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Michael Kinsley

Life in the Spin Cycle

By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page B07

One day last week, four stories on the front page of the Los Angeles Times were about efforts to shape public perceptions.

There was a report about how the worst techniques of modern election campaigns are being adopted by interest groups in legislative battles. For example, a conservative group has been spreading word that the AARP's opposition to Social Security reform is part of a secret agenda that includes gay marriage.

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Another story described how movie studios spend millions trying to influence the Academy Awards.

A third was about the makeover of Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, following his unfortunate remarks about women and science.

And, like every media outlet in the world, the L.A. Times had the story of Martha Stewart's triumphant positioning of her release from prison: thinner, richer and humbler, too: a walking embodiment of that old joke, "I used to be conceited, but now I'm perfect."

It's an old story that the news and our understanding of it are affected -- or afflicted -- by "spin," meaning efforts by partisans to make us see things their way. But it may be new that so much of the news is actually about these efforts.

Spin is not just a technique. It is not just a political phenomenon. It permeates our culture and our daily life. And it's an industry -- almost a sector of the economy. That one day's stories quoted lobbyists, public relations specialists and professional "damage control" experts. If computers and communications go by the acronym "IT," for information technology, the perceptual industry might be "MT," for misinformation technology.

The business of MT isn't lying. It's shaping perceptions irrespective of the truth. Reality is a consideration, of course. But if reality were sufficient, we wouldn't need spin -- would we?

Of those four front-page stories, only one -- the Social Security piece -- had the slightest tone of disapproval. To disapprove of spin is like disapproving of rain. What's the point? If anything, there were sympathy and admiration for Summers and Stewart. Good spin is an essential life skill and business technique. Bad spin is worthy of criticism. No spin is un-American.

Reporters, whose job is to describe reality, rightly regard spin as an important part of the reality they are supposed to report. Good reporters describe both the real reality and the alternative reality. But even good ones often show no hint of preference as between the stage set and the real thing. If they did, that might be considered bias, I suppose.

It takes real excess of spin -- such as the president putting a practicing pundit on the payroll or the governor of California sending a fake newscast to real TV stations -- to generate much outrage in the press. Who knows what level of artifice would be needed to offend the general population, many of whom assume that the news is made up anyway.

All this sits oddly with the concurrent fashion for "transparency." The word is everywhere. It means what used to be called "truth" and also openness.

"Transparency" is one of the blessings of democracy that President Bush is proud of having brought to Iraq -- right up there with voting and somewhat less torture than before. Corporate reforms following the accounting scandals are supposed to make the books of public companies "transparent." A San Francisco foundation (the Wall Street Journal reports) has decorated its boardroom with glass because, says its chief administrative officer, "One of our values is transparency."

Transparency is a value? Five years ago, that idea would have been incomprehensible, like saying, "One of our values is suede." The transparency metaphor is inexact. It is not that people should be able to see right through you. It is that they should be able to see through to the real you.

But how do we resolve the apparent contradiction between our desire for transparency everywhere, and our tolerance or even approval of spin? The whole point of spin is opaqueness: a no-see-through skin of your own design between the real you and the outside world.

The solution, of course, is to spin your transparency. Make it look like you're transparent. And no doubt there are transparency consultants who will, for a fee, advise you about how to create an appearance of transparency so opaque that no one can see through it.

The dazzling sociologist Erving Goffman used to write essays and books with titles like "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," arguing that we are all actors in a play of our own devising. All sincerity is calculation, as he saw it, and every statement or gesture is layered with strategy.

Goffman died at age 60 in 1982. He had no idea.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.


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