Presidential political spinning into Iowa wastebaskets

By Sara Faiwell
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

DES MOINES—Reporters from the Associated Press thinks it’s irrelevant, The Des Moines Register says it is nuts and the Chicago Tribune calls it goofy.

So, why the spin?

Walk into any media room during a staged event for the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls this political season and you’ll see it: staffers for the candidates’ campaigns running around in frenzied circles just to distribute sheets of paper aimed at improving their candidate’s image in newspaper articles the next day.

So was the scene at the second-to-last Democratic National Committee’s presidential debate in Des Moines the week before Thanksgiving. Political reporters left the debate hauling almost 50 sheets of paper they didn’t arrive with – and those were the ones who actually looked at the notes these spinners were hurling at them for two straight hours.

"I feel bad for the poor trees that are sacrificed for those goofy statements," said Rick Pearson, a Tribune’s staff writer covering the campaign in Iowa. "It’s their performance on stage that matters."

While Pearson is among the few to take the statements home with him, he said they only come in handy for future, in-depth stories about the campaign.

Most of the reporters say they do their best to ignore the stacks of paper. The New York Times reporter, Adam Nagourney, is known for the sign perched in front of his laptop reading, "No Paper."

"They are a waste of space on my desk," said Tom Beaumont, The Register’s political reporter. "If the background material were that important, the campaign would have alerted us to it with a phone call to make sure we had it—the paper is just annoying noise."

At last month’s debate, reporters were inundated with paper from Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt every few minutes. The reporters know the drill: Dean slams Gephardt about money cut from healthcare, Gephardt points out Kerry’s ethanol flop and Kerry says, "Dean should get his facts right."

"No reporter here takes what is written at face value," said Washington AP reporter Ron Fournier. "It’s all attacks – at best, one or two papers might jog your memory."

However, the campaigns are under the impression that reporters value the spinners’ effort.

"Candidates make claims that don’t always match their records so we want to ensure the media has those facts," said Kerry spokeswoman Laura Capps. "It does make a difference when the reporters write their stories."

Likewise, Gephardt spokesman Bill Burton said the spinners enable political reporters need to make sure they have their facts straight.

"If you don’t make it clear, it’s just one person’s word against another," he said.

Maybe it’s the noise, or the fact that most reporters pre-write stories when covering a debate-like event, but perhaps it’s the shear volume of statements released by the campaigns.

The bottom line is that political reporters are not interested in the paper.

"It used to matter and people used to quote from the spin room," said Mark Halperin, who co-writes ABC’s "The Note." "With technology, the campaigns can churn out too much paper. It’s hard to look for the ones who are serious."

If the practice of spinning is becoming more of a joke, perhaps retired Gen. Clark staffers have had the right idea. At the Iowa debate, his one and only release read, "On stage today were a minister, four politicians, two television monitors and only one leader—General Wesley Clark."

E-mail Sara Faiwell at sara-faiwell@uiowa.edu.

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