By ‘Thank You For Smoking’ author Christopher Buckley
“Thank You For Smoking” (the book, that is) was born one night in 1992 some time between 7 and 8 p.m. I can pinpoint it this precisely because that’s when the (as it was then called) “MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour” aired. On this particular night, a young lady from the (now defunct) Tobacco Institute was a guest. It fell to her to contradict the other guest, a Ph.D working for a prestigious research institute. The institute had just come up with yet another piece of evidence that smoking was – hel-lo – bad for you.
The lady from the Tobacco Institute was having none of it. She parried and thrusted, challenged every calm statement the Ph.D made. I was mesmerized. Finally she said, as if intellectually annoyed at having to state the obvious, “All I’m saying is – where is the data? Show us the data.”
It was love at first sight. I thought, What an interesting job that must be. Get up mornings, brush your teeth, have breakfast, kiss the kids and go off and sell – death. Thus was born Nick Naylor of the Academy of Tobacco Studies and the protagonist of “Thank You For Smoking.”
What she was doing, of course, was what we now recognize as “spinning.” The dictionary defines it: “Verb and noun. To convey information or cast another person’s remarks or actions in a biased or slanted way so as to favorably influence public opinion; information provided in such a fashion.”
A more concise definition might be: “Verb and noun. Bullshit.” Either way, it is all around us now. We live in a world of spin on a spinning planet.
The other night on TV came the news that producers of junk food spend $10 billion a year advertising their products at – it’s a great country – kids between the ages of 2 and five. As if on cue, on came a spokesman from the – let’s call it – Association of Foods With Absolutely Zero Nutritional Value. He said, “Actually, we’re proud of the fact that we are reducing our advertising budget for this market sector by as much as 6 percent.” Well, that’s a relief.
The week before, the big story was that the Pentagon is planting favorable news articles in the Iraqi press. At any rate, this development was revealed by the Los Angeles Times, which wittily quoted an Iraqi newspaper editor saying that “if his cash-strapped paper had known that these stories were from the U.S. government, he would have ‘charged much, much more’ to publish them.”
Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine points out in a fine huffy piece on the subject that President Bush’s so-called “town meetings” are packed with pre-screened friendlies whose hardest-hitting questions are likely to be: “Mr. President, do you wear briefs or boxers?” It’s rather sad that it’s come to this. The current administration has also been caught paying commentators to promote their policies. I don’t think they teach that at journalism school. But then the whole global culture seems to be degraded and corrupt. A year ago, it was revealed that a British novelist had accepted money from a maker of vodka to mention it throughout her next book. Product placement – in novels. Why didn’t I think of that?
“Spin” is now such a commonplace word that it’s hard to remember when it first arrived on the scene. Linda Wertheimer of National Public Radio asserts that it happened in 1984, following the presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and his challenger, Walter Mondale. Both candidates’ staff – as well as high-profile supporters brought in as cheerleaders – rushed to the microphones outside the debating hall to proclaim victory. Reagan’s performance had been, in the words of one of his aides, “a disaster,” but his campaign manager, the legendary late Lee Atwater said, “We’re going to want to go out there and spin this afterward.” A subsequent New York Times editorial coined the term “Spin Doctors.”
I did a little more digging – actually, now I’m spinning you. All I did was Google “spin origins of” and within about 1.3 seconds I was connected to a delightful website called Word Spy. According to Word Spy, the very first citation of the word “spin” occurred before the Reagan-Mondale debate, in an article in The Washington Post in 1977. This was the citation:
“What Pertschuk is accused of is being too ardent a consumer advocate, of ‘lobbying’ members of the committee on behalf of things he thinks are good, of putting his own philosophical ‘spin’ on options, of having excessive influence on Magnuson; in short of acting like the ‘101st senator.'” [Spencer Rich, “An Invisible Network of Hill Power,” The Washington Post, March 20, 1977]
The name Pertschuk rang a distant bell. I re-Googled and … what do you know: he was the righteous, hall-monitor-like head of the U.S Federal Trade Commission. He was so insufferable he was ultimately forced to resign.
And what did he do then? He became the leader of the anti-smoking lobby.
Full circle spin.