Brendan Nyhan, analyzing political spin

Writer: 
June 1, 2008
Brendan Nyhan, analyzing political spin

Megan Morr

As experts in highly specialized fields of study, scholars can run the risk of fading into obscurity-they become experts in Esperanto drama or operator algebras, and their work goes unnoticed except by a handful of reviewers or like-minded peers. Brendan Nyhan has avoided this fate. A fifth-year graduate student in political science, the California native already has a best-selling book under his belt and has earned thousands of readers as a political blogger.

In 2001, Nyhan and friends Ben Fritz and Bryan Keefer co-founded Spinsanity.com, a blog with the self-proclaimed goal of "unspinning misleading claims from politicians, pundits, and the press." The subject was close to Nyhan's heart. After graduating from Swarthmore College with high honors in 2000, he had joined Nevada Democrat Ed Bernstein's Senate campaign as deputy communications director. Bernstein lost the election; Nyhan came away from the experience "shocked by how bad the [media] coverage was" and determined to scratch beneath the surface of political spin.

Spinsanity took off quickly. Until he enrolled at Duke as a James B. Duke Fellow in 2003, Nyhan supported himself as a consultant to Benetech, a nonprofit that uses technology to address social issues.

On the side, he and his co-editors used Spinsanity to debunk pervasive myths, such as the story that Enron's Ken Lay spent a night at the Clinton White House or the yarn that the National Education Association suggested teachers not blame al Qaeda for the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Yet the site earned recognition for criticizing the Bush administration during the early, disorienting years of the "War on Terror."

"After September 11, 2001, President Bush's popularity skyrocketed, and critical stories got little play," Nyhan says. "He got one to two years of almost political immunity. We felt like we were shouting into the void-no one was covering this."

Journalists began to pay attention to Spinsanity. At its peak in 2004, the site was averaging 15,000 visits a day and served as a primary resource for columnists such as The Washington Post's Dana Milbank. Nyhan and his co-editors were asked to write columns for Salon.com and the Philadelphia Inquirer; the trio also gave more than fifty radio and television interviews, including an appearance on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Nyhan himself was invited onto Alan Colmes' Fox News Radio show in August 2004, even though two years earlier, Spinsanity had dismissed Colmes as Sean Hannity's "timid" liberal foil.

The culmination of the project was a book-All The President's Spin: George W. Bush, the Media and the Truth-that was co-authored by Fritz, Keefer, and Nyhan and that reached the fourteenth spot on The New York Times paperback best-seller list.

Yet after the 2004 election, the Spinsanity team closed up shop. Nyhan describes the project as "a second job that paid ten cents an hour, so it was a little hard to carry on," although it did have a major effect on his research at Duke.

"One thing I was struck by when I was working on Spinsanity was the extent to which established facts did not dominate the discourse," Nyhan says. "Whether a scandal took place had more to do with the political circumstances than with the objective facts."

In his current research, he studies how the party composition of Congress affects the traction of presidential scandals. Meanwhile, he continues to blog solo at brendan-nyhan.com, a site he estimates pulls in an average of 1,000 visits a day. "I want to stay active in speaking publicly about politics and writing about politics," Nyhan says. "I think academics should be involved in the public debate more, and I think political scientists have been less prominent than they should be."