Most of us are under no illusions about this, but few have witnessed the evidence first-hand. Brian Springer, director of the documentary SPIN, has. From January 1992 to February 1993, he made a personal project of watching countless hours of satellite feeds from network programming relating to the '92 U.S. presidential election. Most of it, of course, didn't make it onto TV screens.
These kinds of feeds are available, at least on occasion, to anyone with a satellite. "In the case of satellite feeds, a window was opened into the normally closed TV production process," says Springer. "Satellite feeds create leaks outside the networks' control."
During his period of satellite vigilance, Springer trolled the feeds every day, beginning his viewing at 6 a.m. with the morning TV talk shows. He'd watch nonstop till midnight, when Nightline ended. Springer lost muscle tone in his stomach and damaged nerve endings in his thumb from excessive use of his remote. What he found was a mass of raw footage documenting what most filmmakers can only dramatize: the power the media has when it comes to how candidates are portrayed, and the ways public figures and their handlers try to control how they're perceived.
"I think the section on [Democratic candidate Larry] Agran is one of the strongest parts of SPIN," says Springer. According to him, Agran was making headway in the New Hampshire presidential primary, "until the press literally clipped him out of the picture."
"When Agran complained to news executives about his lack of coverage," explains Springer's voice-over in the documentary, "he was told he had not earned the right to media exposure, because he had not received enough media exposure." While waiting to go live with Nightline to discuss environmental issues, Agran received anything but VIP treatment. He was moved from a desolate hallway to an empty office and wasn't even provided makeup so he could look presentable for the camera. Instead, he was left to get it on his own time and dime. "I had never seen anybody treated so badly during a feed," says Springer.
Another telling moment in SPIN shows how public figures like Pat Robertson are, well, spun. Here's an excerpt of his being coached off-air by two advisers after taking an antagonistic call on Larry King Live:
Robertson: That guy was a homo -- as sure as you're alive.
Spin Doctor 2: The key thing with something like that is, you take the one sentence and turn it around and go on to another issue. Remember, you're answering the questions. You can talk about anything you want to
Spin Doctor 1: It hasn't come across on your face as being angry.
Robertson: I'm not angry, who's angry?
Spin Doctor 1: I mean you look good. Just remember you can answer any way you want.