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Political Spin Doctors

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If you've been to a protest, you've seen the sign: "Bush Lied!" But according to Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan, editors of the nonpartisan media watchdog site Spinsanity, the truth is a bit more complex. In their new book All the President's Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth (Touchstone), they argue that Bush has mastered the Clintonian art of carefully crafting misleading statements that are technically true. Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez spoke with the authors in August.

Reason: What are a few instances of the approach you're talking about?

Keefer: What they did [with the Iraq war] was to strip out all the caveats from the intelligence they had and present it to the public as a sure thing. And the press failed to call them on that by looking at what was in the public record.

Fritz: There's also the stem-cell debate. Bush said at one point, "As a result of private research, more than 60 genetically diverse stem-cell lines already exist." Most people assumed that these were 60 usable lines. When our book went to press, only 19 were ready for research; at the time it was fewer.

Reason: Why has the press failed here?

Fritz: These public relations techniques are designed to exploit the way journalists do their jobs. There's a need to emphasize speed and therefore an inability to check out complex claims to see if they're false or misleading without more context.

There's also this norm of objectivity where if you go after someone too hard, it's seen as unprofessional or biased. At best they might have some person on the other side respond to a misleading claim, but there's seldom an attempt by the journalist to figure out what's true.

Nyhan: The media have to get some backbone. Knight-Ridder was doing great public record reporting because they didn't have high-level sources at the same time The New York Times was running administration leaks to Judith Miller on the front page.

Reason: How good is the Bush team at spin?

Nyhan: There's no universal metric of dishonesty, but they've been systematic about it. They've very self-consciously taken the strict message discipline and the use of imagery from Ronald Reagan and the 24-hour rapid response spin and the use of half-truths from Clinton and amalgamated it into a very effective machine.

Keefer: John Kerry's now picking up some of the same techniques. He'll say "we've lost 3 million jobs," which is true for the private sector. If you look at total jobs lost, it's more like 1.1 or 1.2 million. But 3 million sounds a lot worse.