Monday, April 7, 2014

The Arts Spin Doctors?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on…………………."

I have been a political junkie most of my adult life.  I've worked on campaigns, followed party positions and candidate thinking (in both camps), read everything I could find about elections and issues and was generally obsessed with American politics and the machinery that makes it run -- including a fascination with, and dedication to, watching the Sunday morning new shows - Meet the Press, Face the Nation and the like.  I watched them all - religiously. Until about two years ago, when I simply couldn't stand it anymore.

Long ago, the Spin Doctors took over all public comment on politics.  They started "spinning" after the debates - making sure the view that their candidate 'won', that their people had the right position - was the focal point of media coverage -  clinging to the belief that if they simply repeated, over and over again, their own sanctimonious and self-serving pronouncements, they had done their job.  Gone was any attempt to discuss issues or engage in any real truthful analysis or observation.  Soon, even the pretense of independent thought was but a joke, and nobody with even a modicum of intelligence was fooled by this charade.  Gone too was any attempt by the media to actually seek out divergent viewpoints and dig deep into the issues - let alone ask probing questions.  And nowhere was that more apparent than on the Sunday morning "news" (and I use that term loosely) shows as they trotted out the same talking head spokespeople - time after time after time - all of whom continuously "spun" their answers - no matter what the question - to parrot their, and their party's, position.  Some had their own agendas which they relentlessly pushed - again never really answering any questions - just "spinning" to the point of absurdity.  One would have thought they would have made themselves dizzy.  The best of these politicians perfected their "spins" to the point where they could provide the same answer - totally devoid of really saying anything at all - to any possible question that could be asked.  Evasion is the watchword.  Tap dancing around the truth the real objective.  Their job is to deliver talking points favoring their side.

The nadir of this sad state of affairs is, of course, the chutzpah of Bill O'Reilly on Fox News having the audacity to call his show the "No Spin Zone".  Cleaver marketing on his part and doubtless huge numbers of his followers truly believe such a ludicrous claim.  Mr. O'Reilly is one of the 'deans' of the college of spin doctors.  "No spin" by the news media's on air invited guests?  Don't hold your breath.

Apparently I am not the only one for whom this bastardization of journalism has crossed the line.  I ran across an article on the Huffington Post entitled:  "America Is Well On Its Way to Tuning Out the Sunday Shows" in which the author, Jason Linkins, points out the declining ratings numbers of the Sunday shows.  He quotes Paul Waldman who wrote an article on the topic for the Plum Line, urging these shows to:  "First, ban all party chairs, White House communication staff, party "strategists," and anyone else whose primary objective is to spin from ever, ever, ever appearing on the show. Ever.  So how about, as a first rule, the people you bring on should 1) know as much as possible about the things you’re going to discuss, and 2) have little if any interest in spinning?

Not so easy, suggests Mr. Linkns:
"This sounds pretty good in theory, but there's a reason those sorts of people don't get booked. Knowledgeable, substantive people tend to want to use their time on camera to explain complexities. They speak in paragraphs, not sentences. They tend to be capable of real argument. They don't necessarily come to the set governed by Beltway politesse. So, from the perspective of Sunday show producers, they're all loose cannons. What the producers of these shows are looking for are polite, concise talking heads who know where their light is, can hit their mark, and offer answers brief enough so that there's plenty of time to pass the ball to whoever else happens to be in the room. Sunday hosts don't know what to do with long, complicated explanations, and they aren't listening to them anyway."
Of course, everybody 'spins' today - not just politicians, but business leaders, celebrities, consultants, experts and, very likely, even we in the nonprofit arts.  We have entered the era (probably some time ago) where making your case (whatever your case may be) necessitates that you 'spin' the facts to best support the action you wish to engender.  We do that when we represent our field and when we represent our organization. We very likely even do that as individuals - in both our personal and professional capacities. That's not unusual.  But it just may be killing us - as a country, as a society, as responsible organizations and as effective leaders.  We are addicted to 'spinning' everything - all the time.

Spinning in some senses has become synonymous with obfuscation of the truth.  Not really 'lies' of course, just positioning one version of the truth.  You don't think that YOU are a 'spin doctor'?  Take a long look at your last grant application and tell me honestly if you weren't spinning things so that your project, program, performance or proposal didn't look as attractive as it could, even to the point of stretching the truth a bit, or leaving out certain known facts.  And what about your relationship with your major donors and patrons and supporters - or even your stakeholder collaborators and partners? Do you not 'spin' to them?  And it goes beyond just spinning in pursuit of money  - we do it all the time at our conferences where every panel (call them what you will - they are largely the same year in and year out at whatever conference you happen to be at) has pretty much the same people (shades of the Sunday shows?) and they pretty much spin their presentations to favor their party line (personal, organizational or whatever).  And often times (too often frankly), the heralded and lauded Keynote Speakers, are the most blatant spinners.  Not all mind you, but far too many (especially those with celebrity cachet and fame from fields other than our own who are really merely "professional" speakers on tour).  They give the same 'stump' speech (for a pretty penny) and change a few words here in there to make it seem tailored to the audience of the moment.  I suppose many people are inspired by some of these people, but to me, it's just boring and - in a way - insulting.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know a spin doctor when you hear one.

It's entirely possible that the norm today is to be a spin doctor virtually all the time.  At your next internal office meeting, watch for them and then tell me they don't exist in your organization.  And, by the way, we are all getting better and better at 'spinning'.  Practice makes perfect I guess.  We can spin with the best of them.  Now there may be nothing inherently wrong with that - then again maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with it.   Are we in the arts as guilty as the rest of them in terms of 'spinning' things and being wedded to that idea.  And is that ok, because everybody does it and it's even expected - right?  Where's the harm?  Is a little bit of spinning ok?  Where is the line?  What are the consequences?

I can't exactly pinpoint how I think this is harmful, but I have the gut feeling that it is.  And that it is getting dangerously close to becoming a systemic problem.  To the same extent that the American public is less and less fooled by the political spin doctors plying their craft - and even arguably getting fed up and angry about it, spinning in general increasingly runs the risk of alienating the spun audience - whatever audience you may pinpoint.  While some spinning may be acceptable, that line is getting blurred.  We in the arts run that same risk with our various publics.  And while transparency has become a desirable outcome in our, as well as countless other fields, transparency may have little to do with truthfulness and a willingness to take a long, cold hard look at realities as a way to come up with different approaches and strategies to deal with challenges.  Perhaps even "transparency" can be spun.

As a tool, spinning may yield desirable short term outcomes, but as a process (whether political on a societal level, or organizational on an industry level) it doesn't seem to have done much to get us (as a country or a field) anywhere near where we say we want to be.  All spinning has done - in my humble opinion - is to codify as reality the old Buffalo Springfield song lyric line:  "Singing songs and carrying signs.  Mostly say, hooray for our side".  Well "Hooray for our sideis a really weak position.  And it most certainly has little, if anything, to do with trying to understand a situation and coming up with ways to address a challenge. Sadly, 'Hooray for our side' is increasingly all that we have.

I think that somehow this all has to do with risk taking.   Somehow, dealing forthrightly with things has become something to avoid.  It's simply too risky to face questions about challenges and issues directly.  It's safer to spin our answers to hard questions; avoidance is preferable to all the nasty loose ends coming 'clean' entails.  As arts administrators we champion risk taking as one of the fundamental benefits that arts and artists bring to the world. Yet, do we as arts champions take risks ourselves?  Do we risk drilling down to the truth of things rather than spinning?  Do we dare?

I ran across another interesting article (this one in The Atlantic) called the Overprotected Kid. The theme being: "A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer", and laments that in our zeal to protect our children we have robbed them of the learning experience, and the later in life value, that risk brings.  The risk of playing is the focus of the article - on playgrounds, in fields, around the house -- anywhere.  We have become a society where as the author quotes:  "In all my years as a parent, I’ve mostly met children who take it for granted that they are always being watched."  That is, I think, a profound observation with multiple implications.  It is as though we have excised all risk out of childhood.  Little wonder than that we are producing adults who are risk averse; who prefer to 'spin' things rather than risk contrary opinions and harsh judgments, let alone holding up realities to the light of truth.  Someone is always watching, right?

In any event, if you are interested in politics - as a process for solving societal problems - I would stay away from the Sunday news shows.  The spin doctors are in complete control, and they have no interest, nor intention, in addressing your intellectual curiosity or your desire for real probing of serious issues.  They seek to avoid the 'truth' at all costs.  And their media hosts seem delighted with that reality - all their attempts to "spin" their shows as 'probing inquiry' notwithstanding.  Somewhere along the line, we have exalted these people; being a 'spin doctor' has become a badge of pride, something to aspire to.  Let's hope we don't become more like them.  We ought to be better.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit