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How triviality trumps substance

We are entering a “silly season” of phony, ginned up controversies that can dominate a news cycle or two.

The folks at NBC’s political unit, who put out an every morning compendium of political news and gossip called “First Read” went profound this a.m., in the sense that sometimes it’s profound to state what everyone is thinking but no one is saying. In this case, the profound observation is that we are entering a “silly season” of phony, ginned up controversies that can dominate a news cycle or two because (a) they’re more fun to talk about than anything of substance so the media can’t resist them and (b) one side or the other of the permanent political skirmish has an interest in keeping starting and feeding the controversy since it plays into their message of the moment and (c) in the age of cable news, the blogosphere and now of course the twitterverse, there are no “gatekeepers” like in the old days. (I don’t mean to be sound nostalgiac for the days when the Times, the Post and the three network news shows could keep a story they deemed unworthy from getting any attention, but it had its good points) Here’s how “First Read” told it:

“Three manufactured controversies in the past month: Of course, manufactured controversies are nothing new in American politics. There was Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech. Even four years ago, political observers were obsessing over Michelle Obama’s patriotism and John McCain’s seven homes.

What is new, however, is how much faster and professionalized — due to Twitter and the drive to make something go viral — these manufactured controversies have become. Indeed, we’ve now seen three of them in the past 30 days: Etch A Sketch, hot mic, and Hilary Rosen.”

[Me interrupting here in case you missed any of these. Etch-a-Sketch refers to the unfortunate remark of a Romney aid that the candidate would shake off inconvenient positions he had said during the primary campaign like a kid shaking an Etch-a-Sketch. Hot mic refers to Pres. Obama talking to Russian Pres. Medvedev, when he thought no one could hear, about how much more flexible he could be on certain issues after the election. Hilary Rosen refers to the on-air recent remark by Obama advisor Rosen to the effect that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life” even though she raised five children. Now back to the excerpt from First Read:]

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“Now all three were related to a bigger issue or narrative (doubts about Romney’s true beliefs and ideology, conservative suspicions about Obama’s intentions, and a real gender gap in American politics). But, unfortunately, we talk about the manufactured controversy and not the real story here (that a general-election candidate always moves back to the center, that a president’s second term with no more elections on the horizon does give him more flexibility to do certain things, and that women do have real anxieties about the balance between working and raising a family).

The fact is, these next few months before the conventions are probably going to be filled with these manufactured ‘shiny metal object’ controversies because of what we noted — just how professionalized both political parties are at creating them. And some in the media are easily susceptible to helping these manufactured controversies go viral because they are seen as simply ‘more interesting’ than the serious ‘eat your vegetables’-like issues that divide the two parties.”