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Political Animal

Spin vs. Lies

By Brian Morton | Posted 12/4/2002

Remember the old MAYOR SCHMOKE MAKES US PROUD campaign signs? Black, red, and green; looked suspiciously like the Pan-African colors of the Marcus Garvey-created flag? Any number of commentators noted that, in the 1996 campaign Kurt Schmoke and campaign manager Larry Gibson waged against Mary Pat Clarke, Gibson had likely crunched the numbers and realized that the best way to win was to appeal to the black voter--that with Baltimore's predominantly black population, Schmoke could win re-election with very little support from the white community.

Dipping into the dusty old bin that contains the Political Animal Record Archives (it also contains a HUGHES FOR GOVERNOR hat, a WHIP INFLATION NOW button, two old J.R.L. Stearne columns from The Sun, and a cat hairball), we find the notes from an interview with a Schmoke campaign staffer who shall remain nameless, who said the colors on the signs stood for "the green of Baltimore's trees, the red for the blood of its heroes . . ." and so on.

In other words, pure horsecrap.

There's a large discussion going on in journalism right now over when it's permissible to call a lie a lie. After all, it's not polite. It's not genteel. More often than not, lies are called "spin" and dismissed as something light and unimportant.

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post kicked up a giant stir at the end of October with his piece headlined, "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable." The subhead accused the president of "embroidering key assertions." Sixteen hundred words later, Milbank had yet to utter the incendiary word "lie." Fib, embroider, stretch the truth, take liberties, extrapolate, and, our personal favorite, the president was "imprecise"--but no "lies."

The columnist Eric Alterman, who writes for The Nation and MSNBC, recalled recently about how 10 years ago he wrote a piece for The New York Times op-ed page celebrating the criminal indictment of former State Department official Elliott Abrams. Abrams misled Congress regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, and Alterman alleged that then-President Bush was doing the same. Alterman's editor at the Times refused to allow him "even to imply that then-President Bush was also lying to the country." The editor told him, "Either take it out, and a million people will read you tomorrow, or leave it in, and send it around to your friends." He took it out, and hasn't written for the Times' op-ed page since.

My, how little times have changed. Today, the pardoned Abrams has a senior position in the Bush II National Security Council; John Poindexter, who was convicted of lying to Congress (and the conviction was overturned on the technicality that the jury heard about his lying in his testimony to Congress) will be running the administration's new "Big Brother" operation; and Milbank just can't say, "Given these facts, it is clear that the president lied about Iraq's nuclear-weapons capability, his tax cut, and his service record in the National Guard."

(It is still permissible however, if not encouraged, to repeat how Bill Clinton lied about a consensual extramarital affair. After all, there is no strategic national interest involved, no servicemen's lives at stake, no Social Security money at risk.)

Like the late Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, who offered Richard Nixon "a free shave" following his election to the presidency (after years of depicting the shady Nixon with a swarthy 5 o'clock shadow), we here at Animal Control were fully willing to offer the governor-elect of Maryland a nice little respite from the fray. When asked by our friends, we said he needs some time to get his cabinet together, to pick his people, to work with the outgoing governor in ways to help solve the looming budget deficit. And besides, we're not done kicking Parris Glendening around yet.

But, we have to admit: We lied.

See? How hard was that? We feel as if a weight has been taken off our shoulders. Some people could take the hint:

If asked why he annoyingly refers to his not-yet-sworn-in boss as "Governor Ehrlich" (in the same sentence as "Governor Glendening," as if they somehow serve in tandem), Robert Ehrlich's spokesman Paul Schurick could simply say, "I lied! He's the governor-elect--I just like calling him 'Governor'!"

If asked about his statement that lawyers for the Ehrlich campaign determined that the cost for all the helicopter rides they got from the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the company that owns Fox 45, was $1,000 an hour, and that's "fair market value," maybe Schurick ought to just come out and say, "OK--I lied. We know the choppers cost about $2,600 an hour to operate. They're just fun to go to the beach in!"

When Ehrlich was pushing the Federal Communications Commission in May 2001 to move faster on the Sinclair Broadcast Group's application to buy 14 more TV properties (despite FCC rules that limit how many small-market stations a conglomerate can own), and Schurick said Ehrlich's actions were just "vigorous constituent service," maybe he should have followed it up with, "I just lied! Back in April, we saw how cool riding in a helicopter was to that Garrett County GOP dinner at Deep Creek Lake, and we thought it would be cooler if we could use it all election season!"

And while we're at it, let's not even think of the possible responses Schurick and Ehrlich could think up regarding all those charges of a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis. Maybe a few more meetings with Clarence Mitchell IV and Marvin Mandel will give them some ideas.

Related stories

Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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