My week in the ‘phony’ Spin Cycle

HAD  YOU asked me on Monday what I would be writing about for Sunday, a second column dealing — even peripherally — with presidential wannabe John Edwards would have been the last thing I would have guessed.
    Yet here I am. What choice do I have? I’ve spent so much time this past week dealing with the reaction from the first one that I haven’t had time to develop anything on another topic.
    It was just a midweek column, not worthy of a Sunday slot, a back-burner thing I had promised to address several months earlier on my blog, after readers challenged me for calling the man a “phony” without explaining the series of experiences that had led to that impression — which is all it was.
    (And in case you didn’t read that column and are wondering what those experiences were, I have neither the space nor inclination to repeat them here. They took up a whole column the first time. You can find it on my blog. The address is below.)
    But without ever intending or wanting to, I got caught up in the Spin Cycle of national politics. My musings had become, for that brief moment, Topic A — or at least B or C or D — and believe me: You don’t even want to be Topic Z in that alphabet.
    Subsequent events didn’t follow each other in any way that made sense, so I’ll just throw them out in no particular order:

  • The Drudge Report picked up my column Tuesday morning, which launched the craziness as much as any one thing.
  • The New York Post called asking to reprint it, which it did the following day under the headline, “POOR LITTLE PHONY: JOHN EDWARDS’ FAKE EMPATHY.”
  • Pmgift
    Dennis Miller of “Saturday Night Live” fame interviewed me on his radio show Thursday.
  • I got mocked by the “Wonkette”: “Brad Warthen of the South Carolina’s The State has a controversial opinion about John Edwards! His controversial opinion, which he, Brad Warthen, thought of himself, and which he is going to share… with you now, is as follows: John Edwards is a phony! A big fat phony!”
  • After two more radio shows called — one from Charlotte (for Thursday), another from Canada (for today), I called Andy Gobeil so that S.C. ETV wouldn’t miss out, and he had me on his show Friday morning.
  • My column was the lead political story on the Fox News network Tuesday night. Or rather, the response the Edwards campaign felt compelled to produce — and I do feel sorry for them for that — was the lead story. The story posted online began: “John Edwards’ campaign scoffed Tuesday at a new effort to depict the Democratic presidential candidate as phony after an influential columnist for a newspaper in Edwards’ birth state wrote that his personal experiences only reinforce his image of Edwards as plastic.”
  • My blog had its third-biggest day ever Tuesday with 5,825 page views, and its fourth-biggest on Wednesday. The biggest ever had been in June, when state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel was indicted. That made sense. This did not.
  • ABC News National Senior Correspondent Jake Tapper wrote on his blog about my “rather nasty op-ed” in these terms: “I personally find the evidence rather thin for such a scathing verbal attack.” Hey, if I had meant to mount a “scathing verbal attack,” I would have come up with some thicker stuff.
  • Someone named Pamela Leavey, writing on “The Democratic Daily,” said I was “Spewing Right-Wing Talking Points About John Edwards,” and thereby providing “a classic example of what’s wrong with our media.”

    I guess I had been spewing “Left-Wing Talking Points” when I said nice things about Barack Obama the week before. Of course, Ms. Leavey wouldn’t know about that, because she had probably never heard of me before Tuesday. That was true of most of the people commenting.
    And yet, they seemed to think they knew an awful lot about me. Their confidence in passing judgment was far greater than my own. All I had done was describe impressions I had formed from actual experiences in my life. I didn’t consider them any better than anyone else’s experiences. When Zeke Stokes wrote in saying that when he worked on the Edwards campaign earlier this year he had formed a very different impression, I urged readers to take what he said every bit as seriously as what I had said.
    But folks out in the blogosphere or in the 24/7 political spin cycle don’t have time for reflections upon personal experience. They have a convenient short-hand vocabulary for passing judgment instantly upon anything and everything, and all of it is based in childishly simplistic, partisan labels: “He’s one of them! I don’t like them!” or “He’s one of us! Everything he says is true!”
    Among the more than 1,500 unread e-mails awaiting me Tuesday morning were quite a few from across the country praising or damning me for having expressed my opinion. Many were as shallow as Ms. Leavey’s “reflections.”
    But here and there were messages from someone who got the point, which was this: We all form subjective impressions, often unconsciously. In my column I tried to determine exactly when and where I had picked up the bits that formed my overall impression of this one guy among many running for president. I thought that such an airing would be mildly interesting to readers, who often wonder what sorts of gut “biases” inform what we write in the paper, and where they come from.
    A few readers appreciated that, saying that there had been something about Edwards that had nagged at them, and my column had helped them define it: “You hit something in me that I had not been able to figure out,” wrote Glenice Pearson. “Thanks for explaining what was wrong with him,” wrote Nancy Padgett. “I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t enthuse even though he is a SC boy.”
    In turn, I appreciate those few readers who got it. The rest of it I could have done without.

16 thoughts on “My week in the ‘phony’ Spin Cycle

  1. Karen McLeod

    A column such as your original one is mighty thin ice to spin on. And to use a clearly marked opinion to attempt political spin ought to earn the spinner a chilly reception. Brad, you are the person allied with the media. What’s happening here, and why is the media putting up with it?? That last, to me, is the most important question. The folks in the media are the only ones who can call this fresh fertilizer what it is. It seems to me that spin cast only to the faithful is not troublesome because it’s not going to influence anyone who is not already convinced of the evils of the other side. But if you are going to be a responsible in news communication business, be it TV, radio, magazine, paper, or blog, then you should speak the truth as well as you can. And folks, yes, there are different view points. But, when you takes a simple opinion piece, labeled as such and based on 3 chance observations, and try to make a major production out of it, you become absurd, and announce to the world the paucity of your intellect and imagination, and the shallowness of your political philosophy.

  2. Randy E

    I hardly find Brad’s view to be absurb. The foundation of the Edwards platform is looking after the little people. How he treats the little people in person is a great window into his true character.
    The examples Brad shares follow the same pattern as spending $400 on a haircut, living in a castle – the biggest home in a whole county and working for a hedge fund all while he laments the state of lesser Americans.
    Edwards’ character was revealed to me in how he handled the anti-Catholic bloggers. He stated they deserved a “fair shake” despite their sheer vitriolic, hateful statements about the faith of others, including mine. Had they spewed their vile towards blacks or homosexuals I have no doubt he would have not only have booted them but would have done so with great fanfare. It’s another example of putting on a game face for the public as opposed to acting on genuine beliefs.

  3. Barbara Allen

    As citizen of Raleigh, NC, I can say John Edwards is not deserving of the Presidency any more than he was deserving of a 2nd term as our Senator. He ‘misrepresented’ the people who elected him for his one term and spent more time fundraising for the Democratic Party than he did on Capitol Hill let alone serving those who elected him. He spent more time ‘building his resume’ within the Democratic Party than he did as Senator. His campaign theme of helping the poor and working families is hollow at best for those who know of his history. I ask any of you to find any organization or endeavours he participated in to help the poor and the working families PRIOR to his defeat with John Kerry during the last election. The UNC Chapel Hill center for work on poverty issues was created AFTER that defeat.The scholoarship fund he and his wife created for students in eastern North Carolina was established AFTER that defeat. Amazing how he recently appeared at a Smithfield meat processing plant near Raleigh, NC to support and encourage the workers to establish a union to protect their workers rights yet did nothing for them when he was elected as their Senator!
    I also recall Elizabeth Dole visiting the eastern region of North Carolina after it was devastated by flooding from a hurricane and yet as the other Senator representing the fine citizens of North Carolina, Mr. Edwards never showed! Edwards cares for the for the people, the little guy, the poor? Indeed, if it brings him a large percentage from a liability suit settlement or enhances his image and builds his ego in his quest for President, he does care.

  4. Karen McLeod

    Randy E. If you read carefully, you’ll realize that I did not call Brad’s opinion piece absurd; I called the spinmeisters’ response to it absurd, and I still do.

  5. weldon VII

    You know, Karen, that’s what I thought you meant: What Brad wrote wasn’t absurd, but repeating his column to make a point, well, that was absurd, because it was only his opinion.
    That’s a pretty absurd way to spin it, just like Brad’s insistence his column shouldn’t have been as big a deal as Ravenel’s fall from grace.
    Of course it was a big deal. Of course it was fodder for the spin machine, and likewist grist for the Democrat denial mill.
    The editorial page editor at the largest paper in South Carolina — not just some two-bit, left-of-the-Pacific, pseudo-intellectual hack running a blog somewhere — labeled his state’s native son in the presidential race a phony.
    Even at the bottom of The State’s opinion page, the headline pierced the newsless sauna of late July like a blood-curdling scream.
    Brad wasn’t writing about South Carolina’s state treasurer or the state legislature or the state DOT. Instead of something merely local, something no one outside of South Carolina would care about at all, he was damning the foremost white male running for president as a Democrat.
    So sure it was a hoot for talk radio and talk TV, too, when the person who appears to be South Carolina’s top-ranking opinion guy appears to be stabbing his state’s native-son White House hopeful in the back.
    Republicans would love for Brad or anything else to be the last nail in Edwards’ coffin, because most of them see Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a bossy woman and a black man, as unelectable, whether they are or not.

  6. bill

    You willingly participate in the “phony spin cycle”,and now you’re complaining about it?You could have made a real statement by saying the word “NO” to The New York Post,Dennis Miller,etgutterer.

  7. Karen McLeod

    Weldon, are you saying that Brad has no business posting his own opinion, labeled as such, on the “Opinion” page of his newspaper? Or that he shouldn’t post anything that might be ‘spun’ by either side? Or just not be spun by your least preferred political party? To me, my ire is directed not toward the far right or far left talk shows, because no one but the already convinced are going to pay any attention to them. My anger is reserved for those talk shows that purport to be even handed, or the shows that define themselves falsely as “news.” A good news show could report that information, and also report the slim, personal observations that led to that without doing any great harm. If they did that fine; if they did not shame on them if they reported it at all. Personally, I read Brad’s column, read Bob Coble’s answer, and will make up my own mind about whom I will vote for, thank you very much.

  8. Jerry Jewler

    After receiving two highly logical emails from Brad Warthen in response to a letter I sent, I am rethinking my position about the original Edwards column. I now realize the operative word that sent shock waves through my system was “phony” in large, bold headline type. Had the headline read something like, “Is John Edwards What He Appears to Be?” followed by virtually the same content as in the original column, I might have concluded by myself that perhaps Edwards was faking it. The incidents spoke for themselves, but I was turned off by “Why I think John Edwards is a phony,” which, to me, caused resistance rather than interest in the editor’s candid appraisal of the candidate. Quite often, asking the question and supporting it with evidence so that readers can judge for themselves, can be far more effective than simply stating your opinion in such a forthright manner.

  9. Brad Warthen

    Yeah, I think a lot of people unaware of the earlier dialogue on the blog — a category that would include probably 99 percent of the people exposed to the piece — were reacting to the headline. I probably would have gotten a more open-minded hearing if I had used a more diffident approach, such as “Some telling encounters with Mr. Edwards.”
    It has occurred to me a number of times to wonder to what degree I could have turned down the reaction simply by leaving the word “big” out. But the word that set everybody off was “phony.” Unfortunately, the word “phony” — as in, my earlier use of it, and my reasons for having used it — was the subject of the column. Another headline possibility: “Why I used the word I did in describing John Edwards.” Of course, in the newspaper biz, we usually frown on headlines that tiptoe around the point that the piece itself addresses head-on.

  10. weldon VII

    No, Karen, I’m simply saying that the op-ed editor of the most widely circulated paper in a presidential player’s native state should have expected his anti-endorsement would make the rounds.
    I liked the column. I’m glad it made the spin cycle. I wish it had even more mileage, only because observation has led me to a similar conclusion about Mr. Edwards.
    What I can’t grasp is your assertion that the column is fine for Brad to write, but invalid for spin. If Rush Limbaugh were to say the biggest op-ed tycoon in John Edwards’ native state thinks he’s a “big phony,” and then report what Brad said led him to that conclusion, what would be askew?
    Mind you, I probably view what news people do becoming news with more caution than most people might. But if Katie Couric were to do an op-ed moment and call Edwards a “big phony” because of something she saw him do, that would be pretty big news, don’t you think?

  11. Donald Graves

    I like John Edwards; but I think he is waisting his time in South Carolina – still back in the boonies!!!

  12. Karen McLeod

    It would have been harder to spin, I think if someone like Limbaugh started out with “the biggest op-ed…” as you suggested because it would make it clear that it is op-ed, and would tend to slow down the spin (if it would have worked as well or better, I think Rush would have used it. I’m not real worried about what Limbaugh says anyway. Anyone who buys his arguments either doesn’t know the simplest rules of logic, or has a mind that is already made up, and does not want confused by the facts, thankyou. If Katie Couric were to do a similar piece and label it as carefully and thoroughly as Warthen did, it might excite Limbaugh and his minions, but would probably bring a collective yawn from everybody else, especially after all this hooraw. Personally, I’ve gotten to the point where I distrust a lot of news reporters. I might trust them more if they did there own op-eds, labeled as such. Then I would have a better idea where there coming from. As it is, I can only suspect that they’re trying to spin the news and/or me. And that bugs me.

  13. weldon VII

    One thing I think we would agree on, Karen: film of Edwards going glitter from deadpan would sell easier on talk TV than Brad’s piece.
    And one thing I’m sure we agree on: look for the spin on any news for sale, especially if it’s free.
    Ads pay salaries for editors, reporters and anchors, no matter the medium, and that’s just the first wobble.
    But like Paul Simon wrote, there’s no need to let it get you down:
    “I don’t believe what I read in the papers,
    “They’re just out to capture my dime.
    “I ain’t hurryin’,
    “I ain’t scurryin’,
    “I’m just having a good time.”
    Every rag has a game. Figure out the game and decode the news.
    Or buy a different rag.

  14. Karen McLeod

    You’re right on both counts. Unfavorable pictures do a wonderful job of swaying people, especially since they can be cropped and shown completely out of context, and have such a strong effect on those that associate ‘pretty’ with ‘good.’ (most epecially those who don’t realize that they do consider those two attributes to be synonymous–see what was done with that association in “The Passion of the Christ). And that’s why I deal better with pieces that let me get an idea of the persons’ writing/editing the news–it lets me get a better handle on what I’m being served by the cook.


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