SPIN

Pretty much everything you hear out of official Washington, or your state capital or from your Congressman, has on it what’s known as spin.

Here’s some evidence:

Government officials at all levels institute thousands upon thousands of programs. Nobody would ever try to maintain that all of these programs work all of the time. Which means that, fairly often, some of them don’t work.

When was the last time you ever heard a government official who sponsored a program get up and tell you that it isn’t working?

Take the war on drugs. It is a dismal failure. By every possible measure (overdose deaths, number of users, tons of dope entering the country, etc.) it simply isn’t working.

Yet we’re told that "we’re winning the war on drugs."

The latest effort to control illegal immigration at our southern border also isn’t working. Border patrol officials have been told to fake the numbers to make it look like it’s working.

We recently had a Supreme Court nominee best known for an intensive program to reduce teenage pregnancies in the Midwest. It was a terrific program: they had lectures, brochures, classroom curricula, hundreds of workers fanning out all over the region to spread the message. And the candidate was praised to high heaven for his efforts.

Only problem was, the program didn’t work. Teenage pregnancies didn’t go down, they went up.

The only thing the program was good for was making middle- and upper-class white people feel like they were doing something positive for the community. Their efforts may have been valiant, but the program failed. [see OPERANT DEFINITIONS ] All the people who backed his candidacy tried to give this guy all kinds of credit, but by the simplest criterion, all his efforts were in vain.

Spin is the art of making even the worst news look good for whoever is putting the spin on it.

Often, this is done in disturbing complicity with the news media, the very people we depend on to keep these guys honest.

Remember Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady? Remember Kerri Strug of Olympic fame? If you want to see a couple of genuine masterpieces of spin in which these two people were turned into heroes to the everlasting benefit of their sponsoring organizations, the U.S. Air Force and women's gymnastics, see HEROES: Get 'Em by the Bagful.

Spin is what you get when someone tells you not only the basic story, but how you’re supposed to feel about it. Even whether or not you ought to think it’s important.

Still don’t believe me? Try a little test:

Back in 1968, four white students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at a major university.

What was the name of the school?

Did you get it right? The answer is at the end of this chapter [below], but I suspect 98% of you above the age of forty answered correctly.

Now answer this one: four months later the same thing happened to some black students.

Name that school.

Bet you couldn’t. The answer is at the back of the book. [below]

The media treated the deaths of the white students as more tragic than those of the black ones. It even made it onto the cover of Newsweek, one of that magazine’s most famous photos ever. They talked more about the white students than the black ones, and that’s why you can’t remember the school. Maybe you didn’t even remember the incident.

Spin exists whenever someone has something to gain from making you feel one way about a story rather than another way. But it’s not always the direct participants who stand to gain; sometimes it’s the media themselves.

Stories that make you want to watch the news are stories that are good for the news business. So if there’s not enough in the story to make you want to watch, they spin some in. (Again, witness the Kerri Strug story. Not incidentally, attention is drawn away from some of the less savory aspects of what it takes to put little girls on the world stage, so the spin is pretty good for gymnastics coaches, too.)

How do you detect spin? It’s easy: just assume it’s always there and try to read between the lines.

Nobody is above spin, not even your priest or rabbi. Consider this:

For centuries, and as recently as ten years ago, clergymen of many faiths were sticking very firmly to a "Terra-centric" notion of the universe, which means that the Earth is the center of everything.

Not in the physical sense, not that the sun revolves around the Earth or anything like that. (They pretty much gave that up after ruining Galilleo’s life, for which they apologized two years ago, a couple hundred years after he died.)

No, I’m talking about life.

The problem was this: If there is such a thing as extraterrestrial ("not on earth") life, then that life would have to be extra-Genesis ("not in the Bible") as well.

That’s because Genesis is supposed to be the story of how life got started, and the only story, so the clear implication is that life only exists on Earth. After all, Genesis gives us a pretty specific description of how God divided Earth from the heavens and put life on it. It doesn’t say anything about God doing that on Neptune or Zorp.

Therefore, our Western theologians told us, it necessarily follows that there is no life on other planets.

Pretty safe proposition, that. After all, we didn’t have much of a way to go figure out if there was life out there or not.

Now, we’ve got a problem. We may be getting close to figuring it out. We may even have a rock from Mars that contains fossilized traces of primitive life forms from that planet (although I doubt it - see "cold fusion" under CRITICAL THINKING - under construction).

When I first heard about this, I got real excited, thinking: Boy! How are those religious scholars going to handle this one!

I got my answer a week later from Newsweek magazine, which ran a full-page article entitled, "A Vindication of God."

It turns out that religious scholars, perhaps sensing that our notion of cosmic isolation was about to be violated, have subtly worked things around so that the discovery of life on other planets would now not only be entirely consistent with Genesis, it would actually be a vindication of God! It would be the very proof that God exists that we’ve been searching for all these years!

Now that’s some serious spin.

 

[Answers: The white students were at Kent State, the black ones at Jackson.]


from: A Practical Guide for Everyday Living, by Lee Gruenfeld
* Copyright 1996, 1997 by Steeplechase Run, Inc. - All Rights Reserved

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