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After the debates, they can make your head spin


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 9, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Debates still are the best part of any presidential campaign because they offer voters a fairly true picture of the candidates, unadulterated by media hype or spin doctors.

Perhaps that explains why the media and the spin doctors always go into such a frenzy on debate nights.

Because they are accustomed to serving as a vital link between the politicians and the public, these folks get a little crazy when something big is happening in which they do not play an essential role. They hate to be ignored.

You would understand what I mean if you had been with me in the so-called media centers in Boston last Tuesday night for the first presidential debate and in Danville, Ky., Thursday night for the vice presidential debate.

In each city, the visiting national media were housed in a building entirely separate from the debate hall, and very few of the journalists were actually permitted inside the debate hall.

Instead, hundreds and hundreds of journalists were seated at long rows of tables inside a barnlike building reserved solely for them. Dozens of televisions were positioned around the room so that everyone could see the debate on closed circuit.

In an adjacent tent, a free dinner was available to journalists who wanted it, compliments of a variety of corporate sponsors of the event.

The question that many journalists were asking themselves and each other after they got settled at their assigned table was: "Why did I travel here to watch the debate on television?" No one had a particularly good answer to that question, although some admitted they came to get The Spin after the debate.

The Spin began as a very informal thing about a quarter century ago. After the debate, the political professionals working for each candidate would gravitate to the media center and chat with reporters about what they had just witnessed during the debate. Supporters of each candidate would point out the good things he did and said during the 90-minute face-off, and they would make excuses for their candidate's mistakes or failures.

Over the years, however, The Spin has turned into a highly formal (and ridiculous) ritual.

Last week, dozens of self-appointed spin doctors paraded into the media center after the debate, each followed by an aide who was carrying a big sign on a pole. The name on the sign was designed to help reporters identify the spinmeisters, many of whom otherwise would have been unrecognizable to the average journalist.

Reporters were then invited to gather around these people to hear what they had to say about the debate. In this way, the spinmeisters were trying to shape the media reaction to the debate in favor of their candidate.

Predictably, Al Gore's campaign consultant, Tad Devine, thought the vice president was the winner. But no, George W. Bush's campaign chief, Karl Rove, said it was the governor of Texas who turned in the better performance. What did you expect?

Of course, not one of these spinmeisters offered a single negative -- or even candid -- remark about his own candidate's performance. Indeed, their quotes were so self-serving that reporters could be seen turning away in disgust and returning to their computer laptops.

At best, the two sides simply canceled each other out.

Some spinmeisters seemed rightfully embarrassed by the huckster role they were playing. "We were told to come out here and chat with you," Bush administration Labor Secretary Lynn Martin said apologetically as she approached a group of journalists, with Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., at her side.

"Doesn't anybody want to talk to us?"

Perhaps the most offensive part of this whole exercise was what I would call racial profiling. African-American politicians such as Jesse Jackson, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, seemed to be focusing on "spinning" black reporters. I also heard that there were Latino politicians in the room who were assigned to brief reporters for the Spanish language broadcast outlets.

Then there were the guys who apparently showed up to brief the older reporters. I can't think of any other reason why some of them were there. When I saw Ford administration Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld coming my way, I felt for a minute I was traveling back in time and asked one of my colleagues: "What decade is this, anyway?"

Fortunately, this little mating game between journalists and spin doctors was only a remote sideshow to the main event: the debate. Despite their best efforts, these folks were unable to muddle what viewers saw with their own eyes.

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