First published over at http://www.spinwatch.org
Spin – Behind the Scenes Manipulation of Mainstream News
Documentary by Brian Springer
Review by Michael Greenwell
I don’t often buy into all the hype at election time. The difference between the main political parties has narrowed so much that in the US in particular and in the UK to a lesser extent, elections are usually about a small group of people from roughly the same background and the same fruity little clubs amusing themselves and each other at our expense.
That said, I did find this documentary which focuses mostly on the 1992 US presidential election quite interesting. The US election that year was an important year for the TV companies in that for the first time advertising revenues from the campaign coverage made more money than the cost of the reporting.
It consists mainly of footage taken from satellite feeds and it mostly lets the recorded material speak for itself.
In 1992 satellite TV was still in its infancy and hardly anyone had it. This documentary opens with the filmmaker (Brian Springer) explaining…
“In 1992 I bought a couple of satellite dishes and spent the entire year looking through the channels for feeds. I’d lock on to a satellite and go channel by channel through its transmission, recording the feeds. Then I would move on to the next satellite, then the next one and the next one. By the end of the year I’d recorded more than 500 hours of feeds.”
I have no idea if this is still possible but the maker of this documentary recorded what politicians, journalists, spin doctors, advisers, producers etc were saying that wasn’t broadcast as part of the edited and polished TV cut.
The myth of an adversarial, hostile and critical media is blown away here by the simple method of showing us the velveted conversations before the cameras roll. There is the pillow talk between interviewer and interviewee but there are also little asides with media advisers, particularly with Pat Robertson. The aides are most often telling whoever it is how to deal with difficult questions .
Larry King gets it in the neck as he is seen fawning over all the candidates at almost every point and lobbying for himself to be the moderator in one of the presidential debates. Apparently his show was pivotal in this campaign and made the cover of the New York Times 57 times in the course of it.
Here is an off-camera exchange with Clinton…
Larry King – Ted Turner changed the world. He’s a big fan of yours.
Bill Clinton – Is he?
Larry King – He would..ah..serve you, you know what I mean?
Bill Clinton – You’re kidding?
Larry King – Oh you’d be surprised…what’s he got left in life to gain? I’d call him after you’re elected. Think about it.
The new technology also allowed new kinds of campaigning. Campaigns set-up their own satellite feeds in order to get round the traditional method of giving interviews the major TV networks which would then be filtered out to local stations. This meant that campaigns could do ‘The Satellite tour’ where interview after interview is done in the same room by satellite and goes direct to each local station. There is footage of Barbara Bush and Bill Clinton saying almost identical things time and again for each station. Therefore, each station will have a more local feel to its coverage but nothing substantively new is said – it is like the image of the rock star reading the name of the town they are in from the back of his guitar and saying “________ has always been our favourite town to play in.”
Another feature that has unfortunately become much more common since 1992 is video news releases made by people with explicit agendas and given free to local stations complete with intro texts for newsreaders. In this film it is campaign pieces made by the government or people trying to get into government. Nowadays it is a favourite tool of corporations. Then as now, many of the TV stations did not report that the releases were produced by people with an agenda.
The comfiness of the presenters with the major candidates is not the only problem, there is also the matter of the media actively freezing out some of the candidates. For example, who was Larry Agran? I didn’t know till I watched this.
Well, Larry Agran was attempting to become the Democratic candidate. He was cut out of pictures, barely reported and barred from most TV debates. Agran heckled the other nominees from the audience at a TV debate he was excluded from and was arrested. His court date came on the first day of the democratic national convention where he would have had the chance to campaign. Coincidence or conspiracy, you decide!
“With Catch-22 logic, Agran has been told by news media executives that he has not earned the right to media exposure because, among other things, he has not received enough media exposure.”
Why was this person so objectionable I hear you ask? I am not sure but one of his policies was a 50% cut in defence spending and reinvestment of that money in the inner cities. He said
“I’ve challenged my own party for its continuing complicity in cold war thinking, cold war rhetoric and cold war budgets.”
I think that may just have something to do with it.
The documentary talks briefly about the L.A. riots and notes that American audiences were allowed to hear what Bush Snr and Clinton thought of it all but not what the people protesting (peacefully) and rioting (not so peacefully) thought. To prove this there is footage of a peaceful march. Someone from the crowd grabs the microphone and starts speaking to camera whereupon the live coverage is immediately stopped. As for the rioters, do you remember all those helicopter shots? That is as close as anyone went.
I particularly liked this line…
“The voiceless scenes from south central LA, where nearly 50% of the children live in poverty was contextualized by the $600,000 year TV news anchors.”
In passing it mentions the coverage of Columbus Day celebrations where dissenting views about what Colombus was up to are not exactly given a fair hearing. When it comes to African Americans you can’t mention the ‘N’ word, when it comes to Native Americans you can’t mention the ‘G’ word .
Finally, when I review these documentaries I usually watch them three times. The first time just to watch, the second to take quotes and the third to see if I missed anything. Unfortunately, doing that with this documentary I had to see more of Pat Robertson than any sane individual could wish.
It is still worth a look.
You can watch it free at spinwatch video (via google)
Here is its IMDB page