1993 Pulitzer nominee American Culture

Ask Not for Whom the Porch Swings: It’ll Spin for You

Mirthology, 1st run Thursday 4 June 1992 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 1992 Ben S. Pollock Jr.

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — Now that the country has been broadsided once again by mass violence, we either can get together and clean up the mess, or stay in our seats and ask ourselves who is to blame.

Then we can gather those we identified and ask who they fault. At last, we can bring all of the above together and square them off before an audience.

That is how you get “spin” news, the dozen-year-old phenomenon that competes with what-happened-when “hard” news.

I’m Ben Pollock. This is “Nightfall.” Welcome to my home, the Bengalow. I see there’s a big crowd this evening. Good thing you brought your lawn chairs. Who needs television when you have a front porch?

Tonight, we will ask penetrating questions of two masters of “spin doctoring” — that is, inflating the importance of opinion on a news item past the impact of the event itself. Because these leaders of leaders are not accustomed to being interviewed about being interviewed, they have asked for partial identities, just Bill and George.

Also, after the opening backgrounder, we will speak with the creator of this format, Ted. Not Teddy.

“Thanks for listing me last, even though I am sitting between the politicians on the porch swing. It’s because I have the shortest legs. While I have your attention, I’d like to point out that the event that brought us here is truly a traged- …”

Not yet, Ted. You surely remember the format; you tested its rules.

First, our introduction.

Commentary is as old as news itself. Just look through the Bible. But until the late 1970s of our era, newsmakers and commentators — and their followers and listeners — never mistook the event for its spin, that is, its immediate rather than historical significance.

At the time, the media was faced with a significant event, the taking of the U.S. Embassy in Iran and the holding of 52 people inside. Day in, day out, correspondents reported on negotiations. Swarthy gunmen made threats.

That was it. Television news producers were frustrated with repeating the same story for what was to last 444 days. The media felt hostage as well.

Ted rescued journalism. Late every night, he asked soon-to-be-famous people their opinions. When the inevitable disagreements ensued, the audience grew. This was not news, but it was conflict, and drama sells. The genre spread.

George, why has spin grown more important than any crisis?

“Events by themselves have little meaning. It’s how they affect people that makes them important.”


“George always says nothing. I must point that out.”

Bill, my question?

“Oh. Events, riots for example, show how the American people react to poor leadership.”

Ted, wouldn’t you rather host “Wheel of Fortune”?

“Who needs another game show? I want to try your first question. Spin is big because often its topic is so small it soon will be forgotten. Yet journalists have to file something by deadline.

“The rest of the time, spin takes control because its subject is overwhelmingly huge. We can reduce the crisis to manageable proportions by trivializing it.”

George, this is a question from an old magazine cartoon: If a tree falls in the forest, but the media aren’t there to cover it, has it really fallen?

“Nothing has happened until I announce my sadness, meet with aides, fly over the site and declare an emergency.”


“I wouldn’t fly over it. I’d take a bus. After the natives are polled, I’d express dismay and declare an emergency.”


“First, I’d ask Bill and George if the tree fell, but off the record, because nobody believes our leaders. I can no longer simply report the tree falling, because nobody believes the media, either.”

It’s now pitch dark outside the Bengalow so here is the last question. Could any of you exist without the other?

“No. I need an opponent.”

“No. I need a target.”

“No. I need the ratings.”

This has been “Nightfall.” For a tape, transcript or subpoena, please write.


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