The banality of spinning

By Kelly Toughill

Ira Basen’s chilling new radio documentary, Spin Cycles, details with horrible clarity exactly how news is routinely manufactured and manipulated in this country and abroad. The show is a shocker for the uninitiated, but even jaded journalists will find it uncomfortable listening.

Everyone should hear this series at least once.

Basen treads familiar ground. Many pundits, academics and filmmakers have covered the basic plot: the powerful are distorting the news to serve their own narrow interests. An army of public relations mercenaries is at the command of those with the biggest bank accounts, and they almost always win the war. Michael Moore has touched on this. So has Noam Chomsky. Remember Manufacturing Consent or Unreliable Sources?

But Basen is not an activist, not a journalist on the edge. He has been a CBC radio producer forever, covering news and politics and current affairs for Canada’s mainstream broadcaster. He just happens to have turned his journalist’s eye on his colleagues this time.

The series is divided into six parts, covering the history and contemporary practice of spin in politics, big business, advertising, public relations and the military. (A short disclaimer here: Basen interviewed me for the fourth installment of the series.)

The sixth episode is particularly effective, showing how current efforts to skew war coverage in Iraq and Afghanistan are rooted in history. George W. Bush was following in the steps of Woodrow Wilson when he misled the American public about the reasons for going to war.

When Wilson decided the United States should enter the First World War, the American people were dead-set against joining the war in Europe. Wilson set up the Committee for Public Information, which quickly chucked the idea of making rational arguments about protecting America’s self-interest overseas. Instead, Basen reports, the committee decided to appeal directly to the emotions and “whip Americans into a white-hot mass of patriotism.”

Soon Americans were hearing stories about Germans bayoneting pregnant women and killing babies. The stories were completely false, and completely effective.

Basen traces the baby-killer genre of war propaganda through the ages to the first Gulf War, when the U.S. Congress was told that Iraqi troops ripped premature infants out of their incubators in Kuwait and left them on the hospital floor to die. Another lie.

In the lead-up to the current war in Iraq, the U.S. funded a front-group of ex-patriot Iraqis to denounce the regime, then used the false information they provided about alleged weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion.

Basen doesn’t focus as much on the antics of the Bush White House, however, as the legion of reporters who should have been probing the administration for detail on fact and policy. His interviews with legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas and Bob Bergen, a former journalist who is now with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute in Calgary, are particularly effective.

One of the many strengths of Spin Cycles is it doesn’t fall into the trap of criticizing U.S. practice without examining Canadian problems. Several episodes focus exclusively on Canadian examples, particularly in politics. In episode six, on the military, Basen delves in depth into the experience of Canadian journalists who are embedded with Canadian troops and how that affects news coverage.

Working journalists often dismiss media criticism because it is obvious the critics don’t understand how reporters, editors and newsrooms work. Too often critics see conspiracies, where in reality there is simply confusion.

Basen’s analysis is powerful precisely because he understands, and shows listeners in detail, exactly how the news is made, and where and how reporters are influenced. He shows the little tricks: things like leaking a press release to a select reporter at the end of the day, knowing the reporter won’t have time to check details or get negative reaction before deadline. And he shows the big tricks: setting up dummy organizations through public relations firms to convince reporters of grassroots support for a point of view.

People don’t manipulate the news just for fun. The point is almost always to sway public opinion for a particular purpose: to win an election, start a war, change a trade law. It’s a long list.

Spin Cycles wrapped up last month, but you can still listen to it online here. CBC has put together a terrific package for the show. The site not only holds the audio files and summaries of each show, but transcripts of key interviews and great links.

I hope CBC keeps the site active for a very long time.

Kelly Toughill is an assistant professor of journalism at King’s College in Halifax.