyond 'he said, she said' because it just doesn't help us get at the truth. When you do that, political actors get better and better at taking advantage of that. In terms of the public relations part, there are these PR tactics that are designed to take advantage of the way reporters does 'he said, she said' coverage and get as much spin as possible without being called out as being dishonest. Nyhan: One of the points we make at the end of the book is about the battle going on between the PR spin of very sophisticated politicians and political journalists. Given the constraints they're under, a lot of the journalists are being outgunned. Q: What outlets do you respect or think are doing a good job in being able to see through the spin? Nyhan: We're hesitant to issue blanket endorsements of anyone. In the book, we talk about examples of how non-objective publications can be useful. We talk about how the New Republic has been very effective at pointing out Bush's economic dishonesty in an opinion journalism format. In the same way, Fox News, in some of their reporting, have been free to criticize Democrats for dishonesty. They have been more aggressive in that context. We wouldn't endorse everything that either of them did, but you can see how people can go beyond 'he said, she said' to offer something. Fritz: Another good example is The Daily Show. Q: Would you say the average young voter is turned off by politicians or the way that the mainstream media covers politicians to the point where they feel they need to turn to satire? Fritz: That certainly would make sense. That might explain, in part, the popularity of a show like that. Young people have grown up in a time of sophisticated PR, and you always know that politicians are spinning you. But with the 'he said, she said' media, it's hard to cut through that. Satire has turned out to be an effective tool to cut through that. Nyhan: People are very hungry for perspective-driven commentary and reporting that says, 'Here's what I think' and gives you some sharper answers and critiques. Fox News and The Daily Show are prime examples of that. Q: Did you guys ever consider satire? Nyhan: I don't think so. Fritz: I don't think it's something we considered. I think we attempted to loosen up our writing and be more enjoyable. But we were looking to be taken very seriously. We pushed really hard to seem professional. We've left the satire to other people. Q: Did you think, in April 2001, that a book would become of this? Fritz: I don't think we foresaw what would become of Spinsanity. For our first month, we basically could track all of the hits on our site to people we knew. We had small goals. Then things really took off. Post-September 11th there's still a lot of political apathy, but there has been an increase in awareness and [of the] opinion that politics matters. Nyhan: There's really good evidence that politicians and partisans are moving apart and getting more extreme and shrill. But most Americans really haven't changed that much. The silent majority is really frustrated with this stuff and feels kind of assaulted. The thing we take as a great sign, in terms of our success and that things are getting better, is that there are a lot more [outlets] out there that do similar things to what we do. We can't address it all by ourselves; there's just no way. If you have a lot of more people out there working on it, it will make a big difference. Q: You've posted a lot of critiques on Michael Moore and his duplicity. Do you think many people know about his inaccuracies? How much sway do you think he holds? Fritz: Michael Moore is very important. Of course, he's not as important as the president of the United States who makes decisions about the national budget and going to war. He's extremely popular and gets a lot of attention. I feel really good about what we've done on Moore because, when we first starting writing about Stupid White Men and Bowling for Columbine, we were one of the only voices that was pointing out his dishonesty. We said, 'This guy is engaging in a lot of deception. This is how he's doing it.' If you look at the reaction for Fahrenheit 9/11, one of our biggest concerns was that we were getting beaten to the punch because so many media outlets were writing about whether Fahrenheit 9/11 was fair or dishonest. To think we played a role in people talking about Michael Moore's honesty or lack thereof - that's the best thing we could do. Nyhan: Before Fahrenheit 9/11, he clearly didn't have anyone fact-checking his work. In this movie, it doesn't have any of the blatant factual errors that Ben and Bryan caught in his previous stuff because he hired fact checkers. It's much more subtle suggestions and things. He can feel the heat. When we were promoting those older articles, we asked one major publication, which will remain nameless, why it wasn't writing about this, [someone there] said, 'Everyone knows Michael Moore is a liar.' The thing was that everyone didn't. [The media] knew, but a lot of people out there didn't. They took it for granted that Michael Moore and Ann Coulter aren't serious people and that everyone knew that. Meanwhile they're selling millions of books. We feel the need to put all of those entertainment/media people under the spotlight. Q: The liberal defense for Moore is that there are a lot of fire throwers on the right - Bill O'Reilly, Coulter, et. al. - and the liberals need to fight fire with fire. Do you think that this is a harbinger of what's to come - more and more vitriolic attacks from both sides and the beleaguered public in the middle? Fritz: The market seems to be rewarding that in a lot of ways. It's understandable that partisans some times get pissed off at the other side being dishonest, so they feel they need to be dishonest. But we're pushing hard that that's not the solution. That's an arms race that will just lead to more disillusionment and alienation in politics. That's a possibility. But hopefully, with us playing a small role, they can push back and find that there's a market for people who want something different - who want discourse that can point out dishonesty. You don't have to be boring. We're all for entertainment and satire. There needs to be incentives in our system for politicians and pundits to be honest. Q: How do you feel the dishonesty in political affairs reflects upon other forms of PR? Fritz: I don't think people make that connection in their minds, but I think there's definitely a sense that the worst excesses of corporate PR that people might see are similar to political dishonesty. Our main goal with the book and the website is to help people take that general frustration and help them understand what's going on. We want to give them answers as to why it seems that no one is telling the truth. We can hopefully point out what they're being dishonest about and how it is that they're doing it. There's a lot of general sense that this is going on, but you need to help some people put the pieces together. Nyhan: Corporate PR set the standard for a long period of time in terms of pushing the limits of what you could get away with. One of the things that struck me when writing the book is that political PR professionals have been able to take it to another level. They've advanced the state of the art because the way they're covered is often different. Reporters feel pretty free to tell you the corporate is lying, but they won't say that about a politician most of the time. The political PR people can get away with a lot. Corporate PR is very effective under the radar, but reporters don't pull their punches when they into the spotlight, like with Enron.

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