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In era of Trump, spin cycle gets a makeover

A shift in thought

It's debate season, where social media has brought political spin into real time, favoring speed over contemplation and risking a hardening of polarization. 

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    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with reporters in the spin room after the first presidential debate against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University, on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Hempstead, N.Y.
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The next big debate of the 2016 campaign is a day away, and pre-event “spin” is in full gear.

Here’s how it goes: Our guy is great, and your guy can’t help your nominee, who’s hopeless. Reverse the names, rinse, and repeat.

The spin will go on in real time via social media and email while Gov. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana and Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia duke it out Tuesday night in the campaign’s one and only vice presidential debate. And after it’s over, efforts to sway the media narrative and, ultimately, public opinion will continue, perhaps for days.

Image-making has been around since the beginning of the Republic, but in the era of social media, the art of spin may be changing in profound ways.

Consider Walter Podrazik’s class on mass media and politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The day after the first Trump-Clinton debate, he asked his students what struck them about the spin.

Spin? They didn’t need to stick around for that, they told Mr. Podrazik. “They had already experienced it, via Twitter, Facebook, and other shared messaging, in real time, while the debate unfolded,” he says.

The “before” and “after” spinning is likely to be with us forever, but it’s the “during” part that has changed the game, thanks to social media. For those who enjoy real-time commentary, experiencing a debate solely within one’s own social-media ecosystem may point to a hardening of the ideological silos that people inhabit – and perhaps a hardening of political polarization.

“Research shows that we tend to interact on social media with people who are kind of like us,” says David Redlawsk, a political scientist at the University of Delaware, Newark, and author of the book “How Voters Decide.” “We don’t get overly challenged on our beliefs.”

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That may be no different from old-style socializing – at the Rotary Club or the women’s club or the neighborhood corner hangout. But more than ever with major political events, social media has brought analysis and spin into real time, favoring speed over contemplation and setting in motion a narrative that can be hard to change.

At the same time, social media can have a democratizing effect. Anybody can jump in with a pithy comment or observation.

No more 'spin alley'?

Perhaps Podrazik’s students are a harbinger of the future – a world in which a presidential debate ends, and is immediately followed on TV by … regularly scheduled programing, not pundits offering analysis and partisans trying to shape impressions of what just happened. And at the debate venue itself, maybe there’s no more “spin alley,” the place where reporters go for a post-game scrum with candidate surrogates. 

“No spin alley,” in fact, was one recommendation last year by the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Debate Reform. The spin room is a “tired ritual” that adds to the “spectacle” and cost of the debates, and takes away from the real purpose – to get the candidates to hash out the issues of the day, the group’s report said. And besides, the spin is already happening via email and Twitter, the report added, echoing Podrazik’s students.

The Commission on Presidential Debates saw things differently, and kept the spin room – and the live audience, and all the hoopla. Which fit right into Republican nominee Donald Trump’s plan.

As he did after many of the GOP primary debates, Mr. Trump headed straight for the spin room after Monday’s debate, a first for a major-party presidential nominee. But that’s Trump, the one-time reality TV star. If there’s a limelight, he wants to be in the middle of it – no matter how well (or not) he did in a debate.

So clearly, it’s too soon to write off the old way of experiencing political debates. After all, a record-breaking 84 million people watched the first Trump-Clinton debate on TV – and not everyone, of course, was simultaneously checking the blizzard of insta-punditry available online.

“TV is still more important than Twitter and Facebook,” says David Greenberg, author of the book “Republic of Spin.” “That may not be true in 20 years…. But for now, the average citizen interested in politics is going to watch the debates on a TV channel and will be at least somewhat interested in what the anchors and pundits have to say.”

Many people, too, are curious what the candidate “spinners” have to say. And as long as the ratings are there, the networks will keep showing it – “not because we believe it lock, stock, and barrel, but because it’s part of the process,” says Mr. Greenberg, an associate professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Viewers know that it’s spin, he says, because it’s presented as such.

“We’re capable of arguing with it, criticizing it, and seeing through it, if it’s phony or cynical, and applauding it if it’s done in the service of the candidate we like and we think it’s effective,” Greenberg says. “So people aren’t easily duped by these arguments.”

'Shut the TV off, get off social media'

Still, there are those who argue for just tuning out once a debate is over.

“I basically tell people after debates, shut the TV off,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Get off social media, and ask yourself, ‘What was important to you? What did you learn that mattered to you?’ before all this other stuff crowds out your learning.”

Of course, anyone who did so last Monday night would have missed the unprecedented spectacle of Trump and his entourage descending upon the spin room. “All the online polls say I was the big winner,” he boasted. That’s about as spinny as it gets; instant online polls are notoriously unreliable. More-reputable polls showed Hillary Clinton winning big.

And those arguing for the abolishment of the spin room might well find a reporters’ revolt on their hands.

That’s where “the real show begins,” writes Sam Frizell of Time.

“First came Don King, the boxing promoter, clutching an Israeli flag and wearing a button with Donald Trump’s face the size of a sandwich," he reports. "Then Omarosa, the Apprentice star, arrived in a low-cut dress and took selfies with the fans. Mark Cuban – the businessman, Dallas Mavericks owner, and Clinton supporter – recounted the joys of sitting in the front row of the debate.”

Perhaps it was more side show than real show. Though some actual information was imparted. Mr. Cuban said he’s not running for president. Trump said he felt the moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt, had done a “great job” (a view that soon changed). And hordes of campaign surrogates and party officials made their points to reporters, the standard fare of any spin room.

For reporters who have a hard time getting the campaigns to return phone calls, it’s a chance to grab facetime and a comment from a harried aide.

By the next day, the story had already evolved. Alicia Machado, the Venezuelan beauty queen whom Trump had fat-shamed 20 years ago – an episode raised by Clinton during the debate – became the center of attention, and remained there for days. Debate-night spin was soon old news. Now the Machado story dominates memories of the debate, just as Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention about his slain soldier-son (and Trump’s subsequent attacks on the Khan family) became a defining moment of that event. 

A lore of their own

As with the conventions, presidential debates have built up a lore of their own. And on occasion, post-debate commentary has shifted the perceptions of the outcome. In 1976, when President Ford debated Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, initial polls suggested Mr. Ford had won. Then the media highlighted Ford’s remark about “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” and Mr. Carter and the media hammered him on it. Ford soon had to respond, and is forever remembered as having misspoken at that debate.

Today, perceptions in social media of how Trump and Clinton did in their first debate – that Clinton trounced him – tracked with the assessments of pundits and polls.

“It was kind of hard to come to any other conclusion,” says Greenberg. “One does have to trust in free speech and the ability of people to make judgments."

By week’s end, Trump had engaged in a sort of anti-spin via social media – a middle-of-the-night tweet storm attacking Machado that has only harmed Trump’s image further. And therein lies the irony in the role of social media in the 2016 campaign. No amount of spinning – on social media or otherwise – can undo what Trump does to himself when he decides to rage on Twitter at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Then quickly enough, another big story pops: Trump tax documents leaked to The New York Times showing a $916 million loss in 1995 that would have allowed him to avoid paying taxes for 18 years. And it’s on to another spin cycle – both the old-fashioned kind and on Twitter.

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