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Belt-Way Blues : What Happens When One Hand Washes
the Other

SPIN CYCLE: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine. By Howard Kurtz . Free Press: 326 pp., $25

March 29, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times

During his recent trip to the White House, U.N. Secretary-Gen. Kofi Annan complained that none of the reporters present was interested in any subject other than the ongoing Clinton sex scandal. "I wish you would concentrate on my issues. I don't come every day," Annan complained--to no avail.

Annan's issues included the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and the avoidance of a war that likely would have left tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi dead, but the White House press corps couldn't have cared less. It was no different than the supercilious contempt afforded other world figures who have traveled in the past months to Washington to secure the ear of our president and nation.

But it is not just international matters that are treated with this scorn of indifference. The Annan incident, which occurred after the publication of Howard Kurtz's book "Spin Cycle," proves to be typical of the gossipy contempt for real issues that has come to define the Washington press corps. Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post, presents as much detail as one can stand about how the daily White House news cycle bears almost no relation to news of national and international significance. Instead, the gathering of news has been reduced to the nauseating ritual of gotcha journalism followed by presidential denial, a process that clearly explains why the public is so turned off.

They have every right to be: The Washington media elite, as portrayed here, is a collection of blathering narcissists preoccupied with the sensationalism that feeds their careers to the exclusion of anything that might interest an ordinary citizen. That is the inescapable conclusion of this valuable insider's view of the battle between the people who cover the president and those who are paid to preserve his reputation in the face of their onslaught.

In his introduction, Kurtz warns that "Spin Cycle" is about the conflict between journalists eager to discredit and a White House equally "determined to rout the journalistic naysayers and prove that they could govern in this scandal-charged atmosphere. Neutralizing the media had become ground zero in the struggle for supremacy, and the spin would clearly be as important as the substance."

Understand that by "substance," Kurtz is not referring to the national debt, inflation, unemployment, the Asian economic crisis or the unfolding issues of welfare reform. Presidential spokesman Mike McCurry was prepared to answer those and other serious questions that he hoped would emerge. But no reporter ever asked. One question McCurry recently expected, Kurtz writes, was: "What was the U.S. policy on this land mines bill now before Congress?" What indeed? I would have loved to have read about how McCurry made sense of the fact that the United States is one of the few nations that has refused to sign off on the international campaign to ban land mines, whose organizers received last year's Nobel Peace Prize. But, again, no reporter ever asked.

It is a testament to the superficiality of the White House press corps and the influential editors, anchor stars and columnists who buttress them that issues ofpublic policy are rarely raised in this 326-page book. There are 18 references to Paula Jones in the index but none to welfare. Fund-raiser John Huang rates 16 references, but Saddam Hussein, with whom we almost went to war, does not appear. Even Kurtz, like a sportswriter covering golf, is invested in the game being covered though he acknowledges, in various asides, that it is hugely boring.

No one can doubt the expertise that Kurtz brings to the game of political spin. He knows all of the players, and many have obviously confided in him, expecting these favors to advance their careers. That is a given, because one thing the book does establish is that career advancement is all that really matters: "For all the animosity, the White House spinners and their cynical chroniclers were ultimately joined at the hip in a strangely symbiotic relationship. . . . McCurry and company needed the press to peddle their message to the public, and the journalists needed an action-packed presidency on which to build their reputations and name recognition."

Nor will McCurry, "smart as hell and extraordinarily helpful," and the others on both the White House and visiting media teams, who entrusted Kurtz with their confidences, be disappointed. He pays them the compliment of taking their petty bickering and incessant whining seriously. But to anyone not initiated into the sacred rituals of the game, the participants seem like any other group of self-absorbed, overpaid athletes submerged in their sporting careers and devoid of ideas or concerns regarding life outside the stadium. They speak comfortably in the self-inflated but vacuous idiom of a wide receiver turned television announcer.

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