Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine
written by Howard Kurtz
published by The Free Press, 1998
303 pages of text; 20 pages of notes and index


A couple of summers ago, a friend of mine in Philadelphia was taking me for a tour of that historic city; a tour in which he delighted to get away from the traditional tourist sites and show me some of Philadelphia's little-known landmarks.

Every landmark had a story behind it, and as my friend was regaling me with the tale of a 19th century real estate deal that led to the building of one of Frank Furness' masterpieces, I sniffed "Well, someone sure got a big bribe."

"Oh, but Steve," he replied, "you couldn't get this without that!"

That retort was never far from my mind as I read Spin Cycle, Howard Kurtz's account of the tug-of-war between the Clinton administration and the White House press corps. The subtitle of Kurtz's book has led most casual observers to see the book as a slam at the White House, but it is in fact the media who come off looking the worst. If Kurtz's picture of the White House press corps is accurate, then the most powerful office in the world is being covered by a gang of Pecksniffs and gossip hounds who focus on relatively minor matters of propriety and etiquette to the exclusion of examining the serious business of governance.

A recurrent theme in Spin Cycle is the press' inability to account for Clinton's high approval ratings. It doesn't seem to occur to them that the American people, taken as a whole, might have a different sense of what matters about a president than political insiders in Washington. Kurtz's summary of the reasoning of Clinton's advisers gets at the truth of the matter: "The president was still riding high at 60 percent [in early 1997] because he was talking about real issues, like tax credits for college, that were as important to voters as they were sleep-inducing for White House correspondents" [pg. 129].

Rather than using their access to the public airwaves and corporate printing presses to discuss the issues that mattered to Americans and critique how the federal government was addressing those issues, the Washington media has chosen to play up every two-bit scandal it can get its hands on. Kurtz shows how reporters (especially television ones) try to manipulate the news so that they can have a juicy story on the front page or at the top of the hour. What's important or meaningful or fair is irrelevant; what matters is what sells. And what sells are stories of scandal and failure.

All this is not to say that there are not White House scandals that should be reported. When President Clinton is selling nights in the Lincoln Bedroom for $100,000, we need to know that. When Vice-President Gore is hitting up potential campaign donors for $50,000, we need to know that. But when every little mistake that the administration makes is turned into a front-page story -- as if these people weren't human and thus fallible -- then the press is doing nothing more than feeding the cynicism and apathy about government that has become such a blight in this country.

Perhaps the press would have more sympathy for the humanity and fallibility of the White House staff if they were more humble about their own shortcomings. The best thing about Steven Brill's article on the press coverage of the Lewinsky case (in the inaugural issue of Brill's Content) is that it treats news organizations with exactly the same nit-picky, unforgiving contempt that those organizations usually aim at other people. I hope that Brill's magazine continues to work over the Washington press for as long as they work over other people.

Spin Cycle is a fascinating and well-written look into the human side of the conflict between the press' need to get the scoop first (and find the dirt that sells newspapers) and the administration's need to govern the country. Because Kurtz is telling his story from "inside the Clinton propaganda machine," it does favor the Clinton point of view, but his insights into and vignettes about the nature of press-government relations are sound and well worth reading.


Review posted: 12 July 1998