Spin and Spin Doctors ― Wong Soak Koon

JULY 12 ― The phrase “spin doctor” first appeared in print in October 1984 in an editorial in the New York Times on the aftermath of the televised debate between then presidential candidates, Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale.

The White House Chief of Staff at the time, Don Regan, was informally known as “Director of Spin Control”.

What species of man or beast is a spin doctor?

Originating in the jargon of American politics, a spin doctor usually materialises in the form of a senior political spokesperson on the payroll of the powerful (politicians and suchlike) whose job is to promote a positive interpretation of events to journalists and the public.

The tools of spin can be varied like the use of half-truths, exaggeration, the diverting of attention from a serious issue of public interest to a personal issue, distracting the public from their alarm at a real happening by conjuring up a fictional crisis and so on.

The means are as endless as the needs that arise in the murky halls of political and corporate power.

The goal is to make some powerful figure look good (usually after he or she has committed a serious act that can ruin both reputation and career  as well as destroy the institutions to which they are affiliated ).

 At its most blatantly “naked”, spin may be linked to that childhood tale we all know, which is that of the naked Emperor being admired as replendently clothed.

We have laughed at this story, but if we pause to reflect quietly something more insidious rivets our thoughts. Was the audience watching the Emperor simply afraid to tell the truth? 

Or, more stealthy than fear, was there a strange hypnotic psychological pull in words and staging that made even black become white so that all saw the Emperor as magnificently attired? Our laughter at those watching the Emperor stops.

We ask, “When do we too surrender our logic and reason and so succumb to the power of received ideas ? When are our own judgements already pre-empted by the tactics and strategies of spin doctors?

One of the best movies on spin doctoring is Wag the Dog which I shall analyse here. The phrase “wag the dog” refers to the ways spin doctors divert the public's attention (“wag the dog” as it were)  from a grave event to another  important event (usually “cooked up”).

In the movie, two weeks prior to re-election, a US President commits a sex scandal with an underage girl in The Oval Office!

Robert de Niro as the spin-doctor, Conrad Brean, is asked to spin a yarn to save the President and he, in turn, calls on the services of a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to produce a fake military crisis in Albania to divert attention from the sex scandal.

So, a completely phony news report of an Albanian crisis  is produced, by clever cutting and pasting involving terrorists and with a heart-rending scene of a young  and pretty Albanian girl fleeing from terrorists. These spin tricks work initially and the President does much better at the polls.

Fickle and unsteady as public attention always is, this fake Albanian crisis only rivets attention for a while and so, as in many spin narratives, the “lies” will have to beget more “lies” so as to again rally public attention.

Thus, both Conrad Bean and Stanley Motss, with the compliance of key govt agencies spins yet another narrative of a POW (prisoner of war) left behind for whose rescue a mission must be mounted. 

Patriotism and solidarity must be reignited so that  any fall-out from the sex scandal can be contained. You will have to watch the movie to savour the sharp critique mounted by Barry Levinson, the movie's director, against this miasma of baleful spin-doctoring.

I shall not spoil the fun for those who may want to watch the movie on Netflix or whatever device by giving too many details.

Instead, I shall tease out significant elements about spin-doctoring efforts in this movie which we may reflect on.You may want to have a movie night and discuss Wag the Dog over kopi O and curry puffs.

Suffice it for me to say that disaster follows when mortal men, however powerful they and their spins are, realise that some things just cannot be controlled or predicted.

In fact, the biggest irony is that Stanley Motss himself ends his life in a spin narrative cooked up by the authorites.

He is said to have died of a heart attack at home when, in fact, his death is at the hands of security staff ordered by the White House spin doctor, Conrad Bean, because Motss threatens to expose the whole charade.

No, not because Motss  suddenly has a sharp prick of his conscience but because he feels he was not given enough credit for his splendid effort  in producing various fake news reports to cover up the sex scandal.

Even the offer of an ambassadorship does not make Motss budge, so the Director of Spin, Brean, decides that Motss had to be killed!

From “Wag the Dog” we learn that spin generates further spins and the web grows ever more sticky catching in its wake sundry innocent and not-so-innocent people.

Spin doctors wield undocumented power and in the movie, even the CIA and the Pentagon, are persuaded or “coerced” into playing along.

But there may be some kind of divine justice ( in the movie, at least ) in that spin doctors and their accomplices are anything but loyal to each other so spin narratives can implode from within.

A conspiratorial coven of spin doctors has no strong cement to make them true to one another.

Greed for money and power rarely encourages loyalty. Thus, in some cases the lies and spin narratives are exposed, hopefully sooner rather than later.

What power, other than the political powers-that-be, can spin doctors call upon when their game is discovered? Well, some do call upon religion. 

Certain political parties may claim that lying in the political interests of the Party is permissible in their astonishing reinterpretation of religious laws and values.

I suppose anything at all can be called upon when spin doctors are desperate to keep their jobs.

What is a key antidote to the menace of spin-doctoring?

Education in deep, reflective thinking is one vital way.

Education is crucial for developing in the young (and even older citizens through continuing life-long learning) the critical ability to ask questions rather than receive ideas passively.

Do our schools allow for deep reflection and critical enquiry or are we still imprisoned by rote learning and the regurgitation of facts?

Are we creating a generation of youths destined to become unthinking victims of spin, or, are we seriously keen to develop contemplative, critical, discerning young people ?

I leave it to the relevant Ministers and to all of us as citizens to ponder these questions.

* Dr Wong Soak Koon is a long-time Literature teacher.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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