Talking Point

In the Spin Room, even the big dogs start barking—but that doesn't make it worth talking about

David Corn is not at the top of Karl Rove's call list, but after each presidential debate, he's had a chance to be right in his lap. That's because Corn, Washington editor of the lefty Nation, immediately goes to work in the Spin Room. It's the scene of post-presidential-debate colloquies in which representatives for both campaigns enter into a free-fire zone.

"For a political reporter, it's paradise," Corn says. "Everybody who may not return your phone calls is in there with a big sign behind them. They have to take your questions, and you're under no obligation to accept their spin, and they have to be polite to you."

For Corn, the Spin Room means a rare opportunity to match wits with people who frequently give him the cold shoulder. But it's also become a cheap alternative for cable news shows looking to cover some airtime. A typical post-debate broadcast features a left-right panel and then a cut to Bush adviser Karen Hughes or Kerry adviser Bob Shrum. "The cable networks use the Spin Room because they have 24 hours to fill," says Mark Feldstein, director of the journalism program at George Washington University. "And it's much cheaper to do that than to send a crew over to Afghanistan and find out what our Special Forces are doing over there."

Cheaper coverage doesn't make for better quality quotes. What political operative in his right mind would come out after a debate and admit that his guy was smacked around and seemed completely uninformed on the issues? "There's almost no real information coming from the spinners," says Feldstein. "Their lies are so predictable you can write them in advance. Each side is going to claim victory and then try to work in the same talking points that each of the candidates worked in. It's pretty routinized."

The words of campaign handlers do provide insight into strategy. "It's important to distinguish between the two things going on at once," says Corn. "They all come out and say my guy won, my guy won. That's easy to ignore. Then you hear what themes they're talking about, and it gives you some insight into what their game plan is in the weeks ahead. By seeing what they're emphasizing, you can make a good guess at what's coming down the pipe."

If the Spin Room offers journalists a chance to peek behind the curtain, it offers the campaigns the chance to beat a message into a reporter's head. "They are trying to shape coverage immediately because they know that these are the big stories that people are going to read," says Corn. "I do think that once you start repeatedly hearing something, it affects the way you think about it. You start thinking, 'Could this end up being a big deal or are they just trying to make it a big deal?' If they can get some reporter to think it might be a big deal, that's good for them."


Paris's ghetto pass revoked

What's a girl got to do to get some legitimate coverage around here? Paris Hilton has been a walking headline for the gossip rags and tabloids. Her most recent attempt at stoking Bonnie Fuller's ad pages include being caught on tape slinging around the word nigger. As the story goes, Hilton was standing around talking to two black dudes about a clothing line they planned to start. After the guys left, Hilton called them both "dumb niggers." The story was advanced further last week when oil heir Brandon Davis, an ex-friend of Hilton's, told the National Enquirer that Hilton uses the term religiously.

In this era of hip-pop, there is no juicier topic than white people who say nigger. Press Clips has officially started the clock to see how long it takes the Hilton story to migrate from Rush and Malloy to the thinky pages of the Times' Arts section. We expect some sort of deep meditative "whither the N-word" with attendant quotes from Lil Jon to pop off any moment now.


Lean machine

Speaking of the Times, we now have indisputable proof that the Gray Lady wears blue. Over the past few months, public editor Daniel Okrent has examined the Times for bias, both to the left and the right. Back in July, Okrent answered the charge that the paper leaned left as straightforwardly as anyone could imagine. In an article headlined "Is the Times a liberal newspaper?" Okrent answered, "Of course it is."

Then, after receiving an avalanche of mail that accused the Times of skewing its presidential campaign one way or the other, Okrent revisited the question from another angle. "Is the Times systematically biased toward either candidate?" asked Okrent on October 10. "No." Well, there you have it, a different answer to a slightly different question, but an answer nonetheless. But this Sunday, Okrent circled around to the topic yet again. He handed over his column to Todd Gitlin, who argued that the Times goes easy on Bush, and to Bob Kohn, who argued that the paper goes easy on Kerry. Press Clips agrees with Kohn—anyone capable of this much hand-wringing has to be a liberal.

 
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