Just as a tennis player puts spin on the ball in order to influence the direction of its bounce, so too do public figures (especially politicians) try to "spin" events so as to favorably influence coverage by the news media. The first uses of the term "spin" in this context date to the U.S. elections of 1984, and the term "spin doctor," meaning a press secretary, publicist, campaign manager, or other surrogate adept at dealing with the press, came into use about 1990. Given the growing plethora of news outlets and the undeniable power of the news media to influence public opinion, the concept of spin control has only become more prevalent by the end of the century.
Political campaigns are prime occasions for the exercise of spin control, because everything that occurs in a campaign, short of the final vote count, is open to interpretation. The candidate who placed second in a primary, for example, may spin the result as a moral victory or as a sign of growing momentum. The candidate in third place may claim that the result is acceptable, considering the very limited time and money that he or she spent in the state. The candidate coming in fourth may claim to have gained valuable experience and name recognition that might bode well for future primary contests.
One aspect of campaigns that is especially amenable to spin is the political debate, which lacks clear criteria for victory, and the television audience is not, in any case, made up of trained debate judges. As a result, the opinions of media pundits can have a great influence on public perceptions of a political debate's outcome. This is well illustrated by Gerald Ford's remark, during a 1976 televised debate with Jimmy Carter, about the status of Poland. In response to an earlier statement by Carter, Ford claimed that Poland was not under the domination of the Soviet Union. Opinion polls conducted immediately after the debate showed that a significant portion of the audience thought Ford had done well. But by the next day, after the news media had made much of Ford's gaffe about Poland, many viewers apparently decided that Carter was the debate's clear winner. Occasions like this, demonstrating the media's power to sway public perceptions, have convinced political professionals of the necessity of effective spin control.
Wartime provides another instance of the usefulness of spin, especially in the post-Vietnam War era. It is virtually doctrine at the highest levels of the U.S. armed forces that the news media "lost" the Vietnam War for America by writing and broadcasting stories that undermined the public's will to win. News stories about human rights abuses by the South Vietnamese government, mistreatment of prisoners and other atrocities allegedly committed by U.S. troops, and the effects upon civilians of indiscriminate bombing of North Vietnam—along with vivid images of dead, dying, and horribly disfigured American troops—are believed by the Pentagon to have convinced many citizens that the war was unwinnable.
That does not mean that spin control was absent during the Vietnam War. It was, in fact, widely attempted by politicians at home and by the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam. But the official spin on the war lost effectiveness as the conflict dragged on. President Lyndon Johnson, whose Vietnam policies had enjoyed wide support in 1964, was alleged to have developed a "credibility gap" concerning the war by 1967—a euphemism for the belief that Johnson had been caught lying. In Vietnam, military Public Information Officers held daily press briefings in Saigon at 5 p.m. In time, many journalists grew so cynical about the official spin on the war that they began to refer to the briefings as the "Five O'Clock Follies." Fed up with the official line, many reporters went off on their own, and in the process sometimes uncovered stories embarrassing to both the U.S. military and its commander in chief.
Having learned what it saw as the public relations lesson of Vietnam, the Pentagon has since taken careful and comprehensive steps to ensure that media coverage of military conflict receives the proper spin. The new policy involves the close supervision of reporters in combat zones, restriction of journalists from "sensitive" areas, and frequent official briefings so as to ensure that journalists receive the military's version of events. This approach was followed successfully by the military in Grenada (1984) and Panama (1990). However, the crowning achievement in military spin control probably came in the Persian Gulf War. In the Saudi Arabia staging area for Coalition forces, correspondents were forbidden to travel on their own; instead, battlefield newsgathering was only permitted by a closely supervised "pool" of reporters, while the others were left behind. Then, the journalists were brought back to the press area to brief their colleagues. Military briefings during the Gulf War were much more effective as spin than the "Five O'Clock Follies": the carefully scripted briefings created the desired impression of the Coalition Forces' invincibility.
A more recent spin control campaign began in the spring of 1998, when stories began to surface in Washington alleging that President Bill Clinton had engaged in a sexual relationship with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. The Clinton White House, especially Press Secretary Mike McCurry, tried hard to spin the story into something innocuous. Observing McCurry at work over a long period, writer Howard Kurtz derived some of the press secretary's "spin strategies," including: 1) Don't let television break a scandal. If it's inevitable, leak it to the print media, which tend to provide more nuance and are seen by considerably fewer people; 2) Do not let Senate committees break scandals, either. Beat them to the punch by informing the media yourself, providing your own "spin" in the process; and 3) Leak favorable but boring stories to one media outlet as an "exclusive"—chances are, they'll be grateful enough to give the story a positive spin.
Kurtz, Howard. Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine. New York, The Free Press, 1998.
Maltese, John Anthony. Spin Control: The White House Office of Communications and the Management of Presidential News. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
spin / spin/ • v. (spin·ning ; past and past part. spun / spən/ ) 1. turn or cause to turn or whirl around quickly: [intr.] the girl spun around in alarm the rear wheels spun violently | [tr.] he fiddled with the radio, spinning the dial. ∎ [intr.] (of a person's head) give a sensation of dizziness: the figures were enough to make her head spin. ∎ [tr.] chiefly Cricket impart a revolving motion to (a ball) when bowling. ∎ [intr.] (of a ball) move through the air with such a revolving motion. ∎ [tr.] give (a news story or other information) a particular interpretation, esp. a favorable one. ∎ [tr.] shape (sheet metal) by pressure applied during rotation on a lathe: [as adj.] (spun) spun metal components. 2. [tr.] draw out (wool, cotton, or other material) and convert it into threads, either by hand or with machinery: they spin wool into the yarn for weaving | [as adj.] (spun) spun glass. ∎ make (threads) in this way: this method is used to spin filaments from syrups. ∎ (of a spider or a silkworm or other insect) produce (gossamer or silk) or construct (a web or cocoon) by extruding a fine viscous thread from a special gland. 3. [intr.] fish with a spinner: they were spinning for salmon in the lake. • n. 1. a rapid turning or whirling motion: he concluded the dance with a double spin. ∎ revolving motion imparted to a ball in a game such as baseball, cricket, tennis, or billiards: this racket enables the player to impart more spin to the ball ∎ [in sing.] a particular bias, interpretation, or point of view, intended to create a favorable (or sometimes, unfavorable) impression when presented to the public: he tried to put a positive spin on the president's campaign. ∎ [usu. in sing.] a fast revolving motion of an aircraft as it descends rapidly: he tried to stop the plane from going into a spin. ∎ Physics the intrinsic angular momentum of a subatomic particle. 2. [in sing.] inf. a brief trip in a vehicle for pleasure: a spin around town. PHRASES: spin one's wheels inf. waste one's time or efforts. spin a yarn tell a long, far-fetched story.PHRASAL VERBS: spin something off (of a parent company) turn a subsidiary into a new and separate company. spin out (of a driver or car) lose control, esp. in a skid. spin something out make something last as long as possible: they seem keen to spin out the debate through their speeches and interventions. ∎ spend or occupy time aimlessly or without profit: Shane and Mary played games to spin out the afternoon. ORIGIN: Old English spinnan ‘draw out and twist (fiber)’; related to German spinnen. The noun dates from the mid 19th cent.
Spin ★★ 2004 (PG-13)
Orphaned by his parents' deaths, young Eddie's cold uncle passes him off to one of his Hispanic ranch hands and his wife who, despite their best efforts, have difficulty keeping the teenager on the right track. Based on Donald Everett Axinn's novel. 107m/C VHS, DVD . Ryan Merriman, Stanley Tucci, Dana Delany, Paula Garces, Ruben Blades; D: James Redford; W: James Redford; C: Paul Ryan; M: Todd Boekelheide. VIDEO