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American punditry is among the most notable casualties of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City. That’s not to say that the spin biz has closed up shop. There are still op-ed pages and thinky mags to fill. But punditry’s relevance has been wounded. In times such as these, news breaks so quickly that mere opinions about it tend to reshape themselves on a dailyif not hourlybasis (Afghanistan as a hopeless death trap for invaders, for instance).
That wasn’t the case in April, however, when recent college grads Brendan Nyhan, Bryan Keefer, and Ben Fritz started their Web site: www.spinsanity.org. In fact, it was a propitious moment to start such a site. The 2000 Florida electoral disputes were still percolating, and May’s party switch by Vermont Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords (giving Democrats control of the Senate) and a summer of D.C. sex scandal involving California Rep. Gary Condit lay just ahead.
Oddly enough, spin’s decreasing relevance after Sept. 11 hasn’t hurt Spinsanity thus far. In fact, traffic at the site has grown since the attacks, and its creators’ work is slowly infiltrating the very networks of spin that it set out to critique.
Nyhan says he came up with the Spinsanity concept after working on Nevada Democrat Ed Bernstein’s losing U.S. Senate campaign last year. “As I watched press coverage of the Florida recounts,” says Nyhan, “I became really frustrated with the manipulative and irrational commentary I saw from pundits and politicians.” After reading an article condemning spin, Nyhan says he had “an epiphany. I immediately knew I had to take up the challenge.”
He recruited fellow Swarthmore College grad Fritz and childhood friend Keefer (a Stanford University graduate) to join him in the endeavor. All three cyber-critics had backgrounds in Democratic and/or progressive politics, and the site’s earliest postings reflected those roots. Dissections of recount punditry (Fritz), racial politics and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (Nyhan), and the hubbub over Solicitor General candidate Theodore Olson’s role in the American Spectator’s “Arkansas Project” investigation of President Bill Clinton (Nyhan) abounded. It was solid work in an all-too-familiar vein, and it was laced with a twinge of outright wonkery. (Also among Spinsanity’s early posts, for instance, were discussions of Bush tax-cut rhetoric and Clinton-era regulatory decisions.)
A funny thing happened to Spinsanity on its way to Wonkville’s Democratic suburbs. Starting in July, the trio’s aim became at once more balanced and more lethal. There was a new attention paid to the “pop culture” of spin on the site, including Keefer’s July 23 take on the partisan rumblings of the Condit scandal. It’s a trend that’s continued in the site’s often-hilarious tracking of pundits labeling of each other as “Taliban” or “Osama bin Laden.”
“I tend to think that the pop-culture aspect of spin might be the most damaging,” observes Keefer. “Our political media culture tends to reward the people who make the most outrageous claims, assuming they don’t cross certain lines like [syndicated conservative pundit] Ann Coulter did.”
In fact, Spinsanity had Coulter in its sights months before the über-right-wing columnist’s post-Sept. 11 freakout in a National Review Online piece made it a media fashion to trash her. (Coulter urged a death-or-conversion scenario for the world’s Muslims in that particular piece.) In a July 16 posting, Nyhan spanked Coulter for her wretched rhetorical excesses, observing that her “trendy tone of snarky cynicism is complemented by some of the most consistently emotional subrational jargon in national politics.” (Coulter didn’t respond to a request for a comment about Spinsanity’s critique.)
“Coulter is someone who we knew we would write about from the day we started working on the site,”says Nyhan. “I wouldn’t say I was surprised by her recent statements about the war. I think it was just a matter of time until she received serious scrutiny, although it seems that she’s usually smarter about judging how much she can get away with.”
Spinsanity’s increasing political balance was also on display in midsummer. A July 30 column by Fritz on the unfairness of the liberal media’s framing of Bush as an isolationist signaled a willingness to take on fellow progressive travelers. “It’s true, of course, that I am a liberal,” notes Fritz. “But I firmly believe, along with Bryan and Brendan, that we need to expect high standards of political discourse from both liberals and conservatives….I don’t think there is anything inherently liberal or conservative about what we do at Spinsanity, and the praise and criticism we have gotten from readers on both sides tends to back that up.”
Among Spinsanity’s most recent blasts against progressive spin was Nyhan’s brutal Oct. 15 strike on a piece by cartoonist and syndicated columnist Ted Rall on the Bush administration and Central Asian oil. In his assessment, Nyhan derides Rall’s “ridiculous” arguments, including a glaring misreading of Ahmed Rashid’s book Taliban, blatant contradictions between Rall’s argument and his previous work, and simple outright errors such as labeling al Qaeda an “Egyptian” group. “At this time of crisis,” concludes Nyhan, “we need to be smarter than Ted Rall.” (Rall e-mailed to say that he was in Afghanistan covering the war. He offered no comment on Nyhan’s piece.)
Spinsanity hasn’t lost its left jab, either. Keefer launched a devastating salvo at the Washington Times on Nov. 19, decrying what he dubs “the spread of a media myth”: Bill Clinton’s blaming America’s treatment of blacks and Native Americans as a cause of the Sept. 11 attacks in a Nov. 7 speech given at Georgetown University. In his piece, Keefer traces this widely publicized canard from a Nov. 8 Times story by Joseph Curl through a trail of journalistic crumbs leading through the conservative media labyrinth: Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, and Fox News. It’s an illuminating vivisection of the continuing trashing of Clinton in the conservative press.
In an e-mail, Washington Times Deputy Managing Editor Fran Coombs played down Spinsanity’s shot at his paper. “I’m not aware of the website and really not interested in its critique,” replied Coombs. “There’s room in the pool for all, so let them jump in.” Coombs concludes the missive: “We stand by the story as reported and written.”
Keefer says, “We’re always on the lookout for the genesis of new media myths along the lines of ‘Gore said he invented the Internet,’” says Keefer. The Nov. 7 Clinton myth, he observes, “just kept surfacing.”
As one might expect of any guerrilla Web-based anti-spin unit, Spinsanity travels light. Nyhan says that the site’s funding comes mostly from the pockets of its founders, but they’ve placed an Amazon.com/Paypal box to funnel donations from readers, too (sum total raised thus far: $200). In the meantime, Spinsanity’s number of unique viewers each month has risen from 432 in April to 40,000 in October.
Spinsanity’s analysts have mixed feelings about charges that their breakdown of punditry is an exercise in meta-wonkery. “There’s certainly some truth in the accusation that we’re writing for wonks,” says Keefer, “since we do target much of our work at journalists, media personalities, and politicians. However, we think that those same elites have been largely responsible for the degradation of the political debate that we’re criticizing, and if we can make debate more rational at that level, it will raise the quality of public debate more broadly.” Richard Byrne