The Ethics of Spinions (Spinning Minions)

English: The CNN Center in Atlanta.

Being rather interested in politics, I spend a fair amount of time following the news of the day. Not surprisingly, I get to see numerous spinning minions (spinions) working their talking points. In the context of politics, a spinion is a person who takes on the role of presenting the talking points of the ideology being represented. In general, the spinion has two main tasks. The first is to make his/her side look good and the second is to make the other side look bad. Truth is, of course, not really a point of concern. Naturally, there can be spinions in other areas as well, such as business, religion and academics.

One somewhat interesting thing about spinions is that it is often rather easy to tell when a person is in spinion mode. In many cases, there seems to be a certain change in the facial expression, eyes and voice of the person as s/he begins to spin.  This reminds me of the fact that in the Pathfinder role playing game characters can use their perception skill to notice whether another creature’s will is not its own. That is, whether it is charmed, dominated or otherwise being controlled. Being a gaming nerd, I imagine the spinion look is what a person would look like in such cases. More scientifically, research has shown that the brain actually undergoes internal changes when a person is thinking about ideological matters: “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.” Given this, it is not surprising that a person’s external behavior would be altered in discernible ways when engaged in spinning behavior. After all, emotional changes are often manifested visibly in changes in behavior and voice. However, my main concern is not with spotting spinions (although there is probably some interesting research to be done here) but with the ethics of spinions.

When I observe spinions in action, what I mainly notice is that they relentlessly present their side in a favorable manner while being equally relentless in casting the other side(s) in a negative manner. In the context of United States’ politics, this spinning has reached the point that any concession to or positive view of the other side is regarded as traitorous. For example, when Bill Clinton spoke of Mitt Romney having a sterling business record, this created a bit of a political storm. I would present other examples, but they are rather rare-in these times it is almost unheard of for one side to say anything positive about the other.

Another disturbing aspect of the ways of spin is that truth and principle seem to be of little importance. Each spinion attempts to construct a narrative favoring his side and damning the other, warping and ignoring facts as needed. For example, the Republicans bashed Obama because the worth of the middle class fell on his watch but they conveniently ignored the fact that this worth had been falling since before Obama was in office. Similarly, the Democrats bashed Romney regarding Massachusetts’ economic woes while Romney was governor, conveniently ignoring facts that went against this narrative.

Needless to say, spinions seem to also have no qualms about making use of fallacies and rhetorical devices in the place of reason. To see this is the case, simply turn to the 24 hour news station of your choice and watch. You might want to have a book on fallacies on hand to catalog all the examples you will see. This is, of course, prudent of them: while it makes me sad, fallacies and rhetoric are far more effective than good reasoning when it comes to getting people to believe.

Grounding this behavior seems to be the idea that what matters is beating the other side. The view seems to be, as Hobbes would put it, that “profit is the measure of right.” This is perhaps most clearly put by Mitch McConnel, namely that the Republicans top priority should be making Obama a one term president. Rather than, for example, working hard to get us out of the depression. While Democrats are not as overt about this as their Republican associates, it is obviously still a factor.

As might be suspected, I regard the behavior of the spinions as morally dubious at best. After all, they engage in willful manipulation of the facts, they employ rhetoric and fallacies to sway people, they cannot acknowledge anything right or good about the other side, and seem to be solely concerned with achieving victory for their side (or the side that pays them).  This spinning has contributed to the high levels of polarity in politics and had made it rather difficult for issues to be discussed rationally and fairly. I would even go so far as to say that this has harmed the general good through its impact on politics. As such, the spinions are a source of considerable moral concern.

One rather obvious counter is that the job of the spinion is to do exactly what they do and this is a legitimate activity. While philosophers and scientists are supposed to seek facts and engage in good reasoning so as to determine what is most likely to be true, this is not the role of the spinion. Their role is rather like that of any spokesperson or advertiser, namely to sell their product and see to it that the competition does not succeed. This is not a matter of right or wrong and truth or falsehood. Rather it is a matter of selling product, be that product soap or a political party. This sort of selling is how the consumer market works and thus the spinions are acting in an acceptable way.

I do agree that parties do have a legitimate right to have people who speak in their favor and against their opposition. However, the spinions appear to present a danger to society similar to that of the sophists. That is, they seem to be focused solely on the success of their side rather than on what is true and good. Since the top spinions are routinely given time on national and worldwide television, they have a rather substantial platform from which to spread their influence. Spinions are often presented as commentators or panelists (and sometimes they are actually presenting the news) which, as I see, creates a problem comparable to allowing corporate spokespeople to advertise their products under the guise of being panelists or commentators. That is, the spinions often seem to simply be presenting political commercials for their side while not having these ads labeled as such. This can mislead people who might think that they are getting an objective report when they are, in fact, essentially just getting a political advertisement in disguise.

A counter to this is that the spinions are presenting the views and talking points of their respective sides and this is not advertising. After all, there will sometimes be opposing spinions spinning in opposite directions on the same panel or in the same segment. Further, the spinions are often presented as being spokespeople for specific parties or candidates.

One reply is that this is still like advertising. After all, networks are happy to sell time to competitors so that a viewer might see an advertisement for Coke followed by one for Pepsi. Also, while some spinions are identified as such, this is not always the case. As such, people do often get misled into thinking that what they are hearing is a matter of fact when it is, in fact, merely spin.

The obvious counter to this is that the spinions are protected by the right to free speech and hence are free to spin away even when doing so is detrimental to the public good and what they say is contrary to fact.

This, I will agree, is true-spinions do not lose their right to express their views (or the views they are paid to express) just because they are spinning. However, the news networks who enable them to spin (or even hire them to spin) are not obligated to provide the spinners with a platform or to let them operate largely free from critical assessment. Obviously enough, having opposite spinners spinning away is not the same thing as having critical assessment of the spin.  In fact, spinning is the opposite of what the news is supposed to do, namely present the facts objectively.  As such, there should be greater effort to contain spin and to ensure that spinners are clearly identified as such. Finally, what the spinions do is wrong-they should stop doing what they do.

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  1. new-age internet philosophy is just ranting?

  2. Mike,
    The most odious form of spinning in my opinion is that of the newspeople who are pretending to be objective, particular the old-line network news and CNN. I think it is clear to most of us that Fox and MSNBC are promoting a particular point of view regardless of their claims and we generally recognize the professional spinners and pols who are out doing their jobs. A common defense of and by the former group (the old lines and CNN) when they are called out for what they do is that we all bring preferences and biases into our presentations and that all we can do is try to minimize them. That entire statement seems to be a commonly used truism, but notice that it is valid only if the latter conditional portion is met. That latter part–that assumes the subject is doing his best to minimize his biases-is what I question.
    A few articles back, in an answer to a complaint I had, you admitted to having a bias toward Obama due to his being an academic and his having had a difficult youth. I do not expect to see breast-beating and sack cloths and ashes in our public life, but I do appreciate public intellectuals’ admissions of their preferences. In our society, when someone says “now I am not speaking as a Democrat or a Republican, but as an American ( or an educator,or a philosopher, or whatever)” put your guard up.

  3. I enjoyed this post. I liked the word “spinion.” Thank you.

  4. Benjamin, TRUE!
    There are no unbiased reporters of any sort. The best we can do is attempt to self-assess our known biases and alert our readers to them.

  5. Chris,

    You are welcome. 🙂

  6. I take a somewhat different stance on spinions. I agree that spinions should be clearly identified as such, but disagree that they should stop doing what they are doing and I disagree that the networks should take steps to contain them. What needs to be limited is their ability to masquerade as objective reporters, but then as more and more of their delivered content contains moral and evaluative statements rather than verifiable, objective statements I wonder at what point we have to count on the public to be able to distinguish between facts and preferences.

    Before you say that the spinions presents their talking points without concern for truth, it helps to ask why they believe in their talking points to begin with. Naturally some of them are mercenaries seeking power, fame, or money, but I do not think that this accounts for all of them. Rather, I think the insincerity that drips out of their mouths comes from the fact that they’re using criteria they don’t believe in to come to conclusions that they do believe in.

    A simple example is a Christian politician arguing that allowing same-sex marriages would alter the definition of marriage. His real criteria for coming to his conclusion is his faith in the Bible, definition of marriage arguments are an attempt to translate his real argument into another, more secular criteria. These attempts almost never come out sounding sincere, which I think makes this a strong example. Maybe an example of a successful attempt would be someone who pirates videos online making the argument that increased regulation of the internet would lead to increased censorship and decreased freedom of expression: freedom of expression is not the criteria he used to come to his conclusion, but he spins his argument to draw more people to his preferences by trying to make the case that his goal is sensible according to their criteria as well.

    I say that spin is actually a public good. By attempting to translate moral arguments from one moral criteria to another, spinions do the leg work of showing how one group’s cause can be relevant for another group as well. This is the only way for divergent viewpoints to come together to form a coalition for some particular cause. What has to be kept in mind is that when a spinion is talking, he is acting in the role of an advocate. He’s trying to make the strongest argument possible from a point of view that is not his own. His success or failure is valuable as he unearths arguments, facts, and perspectives that the rest of us might not have the time to investigate.

    Naturally, they will end up playing fast and loose with verifiable, empirical facts in the process. This should indeed be contained. Perhaps by devoting more time to reporters who specialize in ridiculing blatant disregard for the truth in media.

    Spin should not be contained. Spin should, however, be identified. Make it clear that the spinion is playing a role, make it clear that spinion has his own biases and moral criteria that may or may not be widely shared. But, then, let him spin. Let him try to make his case using multiple criteria. The people who actually use those criteria will be his judge.

  7. GTW,

    Excellent points.

    I do agree that a spinion’s do have some positive roles. They can, as you note, serve as advocates of specific views. I would say this role is somewhat like that of an advertiser or that of an attorney. That is, they have a legitimate role in making the best case possible for that side, even if that side is in the wrong or defective. This would be primarily a matter of process (using the court analogy, the defense needs to defend while the prosecutor prosecutes) in which is it assumed that somehow some truth or good arguments eventually emerge.

    That said, as a philosopher I believe that people should seek the truth using good reasoning and critically assessing all evidence. Spinions seem to be more in the business of mere persuasion and aim at victory for whatever side they are on (or are paid to be on) rather than truth and goodness. Naturally, there are some spinions who are true believers, but that would seem to make them even less prone to being critical.

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