Sunday, March 06, 2005

As Through a Glass Darkly

As Through a Glass Darkly
Michael Kinsley

March 6, 2005

One day last week, four different stories on the front page of the Los Angeles Times were about efforts to shape public perceptions.

There was a report about how the worst techniques of modern election campaigns are being adopted by interest groups in legislative battles. For example, a conservative group has been spreading word that AARP's opposition to Social Security reform is part of a secret agenda including gay marriage.

Another article described how movie studios spend millions of dollars attempting to influence the Academy Awards.

A third article was about the makeover of Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, following his unfortunate remarks about women and science. There is a Groundhog Day aspect to this story: Summers the Tiger has hung up his fangs and discovered his inner pussycat more than once before. But repetition doesn't make the tale any less enjoyable.

And, like every media outlet in the world, The Times had the story of Martha Stewart's triumphant positioning of her release from prison: thinner, richer and humbler too, a walking embodiment of that old joke, "I used to be conceited, but now I'm perfect."

It's an old story that the news and our understanding of it are affected — or afflicted — by "spin," meaning efforts by partisans to make us see things their way. But this treatment of the mechanics of spin as news in its own right seems more recent. And so does the spread of spin and the awareness of its mechanics to areas far beyond politics.

Spin is not just a technique. It is not just a political phenomenon. It permeates our culture and our daily life. And it's an industry — almost a sector of the economy. That one day's articles quoted lobbyists, public relations specialists, professional "damage control" experts. If computers and communications go by the acronym IT, for information technology, the perceptual industry might be MT, for misinformation technology.

The business of MT isn't lying. It's shaping perceptions irrespective of the truth. Reality is a consideration, of course. But if reality were sufficient, we wouldn't need spin — would we?

Of those four front-page articles, only one — the Social Security piece — had the slightest tone of disapproval. To disapprove of spin is like disapproving of rain. What's the point? If anything, there was sympathy and admiration for Summers and Stewart. Good spin is an essential life skill and business technique. Bad spin is worthy of criticism. No spin is un-American.

Reporters, whose job is to describe reality, rightly regard spin as an important part of the reality they are supposed to report. Good reporters describe both the real reality and the alternative reality. But even good ones often show no hint of preference as between the stage set and the real thing. If they did, that might be considered bias, I suppose.

It takes real excess of spin — such as the president putting a practicing pundit on the payroll (recite that aloud five times), or the governor of California sending a fake newscast to real TV stations — to generate much outrage in the press. Who knows what level of artifice is needed to offend the general population, many of whom assume the news is made up anyway.

All this sits oddly with the concurrent fashion for "transparency." The word is everywhere. It means what used to be called "truth" (look it up) and also openness.

"Transparency" is one of the blessings of democracy that President Bush is proud of having brought to Iraq — right up there with voting and somewhat less torture than before. Corporate reforms following the accounting scandals are supposed to make the books of public companies "transparent."

A San Francisco foundation (the Wall Street Journal reports) has decorated its boardroom with glass because, its chief administrative officer says, "One of our values is transparency." Transparency is a value? Five years ago, that idea would have been incomprehensible, like saying, "One of our values is suede." The transparency metaphor is inexact. It is not that people should be able to see right through you. It is that they should be able to see through to the real you.

But how do we resolve the apparent contradiction between our desire for transparency everywhere and our tolerance or even approval of spin? The whole point of spin is opacity: a no-see-through skin of your own design between the real you and the outside world.

The solution, of course, is to spin your transparency. Make it look as if you're transparent. And no doubt there are transparency consultants who will, for a fee, advise you about how to create an appearance of transparency so opaque that no one can see through it (like the tunnel that Roadrunner paints on a mountainside so that Wile E. Coyote will slam into the rock).

The sociologist Erving Goffman used to write essays and books with titles such as "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," arguing that we are all actors in a play of our own devising. All sincerity is calculation, as Goffman saw it, and every statement or gesture is layered with strategy. A famous review of one of his books compared Goffman to Kafka, for undermining our confidence that the sea we're swimming in is like the sea we think we are swimming in.

Goffman died in 1982 at age 60. He had no idea.