Reality versus Spin, or, the Chasm between Absolute and Relative:
Two Points of View Examined.

by John M. Huff, Staff Writer

Almost every day we hear the terms "spin doctor" or "spin control" used to criticize the practice by which major media sometimes uses particular words to slant a news report in order to promote or oppose an idea or group. Rarely, except perhaps in college political science or journalism courses, is this practice examined thoroughly. The two articles which follow offer the reader a deeper insight into how "spin" can and is being used to distort facts and absolute truths to promote many questionable causes.

We start with a chapter taken from an instructional guide for political candidates and campaign workers, instructing them on methods to challenge, or rather, to defeat their "radical right" opponents. This is followed by an article by distinguished economist Dr. Thomas Sowell, on the subject of "knowing what you are talking about." The following questions should be considered while reading: are the basis and facts of a news story, and the facts involved, distorted more radically (or even left out) when the issue is one that is generally unfamiliar to the audience? And, how is the reader able to distinguish between the "spin" which "frames the debate in your own terms" as described in the first article, and the "spin" which represents an entirely erroneous position, as described in the second article. Are they really two different types of "spinning a story," or is the first article simply describing the practice in more palatable terms, in essence "spinning" the concept of "spin" in order to allay the ethical concerns of the would-be spin doctor as well as the questions of a critical audience. See the conclusion for my thoughts on this.

Article I: "The Science of Spin"

by Pat Lewis

Spinning is the art of framing an issue in the way that you perceive it. It's your message, your interpretation. The key to a successful campaign, spin should be an automatic piece of anything you write or say.

I. What is it?

First, it is not something negative. Forget the sweeping criticism you've heard about 'spin doctors.' Spinning isn't lying, it's interpreting and defining. It's an integral part of all political work, something that needs to be done whether you're writing a news release, testifying before the school board or debating a caller on a radio talk show.

What is spinning? It is the process by which you frame the debate in your own terms. It is how you define yourself and your opposition. It is your message.

II. Does it Work?

Yes. A number of political movements have had success in framing themselves and presenting their message in language that determines the parameters of the debate before it even begins. For example, antiabortion activists have been insistent that they be referred to as 'prolife' groups. By staking out the high ground, they played on the tendency in the media to assign two sides in every story. If these people were prolife, than that made the other side 'proabortion.'

It took a while of concentrated message, but the choice community has reversed the direction. The phrase 'a woman's right to choose' has become commonplace, and the value of the word 'choice' has become apparent. Now, we see people who favor using tax money for private schools referring to 'school choice.'

III. Making Your Message Stick

Start framing your issue from the beginning. It's virtually impossible to stop and expect people to reexamine your issues and arguments midway through any debate. That's why early message development is so important. So is an accurate message. Remember, your message must ring true to work.

Once you've developed your message, use it consistently. This is the key to getting it across. Work it into soundbites for the media. Use it in all your communications, and work with other organizations in your network or coalition to do the same.

IV. Content

Thematic consistency works the same way. Strive for a constant note in the tone of your message.

Also, fashion a message that people will listen to. That means working on succinct, to the point statements. Don't make sweeping generalizations or sound an unbelievable or unpalatable alarm. Be positive; avoid attacks on your opposition. Debate the message, not the messenger.

V. Playing Defense

As important as it is to concentrate on your message, you should also work to prevent anyone else from doing it for you. It's easier said than done, but far from impossible. For example, seize every opportunity to define the debate. Don't answer every question or attack just because it's there. Restate the question or the attack. There will be times you choose to ignore it completely.

VI. Conclusion

The issues that make up the Radical Right's agenda present a problem for public debate. Although they are personal, emotional topics, they are also about much larger, public questions. The debate over protecting gay and lesbian civil rights is also about continuing our country's move toward providing fairness and protection for its citizens. Arguments about censorship are about the right to have access to information. Keep these concepts in mind as you take your message to the public. Keep educating people about the underlying issues. But do it with perspective and humor. Nothing can drag a debate down faster than a narrowly focused diet of deadly serious argument.

Article II: "Knowing what you are talking about"

by Dr. Thomas Sowell

When I was a graduate student in economics at the University of Chicago, the class was often confronted with some mathematical proposition and asked: "Is this an equation or an identity?"

It happened so often, in so many courses, that I found myself muttering: "Flip a coin." I did not see the point of the question.

In later years, I learned that this was one of the most important questions to ask, not only about economics, but also about politics, social issues and many other things that are not even expressed mathematically.

An equation is true only under certain conditions, while an identity is always true, just because of the way you define the terms. 3x = 6 is an equation that is true only when x equals 2, but 2x + 2x = 4x is an identity that is true regardless of what x equals.

Whether or not a statement is made in mathematical terms, it may be true either because it corresponds to some reality or just because of the way you define your terms. The reason this distinction is so important is that people are often convinced that they have said something that is true about the real world when, in fact, they have said nothing, but merely used words in such a way that the statement is true by definition.

Policies affecting millions of human beings can be based on a collection of words that mean nothing but imply something which is wholly unsubstantiated -- and yet cannot be refuted because of the way words are defined. A classic example are policies designed to deal with "over-population."

Vast sums of money are poured out around the world to stop "over-population," and Draconian birth control policies have been imposed on women in India and China, all in the name of this word. What does it mean to say that a country is over-populated -- and is it true in the real world or merely a matter of defining words?

Those who have seen hungry and poverty-stricken people in parts of the Third World may find it beyond any question that these countries are over-populated. Would these people not be better off if there were only half as many of them, so that they could have twice as much food per person and twice as much of other things?

It is certainly true that the same output divided by half as many people would mean twice as much real wealth per person. But that is an identity. It is true just because of the way we define the terms. It tells us nothing about the real world.

Worse yet, it may insinuate something that is not true. That is the underlying danger in tautologies that get mistaken for real statements about the real world.

When today's poverty-stricken countries in fact had half as many people, were those people better fed or otherwise more prosperous? Now we are talking about the real world, not about definitions. In the real world, most Third World countries were even poorer and even more subject to hunger and famine when their populations were half of what they are today.

Poverty and hunger are a real horror, whatever their causes. But launching a crusade based on verbal confusions is not going to help the victims, however much it may feel good to the crusaders.

Some of the most dire poverty and hunger in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa, where the population density is less than one-tenth of what it is in prosperous Japan. Other countries in dire poverty have higher population densities, but so do prosperous countries in Western Europe.

Since it is people who produce output, if poor countries had fewer people, they would produce less output, and there is no reason to arbitrarily assume that there would be more output per person. Exactly two centuries ago -- in 1798 -- Malthus succeeded in identifying poverty and over-population in the public mind, so that anyone denying over-population is regarded as denying poverty.

People are horrified when you question over-population dangers, because that suggests callousness about the hungry millions in the Third World. But if wrong theories were the answer to poverty, the Third World would be a Utopia by now.

Wealth is the answer to poverty -- producing more. This may not be as emotionally satisfying, as intellectually exciting or as politically attractive as some other notions, but it is the only thing that has, in fact, produced prosperity in countries that were once as poor as the Third World still is.

Over-population theories will probably continue to flourish, because they remain as irrefutable as other statements that are "true" by definition.

Conclusion

The question was put earlier, are the facts of a news story distorted more radically when the issue is one that is generally unfamiliar to the audience? In Dr. Sowell's example of the debate over population "control," it is clear to him that the facts involved are hardly mentioned in this debate, let alone distorted. So scant is the general public's knowledge of the studies of populations, particularly into all the factors which play a part in the growth or diminishing of their numbers, that the promoter of a "new" social program need not bother with the facts, which would no doubt only confuse the average person. In this case, it appears "spin" is used to define the words of the discussion in such a way as to make it impossible for the average person to disagree with the assertions; to disagree would be to approve of the deprivation and death of masses of innocent people. The guarantee of the reader's agreement with the proposed solution to this horrific problem is assured by the fact that the average reader lacks an even basic understanding of the actual causes of the problem and potential realistic solutions. Dr. Sowell challenges the proposition by making a basic, honest inquiry into the matter, and identifying an existing model of people who, by the population control advocates' standards, should be ideal: sub-Saharan Africa. With just a basic inquiry, he points out the underlying flaws in the position, opening up the subject for further study and productive efforts toward a real solution.

The second question posed earlier was, how is the reader able to distinguish between the "spin" which simply "frames the debate in your own terms," and the "spin" which represents an entirely erroneous position (If there is in fact a difference between the two.) The answer is simple yet demanding: it is not easy to tell the difference - that is the nature of "spin." When a reader suspects that spin is being used in a story, he/she should do further research into the subject matter and background material. Even better still, he/she should realize that this form of argument is prevalent in modern society, whether it be in news reporting or any other area where evidence is presented to support a conclusion. Next, he/she should become as independent as possible in his/her research, relying almost solely on first-hand accounts and original documents. And when it comes to the subject of United States' government, he/she should consider the words of Thomas Jefferson on the subject: 

"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education." (Letter to Wm. C. Jarvis, 1820) 

The mission of the LEXREX website is inspired by Thomas Jefferson's statement - to place the best sources of information about Constitutional government online, in order to assist the public in becoming independent of any influence by the "spin doctors," whether they be outright charlatans, or simply purveyors of half-truths relying on good intentions alone to support their theories. Similar articles examining political topics will be forthcoming on the LEXREX website. Special thanks to Dr. Thomas Sowell for his insights, and to Pat Lewis for being as close to honest as possible given the circumstances.

 

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Article "Knowing what you are talking about," written by Dr. Thomas Sowell, November 30, 1998, courtesy of The Jewish World Review and Creators Syndicate, Inc. (Used under "fair use" for educational purposes.) Excerpt "The Science of Spin" taken from the book "How to Win: A Practical Guide for Defeating the Radical Right in Your Community," written by Pat Lewis of the National Jewish Democratic Council, copyright by Radical Right Task Force, and available in its entirety from the Politics section of the WELL gopher server. This article may be reprinted in its entirety, provided that a link to the LEXREX website (http://www.lexrex.com) is retained.