Eternal Vigilance Is the Price of Spinning

SOMEONE the other day suggested that the next time an Ed Rollins or someone like him comes in to a Monitor breakfast ``with a cock-and-bull story,'' the reporters simply get up and leave.

This unrealistic suggestion does serve to point out the problem of the press that Mr. Rollins' outburst brought to the surface: When is a public figure ``spinning,'' a word the media use to describe a politician's attempts to bring about a favorable interpretation of what he is doing? And when is he simply talking from the heart?

And when is an ``overspin'' occurring? That's what Rollins the next day called his divulgence to reporters that the victorious Whitman campaign in New Jersey, which he managed, had spent $500,000 to suppress the black vote.

We shall see. While the New Jersey Democrats didn't find enough evidence to try for a rerun of the governor's race there, state and federal investigations are continuing. And Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have filed a $500 million slander lawsuit against Rollins and the GOP state committee.

None of the two dozen reporters who sat around the oval table that morning has said that he or she had the slightest suspicion that Rollins wasn't leveling with us when he revealed his winning strategy. There were so many specifics. His manner was so sincere. Also Rollins had often been the source of big and true political stories in the past.

Veteran reporters look for the spin and try to resist it. It's quite evident, however, that some of this effort by public figures to shape a story, to manage the news, is effective.

Sometimes the spinner will admit he's been spinning. Then-Sen. Al Gore Jr. once appeared at a Monitor breakfast wearing what he called his ``spin doctor'' attire, a white coat he had borrowed from a doctor friend. It was a good gag. In that morning's papers many of the reporters covering the 1988 Bush-Dukakis debate had listed Senator Gore as one of the spin doctors who afterward had met with the media in an effort to tilt the assessment of that event in favor of one candidate or the other. (Gore was pushing the pro-Dukakis assessment of the ``who won'' stories, of course.)

But the press so often is faced with the question: When is a public figure spinning and when is he telling you what he really thinks and what really is going on?

Take a recent interview of President Clinton, where he complained bitterly that he had received zero credit from what he called ``the knee-jerk liberal press'' for all the battles he had fought which, as he saw it, should have evoked rave reviews.

``Look at what I did,'' he said. ``I said the wealthy would have to pay their fair share, and look what we did to the tax system.''

Were these words simply a spontaneous outburst of frustration, delivered to a liberal publication with a liberal audience? Perhaps. Or was this a deliberate, premeditated show of temper aimed at catching the attention of liberals and, perhaps, getting them to see how ungrateful they had been?

It may have been my imagination. But it seemed to me that almost immediately after Mr. Clinton spoke those words, TV and newspaper pundits on TV who often are regarded as possessing a liberal point of view upgraded their appraisal of the president. They soon were hailing his work in pushing through the North American Free Trade Agreement even though, as liberals, they could well have sharply criticized him for the way he had fought the unions on this issue.

We've had managing of the news, or the effort to do so, for a long time. All of the presidents in my memory tried to get the press to accept their views. And they all became unhappy, often angry, because they felt the press wasn't buying their stories. I find some encouragement in that amidst this sorry spinning picture.

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