Forget the Truth, Give Me the Spin!

One of the unenviable tasks of the professional spinner is not only to put all developments in the best possible light for your boss or your side but to express optimism so boundless it often becomes inane. "You bet," says the press secretary for the candidate trailing by 20 points, "we're going to win this election!" "The congressman will be vindicated when all the facts come out!" says the spokesperson for the guy caught with a freezer full of cash. Journalists expect this, so they never go too hard on the spinner. After all, he's just doing his job, and we all know what the parameters of that job are.

One of the problems with this mutual understanding is that when the spinner steps outside of the pose of ridiculous optimism and talks, for a moment, like a human being, reporters treat it as something of surpassing import. So it was when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, appearing on Meet the Press yesterday, made the utterly banal observation that "there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control [of the House]; there's no doubt about that." The press treated this as some kind of earth-shattering piece of news. Here's Reuters writing a story about it. Here's The Politico doing a story about it. It leads George Stepanopoulos' "Must Reads." NBC News screams it but also notes, "Imagine if Gibbs had said the GOP did NOT have a chance; the chattering class would have criticized him for being in a bubble or being delusional." OK, so then why is it big news?

The truth is that there is not a single political analyst, political professional, or political anything else who thinks the GOP has no chance of winning the House this fall. Saying they have a chance to take back the House is like saying the Yankees have a chance to win their division this year. You might think that in the end they won't do it, but of course they have a chance.

Here's why this is a problem: Right now, Gibbs is essentially being punished by the press for stating the obvious. They're reacting as though he committed some newsworthy breach of protocol. And that makes it less likely that he or anyone else will see any value in speaking to reporters, and thus to the public, with any degree of candor whatsoever. Reporters pretend that they hate spin, and their job is to cut through all the nonsense to get at the truth. But as soon as someone in politics departs from the spin for an instant, even in the most innocuous way, they act in ways that seem designed to make sure it never happens again.

-- Paul Waldman

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