Mimsy Review: Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine
…the technique of dismissing damaging stories as old news was devastatingly effective.
This is basically the story of how the Clinton administration gave the media an excuse for not following up.
While the book is framed with the intern scandal, and Kurtz does include some of the administration’s stonewalling on the other potential presidential sex scandals, the thrust of his analysis is the long-running fundraising scandal.
Spin Cycle was published in 1998, which means it mostly predates the Lewinsky scandal, which is too bad because that was the Clinton’s finest spin, when they convinced feminists to support an abusive boss, Democrats to vilify a young woman, and reporters to ignore scandal and report as if the prosecution was the scandal.
It is an insider’s view, literally. Kurtz describes the world through what he takes as the view of each participant, giving both Clinton spinmeisters and press a charitable reading. With the benefit of hindsight this isn’t quite as effective now as it probably was in 1998. The same press that he characterized as feeling “guilty for not stumbling on the finance scandal until just before the election” and so allowing Clinton and Gore to delay until after the election, deliberately and blatantly ignored the Obama credit card scandal until the fifth of never two cycles later.
The Clintons pioneered some unique defenses, defenses that only really work if the press is with you. For example, when Dick Morris was caught having had—and ignored—an illegitimate child, they simply refused to talk about whether the President, who had voiced “strong concern about child support” (read: deadbeat dads) knew anything about Morris’s troubles.
…the press secretary’s ploy paid off. Unable to confirm that Clinton knew of the relationship… none of the networks reported on Morris’s triple life. Nor did the New York Times or the L.A. Times or USA Today… Now that reporters knew the president had knowingly employed a political strategist who had fathered an illegitimate child—well, it was old news.”
“Old news”, however, doesn’t work if the media doesn’t play along.
The Clinton administration also used time-honored strategies, such as blatant threats. For example, there was a charge that “Craig Livingstone, a low-level White House aide… had once issued a memo chastising White House staffers for writing bad checks.” New York Post Reporter Deborah Orin asked about this memo at one of the “gaggles”, morning briefings at the White House, and was brushed off as having come from a proven unreliable source.
A CBS producer, Mark Knoller, piped up. “But Deborah’s question is legitimate, isn’t it, Mike?”
The book, McCurry told Orin, was “filled with lies. And your newspaper, as I recall, reprinted large portions of it.”
“And it printed your denials, Mike. But the question is a question about a memo. Did or didn’t he issue such a memo?”
“I do not know.”
“Will you check?”
“Because I don’t want to,” McCurry said. Then he threw down the gauntlet: “Does any other news organization want to pose the question?”
It was a tense moment. McCurry was suddenly the playground bully, challenging the rest of the gang to stand up for Deborah Orin. There was an uncomfortable silence. “Okay, hearing none, any other questions?” McCurry said. Another reporter asked about a Pentagon initiative, and the briefing moved on.
Orin felt humiliated. Her whole body was shaking. Afterward, several reporters approached her and apologized for their behavior. “They felt as if their balls had been cut off while my limb was cut off,” Orin said later. “The press corps was totally emasculated.”
One reporter told her, “I didn’t want to use up any chits for your story.” Orin was stunned… most of the reporters would not stick their necks out and risk losing what little access they had. They had become too passive.
The Clintons really played up the playground mentality, and its emotional games, to the hilt, playing reporters against reporters and good cop/bad cop. For example, Ann Blackman of Time talked to Hillary Clinton in her car, and the First Lady began to talk about welfare reform. It was a fifteen minute session, but important because it outlined a formal role for Hillary on an important topic. She wrote the piece up, “had an enjoyable, off-the-record dinner with Hillary” and then,
At seven the next morning, while Ann Blackman was sipping her coffee in the hotel restaurant, Marsha Berry [Hillary Clinton’s communications director] walked up and started scolding her. “She never said those words!”… The White House was going haywire over the story.
Suddenly Blackman felt under siege… it wasn’t just Berry who was accusing her; even the soft-spoken Melanne Verveer [Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff] told her she didn’t believe that Hillary had used the words “formal role.”
But, Blackman had a tape recording. Once she returned to the plane, she verified the words were there, handed out copies of the transcript to her colleagues and to Hillary Clinton.
It didn’t seem to matter. Berry came back to Blackman’s seat and continued the tirade. “Weak!” she said. “Weak!” Blackman was stunned. They had falsely accused her of lying, and now they didn’t even have the decency to apologize.
Press Secretary Mike McCurry implied that the interview was reported on incorrectly, “implicitly criticizing Blackman’s account.”
The day after the staff’s blowup with Ann Blackman, Hillary Clinton was working the crowd at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Blackman saw her coming over and braced for an unpleasant moment. The first lady put her hand on Blackman’s shoulder.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Don’t worry. These things get blown out of proportion. Your story’s fine.”
Keep them all off balance.
Another way of doing that was to leak selective information to different news outlets. By keeping each outlet from having the full story—the leaks have to happen at the last minute, so they can’t do any investigating—the full import of the scandal never gets reported in any one place; and by the time reporters put the pieces together, well, then it’s back to old news.
This was especially effective when playing the press against congress. Since congressional investigations tended to have the fully story, it was beneficial to leak bad news to the press before, say, Senator Fred Thompson’s committee had a chance to make a report. Some reporters seemed not to understand this dynamic. One complained to Lanny Davis [special counsel to President Clinton] that he’d leaked the information too late to get a glaring headline.
“You still don’t get it,” Davis said. “I wanted it on your front page with a glaring headline. That way Fred Thompson’s not going to get a glaring headline.”
Fred Thompson’s committee didn’t get a lot of respect from the press. At one point everyone blew off the proceedings, and that included CSPAN. The network whose only real job is covering congress chose not to cover a committee meeting that reflected poorly on President Clinton.
A compliant media become even more important after the midterms.
After the Republicans won both houses of Congress in 1994, the president had little choice but to reconnect with the press, for he could no longer play the inside game of working quietly with Democratic leaders to get things done. The only way he could influence public debate was through exhortation, and he couldn’t simply give speeches again and again. He needed the bank shot of friendly media coverage to give his words resonance.
Leaks didn’t always mean surreptitiously passing information. At least once, Lanny Davis dictated a news story to a reporter.
Lanny Davis ducked into a broom closet of a room in the Hart Building, a few steps to the left of the cavernous Thompson hearing room, where AP reporter Larry Margasak was banging away at a black laptop on a battered folding table.
“These were simply statements of federal law and not of DNC policy,” Davis recited as Margasak typed. He peered over the reporter’s shoulder.
“You want to say, based upon the understanding?” Davis asked.
“That’s fine,” Margasak said impatiently. “C’mon, Lanny.”
Davis pointed to the screen and continued: “If you insert ‘this is based upon’ after the words ‘soft money’…” He was injecting his verbiage directly into the wire story, the one that would set the tone for much of the day’s coverage. A second AP reporter, James Rowley, looked on incredulously as his colleague took dictation from the White House spinmeister trying to save Al Gore’s butt.
“Moments earlier…” Gore had been implicated as knowing “that some of the big bucks he was raising were improperly being diverted to the Clinton-Gore campaign” as hard money instead of to the DNC as soft money.
Davis always called John Solomon at the AP in midmorning to check on the Senate hearing story and see if there was anything he should respond to… Now Solomon told him about the memo to Gore.
“How much time do I have?” Davis asked.
“Twenty minutes,” Solomon said.
Davis bolted out of the veep’s second-floor office, down the stairs, through a connecting corridor to the Hart building, and up another flight to Margasak’s side. He emerged into the tan-carpeted hallway only after Margasak had finished typing his documents.
Despite such revelations, this book does not come across as sensationalistic. Everything is downplayed, presented in a sort of matter-of-fact manner that almost, partly because of the point-of-view choices, makes spin the hero.
In a sense, spin comes across a lot better than the press does. The spin simply wasn’t that good, and the techniques used were little more than excuses for reporters to fall in line. It’s almost comical, but with Hillary Clinton continuing to use the “old news” defense, this time to get past the Benghazi scandal where Americans died, letting President Clinton get by with that defense for selling access, policy, and White House lodging is less benign.
If you enjoyed Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine…
If you enjoy Bill Clinton, you might also be interested in All Too Human, No One Left to Lie To, and Hillary Clinton and husband accused of sexual assault.
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If you enjoy media, you might also be interested in The evolution of news to candy, The Powers That Be, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, and The gullible media and the chocolate factory.