Sunday, July 22, 2012

Context Matters. Still.

One of the (to me) depressing trends in the relationship between journalism and politics is the ever-increasing Balkanization of news coverage. It is now possible for candidates for the highest offices in the country to avoid aggressive questioning by granting face time only to those who can be trusted to ask softball questions and do half your spinning for you. And, whether it’s the fault of the hosts, the producers, or the politicians, you don’t see the talking-heads shows on the left or the right with guests who won’t adhere pretty much to the host’s political philosophies. For example, the standout sequence for me in Ben Wallace-Wells’s interesting and well-written profile in Rolling Stone of liberal TV host Rachel Maddow was this:
Viewers like to see Maddow on the attack: “People want to see the home team winning.” Oftentimes, the home team is all they want to see. “If there's a Republican, you'll see all these tweets,” [TRMS producer Bill] Wolff says. “Get that Republican off my screen!”
To say things are as bad or worse at Fox News is the equivalent of noting that the sun rises in the east. (To be fair, Bill O’Reilly puts forth at least a token effort, if only to be able to outshout his “guests.”)

The result is that far too many citizens, and far too many voters bear a considerable resemblance to the folks at the left, led along by their respective mouthpieces to, ultimately, the destruction of the democratic system. Plato, writing in the world’s first great democracy, said that “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” But engagement isn’t enough (no, I’m not suggesting that Plato didn’t know that): we need to listen to opposing views, but, more importantly, we need to be honest in our appraisals. That, to be polite, isn’t happening.

I wrote last week about the Romney campaign’s willful distortion of remarks made by President Obama at a speech in Roanoke. Of course, neither side has a monopoly in this arena. No, Obama didn’t mean business owners have no claim to their own success. But neither did Governor Romney mean anything sinister by his comment that he “[likes] to fire people”: in context, he clearly is saying only that consumers ought to be able to change providers (in this case in terms of health care) if they’re not getting good service. But both the other GOP contenders at the time and Team Obama have trumpeted the out of context remarks in a cynical display of faux anti-cynicism.

True, it’s hard to put a positive spin on Ann Romney’s “we’ve given you people all you need to know” arrogance, but it’s not much worse than Michelle Obama’s “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.” (It’s “not much worse” rather than “no worse” because Mrs. Obama subsequently clarified her comments—it’s up to you, Gentle Reader, to decide whether the re-statement was either honest or sufficient; Mrs. Romney, to my knowledge, has made no attempt to sound a little less like the walking embodiment of every stereotype the 99% have about the 1%.)

And so we come to a news story by Lou Colagiovanni on under the headline ”Mitt Romney vows to ban pornography by installing a filter on every U.S. PC.” Well, if there’s anything likely to lose you votes, it’s interfering with the free flow of porn. As is the case with many such non-story stories, what is hinted at fits easily into the narrative the candidate’s opponent would like to construct: in this case, Romney the repressive moralizer.

If you look at the comments section on the Examiner site or on the Americans Against the Tea Party Facebook page, you’ll see that the general readership has fallen in line, baa-ing all the way. I can’t even pick out the most ridiculous comments, because there are so many… and so few commenters bothered to read the article, much less look at the linked video.

Notice the AATTP line, “Did you know Mitt Romney has vowed to install pornography filters on all new U.S. computers? Press ‘like’ and ‘share’ if you will not be supporting Romney and his bizarre social agenda!” And the Colagiovanni article proclaims,
In 2007 Romney exposed some of his more extreme positions while speaking during a town hall meeting in Ottumwa, Iowa at the Hotel Ottuma. One such position which Mitt rarely discloses now is his deep desire to make it mandatory for pornography filters to be added to all new computers entering The United States.

In specific Romney said, “I want to make sure every new computer sold in this country, after I'm president, has installed on it a filter to block all pornography.”
You will see here, Gentle Reader, precisely the same dishonest editing that gave us “If you’re a business owner, you didn’t build that.” If you actually watch the video linked at the side of the page (which Colagiovanni and his editors are justifiably confident that you won’t do), here’s what Governor Romney actually said:
I want to make sure we enforce our obscenity laws. And I want to make sure retailers don’t sell adult video games to kids. And I want to make sure every new computer sold in this country, after I'm president, has installed on it a filter to block all pornography, and that parents could click that filter and make sure their kids don’t see that stuff coming into their computer. [Emphasis mine.]
So what Governor Romney said in a speech five years ago wasn’t advocating censorship at all. Rather, he was taking a perfectly reasonable position that parents ought to be able to exercise some control over their kids’ computer habits. Is it naïve to think kids won’t just access their minimum daily requirement of smut elsewhere? Perhaps. But suggesting that there’s stuff on-line that you don’t want your 10-year-old seeing—and that there ought to be reasonable, voluntary means, requiring an active decision to “click that filter,” of keeping Junior from seeing it—strikes me as being a long way from an infringement on personal liberties.

Why the hysteria? Because actually bothering to find out what the “other guy” actually said takes… geez… almost a minute. Because we’re becoming increasing programmed to believe the worst of whoever it is we’re not going to vote for. Because, as we saw in the coverage of the “Dark Knight” tragedy in Colorado, being splashy at the expense of being accurate has no apparent repercussions (I didn’t hear anything about Brian Ross getting fired, did you?).

Democracy relies on an informed, thinking citizenry. It’s time to separate the sheep from the (Judas) goats.


Dan Burgess said...

Lou Colagiovanni, pro-am writer for the, also is the creator/moderator of the Facebook page "We survived Bush. You will survive Obama." Colagiovanni is using his Facebook page and other, affiliated political-interest pages to promote his articles, which pays writers based on the number of page views they get.

Colagiovanni posts links to his articles -- which as you note, tend to be of questionable quality -- into the newsfeeds of his 100,000+ subscribers. If a user clicks to the page, Colagiovanni gets paid. If a user comments on the posted link or "likes" or shares it, the link is pushed into that user's Facebook friends' news feeds, making it more likely that somebody else will click on it, so Colagiovanni gets paid.

Returning to the tone and content of this sort of political media, I have taken to calling them "parasitic economies of outrage." They represent systems across the political spectrum that generate profit for themselves through the creation and fostering of divisiveness along belief structures such as political creed, sex, race, religion, and national origin.

manjushri924 said...

Thanks for the insights, Dan.

Anonymous said...

Watch out for Lou Colagiovanni! The news he reports is not real or even factual. Further, his FACEBOOK page completely lacks integrity. He regularly deletes posts of those who disagree with or question him. He then bans the person from being able to post again.

Click on the link to read an interesting article about him. Note especially the comments about him at the end of the article.

John Henry said...

I had the displeasure of meeting Lou a few months ago, when he came to my town to discuss a "partnership" that he'd been pushing me to develop with him. Given his traffic, I was fairly open to the idea...but after spending actual time with him face to face, frankly I don't care if he has a million "likes" on his page.

Dan Burgess nailed it. Matt Desmond of AddictingInfo.Com does the same thing through something like fifty different groups (the primary ones being "Being Liberal" and "Americans Against The Republican Party," which used to be called "Republicans Are Idiots And Arguing With Them Is A Waste Of Time."

Both of them typically rewrite stories from other sources, add a salacious headline, and push it out to their FB pages trolling for hits. Matt has other writers of varying quality, every one of whom will immediately take it personally and get aggressively defensive as soon as you suggest that AI is a rehash farm. "HOW DARE YOU SAY I BLAH BLAH" ignoring that nobody said they did anything, but that Matt did, and does.

It's a mentality. These are the people who, in 2003, were part of GW Bush's 70% approval rating.