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The Problem With Spin

The casual dishonesty about Mayor Kenney’s Iceland trip should have you rolling your eyes

So, let’s stipulate that it’s not that big a deal. Politicians spin—it’s what they do. If you’re a sophisticated news consumer, you know it when it’s happening, you note it, and you move on.

But Jon Stewart advised us that such shoulder-shrugging acceptance of casual dishonesty in our public life was part of a much bigger problem. He said as much in his Daily Show farewell monologue, when he famously observed that the “best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you see something, say something.” 

I was reminded of Stewart’s admonition when the Kenney administration contorted itself into double-jointed formations in trying to justify the Mayor’s trip to Iceland this week. Here’s the background: When he was a councilman, Kenney criticized then-Mayor Michael Nutter’s international travel. “If the mayor wants to go on the road, he should go on the road up the turnpike,” Kenney said, calling into question the economic development efficacy of international mayoral travel.

Fast forward to this week, which found Kenney aboard an Icelandair flight, part of a cultural exchange to mark the first direct flights between Reykjavik and Philly.

When questioned about the irony, Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt could have said, “Yep, as a Councilman, the Mayor mocked Mayor Nutter’s travel, but now that he’s mayor, he realizes the importance of it.”

When he was a councilman, Kenney criticized then-Mayor Michael Nutter’s international travel. “If the mayor wants to go on the road, he should go on the road up the turnpike,” Kenney said, calling into question the economic development efficacy of international mayoral travel.

But that’s not the way the administration chose to play it. Instead, what we have is a local, Trump-like version of hypocrisy. Candidate Trump attacks President Obama for playing golf; President Trump turns out to hit the links even more than his predecessor. If we’re critical of that, we’ve got to call b.s. when local leaders do the same thing.

Hitt told The Inquirer that it is tradition when new international routes are established to the Philadelphia International Airport for the mayors to visit one another’s cities, citing a 1991 trip by then-Mayor Wilson Goode to Switzerland. But here’s the problem: By definition, when something happens once…it’s decidedly not a tradition.

As pointed out in the Daily News, when Qatar Airlines started flying to Philadelphia, Nutter didn’t go to Doha. And Ed Rendell told the paper that any time he was invited to take an inaugural flight to a city offering new service to Philly, he’d attend a ceremony at the gate instead. So…a tradition? Not so much.

Then Hitt dug a deeper spin hole, implying that Icelandair wouldn’t have committed to the Philly to  Reykjavik service had Kenney not agreed to travel there: “It would have been difficult to entice them to establish support here if we had said we’re … not sending the mayor as part of this cultural exchange,” Hitt told the Inquirer. “It would have been seen as a snub for us to not partake in it when all previous mayors have done so.”

On one level, this is no big deal. It’s the kind of spin that happens every day in our politics. But, it’s actually corrosive. This type of knee-jerk shaving of the truth is an ugly import from Washington, D.C., and it’s why so many have disengaged from the political system.

Really? Does that pass the smell test? It suggests that this whole Philly to Reykjavik thing isn’t much of a self-interested business deal for Icelandair—if indeed it could be so easily scuttled by our mayor not flying there.

Finally, Hitt kept the rhetorical sleights of hand coming, telling The Inquirer that the airport, which is paying for Kenney’s travel, is self-sustaining and receives no taxpayer revenue. Well, not exactly: There’s a dedicated tax on users of the airport, city workers work there, and it has received federal funding.

Like I said, on one level, this is no big deal. It’s the kind of spin that happens every day in our politics. But, as Stewart pointed out, it’s actually corrosive. This type of knee-jerk shaving of the truth is an ugly import from Washington, D.C., and it’s why so many have disengaged from the political system.

Why not just admit when you’re wrong? Would any of us have begrudged the mayor wanting to go to Iceland if he’d acknowledged that, when he criticized Nutter, he was either being shortsighted or overly political?

We seem awash in these kind of missteps, where a post-controversy doubling down not only makes an issue worse, but makes the electorate even more cynical. Think of it. We’ve undergone two weeks of headlines about the bonuses given to the staffers who produced the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. It would have been a one day story if, on the first day the controversy was raised, Governor Rendell had said, “You know what? This was bad optics. It was done out of loyalty to the staffers who worked their asses off, but we should have been more transparent about it.”

The one saving grace of this story is its presence of karma. Turns out, Kenney’s flight to Reykjavik Tuesday night was diverted to Boston when a foul-smelling odor engulfed the cabin. Maybe those on board were getting an olfactory preview of the Kenney administration’s spin.

Photo header via Wikipedia

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