Sunday, November 13, 2005

# Posted 11:29 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

GOOD SPIN DOCTORS DON'T SOUND LIKE SPIN DOCTORS: After talking to King Abdullah, Tim Russert had conversations first with Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the RNC, and then Howard Dean, chairman of the DNC (but who needs no introduction).

If you just read the transcript, I don't think you'll get a good sense of just how defensive and disingenuous Mehlman sounded -- and this is coming from someone who agrees with almost everything Mehlman said.

Some of the best advice I've gotten about job interviews is to pause before answering every question. The point is to show the person doing the interview that you're really thinking about the substance of their question. In fact, it is a good idea to take advantage of that pause to really think about the question and how to be most responsive to it before firing off your preferred answer.

Mehlman did exactly the opposite. He rushed to answer every question Russert threw at him but evaded the questions' actual substance. For example:
MR. RUSSERT: But isn't there a cloud over the Bush presidency because of Iraq? The administration said he was reconstituting his nuclear program. Not true. It said there would be vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Not true. He said we'd be greeted as liberators. Not true. Isn't Iraq a political problem for this president?

MR. MEHLMAN: Ultimately, Iraq's not about--should not be about domestic politics. Iraq's about our national security. And on September 11th, we learned that we need to think first and foremost about protecting America. And while wars...

MR. RUSSERT: But there's no linkage between Iraq and September 11th.

MR. MEHLMAN: Well, the lessons...

MR. RUSSERT: Saddam Hussein was not involved in September 11th.

MR. MEHLMAN: Well, the lesson of September 11th is we're not going to wait.
If I were going to write a how-to manual for spin doctors ("Spin Doctoring for Dummies?") its first principle would be that journalists value self-awareness above all else. Journalists see themselves as being the only profession committed to exposing the manipulation inherent in everything about politics. Thus, they tend to show the most respect to those who are also willing to talk about politics as a game. Conversely, journalists resent most those who play the game without admitting what it is.

When you get a question like the one Russert asked Mehlman above, the first thing to do is acknowledge the question's premise: "Yes, Tim. I can see how someone might think that the absence of WMD in Iraq lends credibility to the Democrats' accusations. But if you take a closer look, you'll see that..."

Journalists think of themselves as committed to carefully weighing all of the evidence for and against everything. Therefore, politicians and their spokesman must, at minimum, go through the motions of showing uncertainty and weighing the evidence.

At times, the journalist's brand of uncertainty can border on the pathological. George Bush could never have discovered the importance of moral clarity by taking lessons from journalists. But I firmly believe that even if he advocated the exact same policies, Bush could get much better coverage from journalists if he presented his arguments in the style with which journalists are comfortable.
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