"Why do people who are so smart get up and say things that are so dumb?" wonders lefty political commentator Bill Press, announcing his pick for "spin of the day" on CNN's snarky new talk show, The Spin Room. Press's baby-faced on-air sidekick, the bow-tied Weekly Standard writer Tucker Carlson, defines the "spin of the day" as a political comment so ridiculous it makes you want to hurl your beer bottle at the television screen. In this instance, Press has chosen a loaded remark made by Karen Hughes, George W. Bush's communications director. During the Florida recount, Hughes observed that her candidate won more total popular votes than Bill Clinton did in 1996. When it's put like that, you might almost forget that Al Gore did too. In fact, Gore won 300,000 more votes than George W.--which Hughes didn't mention.
This kind of partisan nonsense-spewing--ranging from half-truths like Hughes's to downright lying--has become a fixture of American political discourse. That's one reason why David Letterman and Jay Leno played such a palpable role in Election 2000: There was so much to debunk. Bush and Gore were transparently full of spin, their spokespersons and surrogates were even more so, and between the two sides there was hardly a fact immune to partisan reinvention. The Daily Show's convention "coverage" on Comedy Central and Saturday Night Live's debate parodies were more than just comedy--they were homages to the electorate's bullshit detector.
TV news programming has not generally pursued a comedic approach to politics. Indeed, adversarial talk shows like CNN's Crossfire (also co-hosted by Press) and Fox News Channel's Hannity and Colmes are designed to lend gravitas to the political process. These programs--set up with a liberal co-host cross-examining a conservative guest, and vice versa--draw their drama from the partisan divide but their import from a shared reverence for it.
The same cannot be said of The Spin Room, with its techno theme music, its clique of youthful commentators, and its constant on-screen postings of wacky comments culled from e-mails and the show's online chat room. ("Tucker looks sexy tonight," one recently read.) Though they mimic the Crossfire format, Press and Carlson take neither the Democrats nor the Republicans too seriously. Indeed, they save their most merciless digs for the Greens ("Bill, here are Nader supporters; here's the real world. Here's hemp. It's a barrier") and the Reform Party ("Ross Perot called in. He's very jealous. We have had so many e-mails. So Ross Perot wants everybody to know that you can also e-mail him. If you would like, his e-mail address, of course, is www.loonybin.com").
Calling the show postmodern may be a stretch, but The Spin Room is certainly postpartisan. Despite their very different politics, there's never the slightest hint of discord or rancor between the amiable Press and the deadpan Carlson. Instead, throughout each session the two hosts act as though they're both privy to the same overarching joke: Nudge nudge, wink wink, it's all spin. So it's no surprise that when a pair of Florida congressmen, Republican Joe Scarborough and Democrat Bob Wexler, got into a shouting match in a recent show over Palm Beach County electoral irregularities, Bill Press quickly put them both in their place. "Whoa. Whoa," he said. "Stop, guys. This is not Crossfire. This is The Spin Room."
Through the election and in the weeks after, the above-the-fray approach didn't particularly help further the goal of informative discussion about political issues. But it's at least debatable whether this was the fault of Press and Carlson or of the campaigns themselves, with their vast budgets for polling and public relations, which inevitably leave a residue of superficiality clinging to their chosen candidates. "Tomorrow night in The Spin Room," Bill Press said in closing a pre-election show, "we are going to talk about campaign issues." To which Carlson replied, reasonably enough, "What issues, Bill? I didn't notice any issues."
In the absence of issues, The Spin Room has provided other amusements, such as dispatches from its official "tavern correspondent," New York Post editorial writer Robert George. A youngish and smiley conservative in the mold of Carlson, George has spent several shows hanging out in a SoHo restaurant, acting cool, chatting with the women at the table behind his, and offering commentary on the presidential contest over a glass of merlot. The first time The Spin Room tried out the bar shtick, the response must have been heartening to CNN's marketing division, which has long salivated over MTV's viewer demographics. One e-mailer wondered, "Is Tucker old enough to get into a bar?" Carlson, who despite his youthful appearance is actually in his early thirties and married with children, responded, "I frequently get carded."
Since the show's launch during the Bush-Gore debates, a constellation of young journalists have flocked to it. Witty and attractive, they seem handpicked to represent television's formulaic notion of diversity. On the liberal side, there's The New Republic's Michelle Cottle and Salon's Jake Tapper, who has filled in for Press and has also joined George (who is black) at the SoHo bar. On the right, besides Carlson and George, guests include two National Review staffers: editor Rich Lowry--who subs for Carlson but isn't as good at keeping his ideology tastefully muted--and senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru. Indeed, with the exception of Press, who serves as the ivory-haired chaperone, The Spin Room frequently acts as a kind of on-air hangout for the next generation of political pundits, presided over by pledge master Carlson.
By all signs, CNN is delighted. Like a favorite grandchild, the show has been allowed to sit at the grown-ups' table. The Spin Room is now one of the regulars on CNN's nightly rotation, and it won't be the last of its kind. For several months, there have been rumors of a "Capital Gang Junior"-type spin-off that would cast the same basic brat pack of journalists, together with Time's young reporter Tamala Edwards, as Gen X foils to Kate O'Beirne, Mark Shields, Margaret Carlson, Al Hunt, and curmudgeon-in-chief Bob Novak. One way or another, the Spin Room tone seems here to stay, and it's a tone that betrays a clear generational divide in the punditariat. Both on the page and on the air, the younger pundits tend to be more self-mocking and less ideologically invested, more bemused by what they're exposing than enraged.
There's a case to be made that this journalistic mode lends itself to cynical and superficial commentary--a kind of analysis in which "wonky" serves as a fun epithet, but that's the last you hear about the ins and outs of HMO reform or global warming. Yet the charge that The Spin Room represents another triumph of marketing over journalism--a further step in CNN's steady march away from C-Span dense toward MTV fluffy--begins from a false premise. It is simply not the case that the traditional news talk shows are significantly more issues-oriented or that they delve into greater policy detail. There's little real substance to the partisan hyperventilation that takes place on Crossfire, for example--and other shows are worse. In fact, The Spin Room approach, which involves debunking political posturing in favor of straighter talk and humor (think John McCain), may ultimately be more constructive than adversarial talk shows on which partisan battle lines never fade.
After all, there's a threshold at which political debate ceases to be useful--a point at which divisiveness no longer illuminates differences but instead destroys any common ground for argument. And considering that Democrats and Republicans these days have little trouble coming up not only with conflicting opinions but with irreconcilable facts and statistics--which they splice into talking points and mass e-mail to the media within hours of each new policy announcement--we may have gotten there. A trendy anthropologist watching a typical Hannity and Colmes shouting fest on Fox News might infer that Democrats and Republicans experience fundamentally different realities.
If The Spin Room tempts some of those spinners to look in the mirror, as Saturday Night Live's parody of Bush and Gore's first presidential debate did, it may do us all a favor. In the meantime, by shedding any expectation of back-and-forth squabbling between Democrats and Republicans, the show, at its best, has opened up other avenues for commentary. When the networks were yammering about whether electoral college members could be persuaded to switch their votes--and calling on talking heads to either endorse or denounce the idea--The Spin Room brought on two actual electors and interviewed them about how they saw their obligations. And on Thanksgiving Day, rather than inviting a typical left-right pair of Florida congressmen to appear on the air and attack each other over the presidential recount, the program asked why it is that, as Tucker Carlson put it, "south Florida seems to produce an inordinate number of TV savvy ... members of Congress." The answer? They all cut their teeth on the Elián González saga.
There's much value to this antipartisan framing of issues. One needn't be a Nader supporter to agree that the two major political parties and their flag-draping image consultants have a stranglehold on political discourse that must be loosened. This is necessary both for the frank discussion of the usual issues and so that others of importance can be raised. The language of partisan politics is riddled with taboos and cordoned-off areas. No politician can touch U.S. prison policy, for example, or the miserable failure of the drug war. None except Jesse Ventura can challenge the notion of a national day of prayer. No one, Democrat or Republican, can criticize Israel.
A CNN talk show is certainly a very limited vehicle for turning around political debate, and The Spin Room's sassy irreverence smacks of a calculated marketing ploy. But it could be more. It could be the brand of humor that pulls in a new audience: the crowds of college students and twenty-somethings who thronged to McCain and Nader for sheer relief from the old political conversation. These political newcomers can teach other Americans to demand more, both from their candidates and from their news talk shows. One initial request? That those who spin are laughed off the air, rather than asked back. ¤