No more spin rooms? Say it ain't so!
The persuasion of postdebate spin rooms is going undercover.
Just past the intersection of I-89 and Route 120, a few miles southeast of where the Democratic presidential candidates were gathering to debate last Wednesday night, someone had built a two-story-high tower of campaign posters promoting the presidential nomination of front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
On the steamy green of Dartmouth College, as a political coxswain of sorts urged them on, supporters of the New York senator chanted "Hil-la-ry, Hil-la-ry," easily outshouting representatives of her rivals.
The Clinton campaign ticked with Swiss-watch precision. Which is why it was somewhat surprising, but surely no accident, when the candidate shunned the postdebate "spin room" – that sticky, and some would say deceitful, space where political aides work to make their candidate appear the winner. Barack Obama, a distant second in a poll of New Hampshire voters released the same day, stayed away, too. And so did the No. 3 candidate, John Edwards.
Four years earlier, I had watched a post-debate crowd of reporters, photographers, and camera crews mob then-front-runner Howard Dean after a debate in Durham, N.H., piling on as though Mr. Dean were dead center in a rugby scrum.
This time, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, running in the fumes of Democratic polls and fundraising, waxed political for a handful of young reporters. Aides to candidates stood by stoically, holding signs to identify themselves in hopes a few journalists might approach.
It was an awfully muted affair, most striking for what wasn't going on.
I wondered: Is it possible that more than 25 years after Michael Deaver brought the modern era of spin to the Reagan White House, that this postdebate dance could soon join the steam engine, the Edsel, and the electric typewriter on the ash heap of American history? And would anyone but Washington politicos much care?
"It was once a novelty," muses Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist who has written widely on his state's primary. "My guess is it's becoming more of a relic, more of a ritual than a place to go for news."
Not every spinner, I should caution, is ready to call it quits. One, who fittingly insisted that I identify him as "an observer close to the campaign process" – a term that could include the shuttle-bus driver – predicted a spin room resurgence as the primaries approach. Dartmouth, he pointed out, is far from major media centers. The debate ended late, and, hey, it was still September.
But a few retired spinners I sought out suspect there's more at play here, and I agree. Today, news moves at lightning speed and can be leaked through unlimited avenues – by BlackBerry, cellphone, e-mail, and, surreptitiously or not, on blogs.
"The spin room was for a time when there was just old media, when we knew who the media were," says Carol Darr, a former political insider now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
Even many of those old media types won't miss it. "Spin is basically deception," snorts Brooks Jackson, a veteran political correspondent who started the website factcheck.org to measure the advertising claims of candidates against the facts. "It never made sense to me that we filed in like sheep to be [fed a line]."
But I hesitate to celebrate the end of an era before I better understand what the next era might bring. If spin rooms are about persuasion – built, shall we say, on selective facts – at least the spinners have names and faces.
The same can't always be said about the intricate web of campaign bloggers and blog posters out there. I claim no expertise about this new form of, well, spin. But I felt awfully uneasy last week as panelists at a forum at Boston's Emerson College explained how tough it can be to trace the source of stories that jump from little blog to bigger blog, from a bit of buzz to breaking news on some 24-hour cable show.
Linda Peek Schacht, acting chair of Emerson's department of organizational and political communication and a former press secretary of Jimmy Carter's reelection campaign, is generally upbeat about a new generation of grass-roots campaigners. But she acknowledged that in the modern era of spin, "Who knows what horrible and scurrilous stuff is going to be put out there? And once it's out, it's impossible to kill."
Just maybe – if you'll forgive me Mr. Jackson – we may someday miss those flesh-and-blood spinmeisters, even if at times they insist on hiding behind the veil of anonymity. At least today, reporters know whom they've talked to and can try to gauge whether the spin has any grounding in fact. On the Internet, the "news" in time may truly come from nowhere.
Spin, I suspect, is neither dying nor fading away. It's just going deep black, increasingly beyond the range of detection. I'd personally prefer to meet the spinners – and watch the rugby scrum.
• Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston.