McClellan and the Ethics of Spin

John Stodder has written the most interesting commentary I've seen from within the public relations industry about former Bush administration press secretary Scott McClellan's new book. It's interesting in part because Stodder is an interesting figure. For those who remember this sort of thing, he was one of two executives at the Fleishman-Hillard PR firm (the other was Douglas Dowie) who were convicted in May 2006 of multiple counts of conspiracy and fraud in a scheme to overbill the city of Los Angeles for public relations consulting services.

Notwithstanding the verdict, Stodder continues to maintain his innocence and remains free while he appeals the conviction. Apparently this has left him with some time to contemplate ethical matters, and he disapproves of what he sees in McClellan, whose "disloyalty strikes me as most amoral." Moreover, Stodder worries that McClellan's criticism of his former boss "is undermining whatever remaining credibility the PR industry can claim for itself."

Stodder's lengthy commentary goes after every turn of phrase that he can manage to criticize in McClellan's book. For example, he devotes several paragraphs to complaining about McClellan's use of the term "news cycle," which he derides as a "buzzword" and "a particularly irrelevant metaphor" in today's age of 24-hour news. This, of course, is mostly a digression from the real substance in McClellans's critique of White House propaganda, but Stodder manages to see it as evidence that "McClellan's view of the political media climate ... is strangely out of date." (This careful parsing of language comes from someone who professes outrage at the way his own words were supposedly misinterpreted in court. For example, the prosecution presented an email from Dowie to Stodder, asking if they could "pad" a bill by $30,000. Stodder wrote back that this was "more than the system could bear" but that they could "slip through another $15k without incurring too much more scrutiny." Stodder and Dowie would now have us believe that the prosecution misconstrued these words to suggest that they were padding bills and trying to avoid scrutiny.)

Stodder concludes that McClellan's worst offense is the example he is setting for other people in the PR profession. After all, he reasons,

The president's press secretary always is sort of the mayor of PR-land. Their techniques are imitated, their failings are analyzed by thousands of flacks who imagine themselves in his shoes. There is no more high-profile PR job in the United States. ... Scott McClellan defined the PR profession downward during his misbegotten tenure, and has done further damage with this book. ... McClellan asks us, in so many words, not to expect integrity from him, or anyone else who does what he does for a living. McClellan doesn't explain how he changed his mind about Bush, Iraq or anything else. He doesn't confess to intentionally lying. He just wants you to understand you should never have believed the things he said. The logical conclusion is that all PR people are unaccountable purveyors of lies; hired guns who will switch sides at the drop of a dollar bill. I don't think that's true, but it will be hard to argue the case for PR people while McClellan is out there shaming his profession.

"Geez, Tony, if there's one thing I can't stand, it's a rat."Stodder's main ethical standard is "loyalty," which means, "don't squeal on the gang." This is essentially the same ethical standard that governs the members of Tony Soprano's mob. Lying, cheating and other crimes are all part of a day's work, but no one tolerates a snitch.

For contrast, I'd recommend reading Greg Mitchell's take on the McClellan book. Mitchell, an early critic of the war in Iraq, is the editor of Editor and Publisher, a venerable trade publication for the newspaper industry. He seems to have no hesitation at all about squealing on his gang. In fact, he finds it "appalling that in the orgy of coverage of the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war back in March, the media reviewed every aspect of the war and pointed fingers everywhere, except at the media. There was almost no self-assessment, after five years of war."

Beyond Stodder's complaints about disloyalty, he does manage to make some valid points about the contradictions in McClellan's book. For example, he calls out a passage in which McClellan writes,

Most of our elected leaders in Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike, are good, decent people. Yet too many of them today have made a practice of shunning truth and the high level of openness and forthrightness required to discover it.

Stodder replies, "Is this what 'good, decent people' do? If they shun the truth, doesn't that make them liars?" He goes on to deride McClellan's claim that most of the spinning and deception in Washington is "not willful or conscious." Stodder scoffs:

Our government is run by a bunch of sleepwalkers? Robots programmed to lie? What he's describing is epistemologically tricky. If you're not conscious of lying, then by definition you're not lying.

This is a valid point, but what it misses is the way "spin" creates a reality distortion field which makes it possible for its practitioners to deceive even themselves in the act of deceiving. In this regard, spin has a great deal in common with the sort of thing that Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt examined recently in his essay titled, "On Bullshit." As Frankfurt notes, bullshit is a "mode of misrepresentation or deception" that "involves a kind of a bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely, than to telling a lie." To illustrate the distinction, Frankfurt quotes the saying, "Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through." What does this mean? He explains:

This presumes not only that there is an important difference between lying and bullshitting, but that the latter is preferable to the former. ... In fact, people tend to be more tolerant of bullshit than of lies. ... Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point. ... It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.

For examples of the distinction, think back to the multiple times that Bush and McClellan and other White House spinners made a point of mentioning the 9/11 terrorist attack in the same breath that they made their case for invading Iraq. Almost never (with the exception of some comments by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz) did they actually claim that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. Subsequently, when it has been pointed out that in fact there is no evidence at all connecting Iraq to 9/11, their response has been that they never claimed there was, just as Bush now insists that "I never said there was an operational relationship" between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

In other words, the White House found ways of creating the appearance of a relationship between Iraq and 9/11, while being careful not to actually say so specifically. This is the essence of spin, bluffing, or bullshitting if you prefer to call it that. And it turns out that a great deal can be accomplished by way of deceiving people, without necessarily telling specific, nailable lies. For obvious reasons, politicians prefer this approach whenever possible, but in the process they create an environment -- McClellan calls it a "permanent campaign" -- which makes the distinction between truth and falsehood indiscernible, even (and in fact especially) to the spinners themselves. They can therefore "shun the truth" without seeing themselves as liars and later claim that they were not "willful or conscious" of what they were doing.

How do we find our way back from this world into a world where politics is played according to rules of genuine honesty and candor? That, of course, is a big question, but it needs to be answered. McClellan's confessions -- but more importantly, the debacle in Iraq itself -- point to the need for reform in multiple arenas: in politics, in journalism, and in the way public relations operators spin the news.


Sheldon, thanks for your thoughtful read of my McClellan piece. I want to differ mainly with your characterization of my declaration of <strong>loyalty</strong> as the primary ethical standard for PR people. <strong>Truth </strong>is the primary ethical standard for PR people, as it should be for anyone who communicates with the public on public policy matters. It would be one thing for McClellan to confess that he lied while serving the Bush Administration. If he's a whistle-blower, the issue of his loyalty wouldn't come into play. But McClellan throughout portrays himself not as a liar, but as a victim of overwhelming forces -- powerful officials, the permanent campaign culture, whatever. What this signals to me is he wants the personal benefit of serving as a critic of a failed, unpopular administration without taking the personal responsibility for his own contribution to it. It makes me suspicious that all he's really doing is changing sides in the middle of a game only because his side is losing. I guess that conclusion puts me somewhat at odds with another part of your essay, the idea of a gray area between truth and falsity, this supposed area of "spin" or "bullshit." A careful PR person asks, or should ask, way too many questions for there to be any doubt in his or her mind about what they are saying and its truthfulness before they craft a statement for the media. Anyone I worked for as a PR person got far tougher questions from me than they ever got from a reporter (sadly). "Spin" refers to the artful selection of words so that the listeners or readers are left with the impression the speaker desires them to have. For "spin" to work, every word has to be true. That's why the practitioners of this craft must learn as much information as they can (unlike McClellan, who portrays himself as utterly credulous and basically uninformed). They rehearse every possible tough question and should develop answers that are 100 percent provably true, even if shaped to sustain the desired overall message. However, on every "sample Q and A" there will be questions that assume the spin has failed and that the speaker has to confront the ugly realities he or she might prefer to avoid. In my experience, the speaker is never advised to lie, and in fact is advised never to lie. Any PR pro would insist that losing one's credibility is far worse consequence than a bad news story. If a client had ever asked me to lie or to help them lie, I would have resigned the account or job immediately. Not just because I'm such an ethical guy, but also because lying is deadly for business. A PR person relies on others, especially the news media, to get the story out. If those others stop believing him or her, that PR person is useless. Scott McClellan never resigned. He says he never lied. With the exception of the Plame matter, he says he was never lied <em>to</em>. So, it's hard to grasp what he's really saying other than he wishes he hadn't embarrassed himself working for such a lousy and unpopular administration. That's mere disloyalty, for no higher cause than making himself look good (and earning some money). No, it's not anywhere near as bad as lying, but it isn't particularly honorable. As for the stuff about my own situation: I can't comment because it's still in the legal process. However, just for the sake of clarity, the ethics of my representation of clients I had at Fleishman-Hillard (and every other firm I worked for) was never an issue. The trial concerned allegations about billing. I had nothing to do with the Dowie article to which you linked. I am pursuing an appeal because I am not guilty of fraud, meaning I never defrauded any client. There is no "spin" in my defense position. The jury obviously came to a different conclusion, but that's why we have an appeal process. Thanks again for calling attention to my blog post and for your serious-minded analysis of it.