How triviality trumps substance

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:]

“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.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/13/2012 - 02:54 pm.

    Manufactured by the press and the pols

    These controversies are manufactured for the purposes of polarizing the people either for political gain or monetary gain. The drama is all but made up. Oh, and the Rosen/Ann Romney flap has very little to do with the gender gap, it has more to do with the haves being out of touch with the have-nots.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/13/2012 - 04:19 pm.

      or more likely

      those who have battled breast cancer and MS while raising five boys and those who haven’t.

      • Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 04/14/2012 - 10:46 am.

        You make a good point, one that would still be a good one with an accurate description of Ann Romney’s health history relative to her child-raising history. From Wikipedia:

        “Ann was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998 and has credited a mixture of mainstream and alternative treatments with giving her a lifestyle mostly without limitations…
        In 2008, she was also diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a non-invasive type of breast cancer. She underwent a lumpectomy in December of the same year and has since been cancer-free.
        She and husband Mitt have five children, all boys, born between 1970 and 1981.”

        • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/16/2012 - 08:56 am.


          In other words, she didn’t have to deal with those specific health problems while she raised her children. Still, she’s not the only woman to have suffered either of those ailments, let alone both of them. I, personally, could point to dozens of women who suffered from one or the other, maybe even to one or two that have suffered from both. What’s incredibly important about this is that she NEVER had to rely on someone else to raise her children because she had to provide an income from outside her home. Whether she had nanny help or not, I can’t say. But I can say for certain that the costs of her illnesses didn’t bankrupt her or put her family at risk of financial collapse. She didn’t have to worry about the cost of treatment, where many women would have to worry about whether they could afford to save their own lives. In other words, for whatever she has in common with the “commoners,” she always had access to uncommon resources.

  2. Submitted by Lance Groth on 04/13/2012 - 02:54 pm.

    Can’t stand it

    “I don’t mean to be sound nostalgiac for the days…” Why not? I am. I’d take Cronkite and Wallace any time over the inane, vapid crapola that passes for news these days.

    I find that the older I get, the less tolerance I have for any of this. This is a problem, as I am only 53. I can’t stand b.s., especially cynical, hypocritical b.s., but that’s all politics is any more. It’s tempting to say I’ll simply ignore the news during “silly season”, but “silly season” is now a permanent condition. A remote, off-the-grid cabin in the woods with a large library of real books may be the ultimate solution. The remoter, the better – preferably in Canada.

    • Submitted by Lora Jones on 04/13/2012 - 06:00 pm.

      Ely is nice

      and has bursts of culture, a steakhouse, a public steam bath (in case you don’t have a sauna), a radio station that’s eclectic and jazzy and fun, history and you absolutely positively won’t get a television signal without investing in a dish. The border is also close enough to canoe to if the Boundary Waters aren’t remote enough for you.

    • Submitted by Diane Nelson on 04/13/2012 - 08:32 pm.

      Look at the bright side Lance

      Maybe we’re not alone and no one can stand it anymore, and we’re nearing a tipping point where good folks on all sides of the issues realize that the b.s. in the news isn’t news anymore, and the incessant hyper-focus on one-line slips or taken out of context quips won’t satisfy the masses anymore.

      I know, I know, I live in a dream world but I drank the Hope Koolaide four years ago and refuse to give up on the idea that we might actually be on the brink of adult-like discourse in our leadership and the return of the America that as a child I grew up with, determined to first walk on the moon, that civil rights would at last have us treating each other respectfully and as equals, and our parents would continue to pass on a better life to generations behind them.

      This silliness are simply sidebars of the real issues, like Eric points out, and eventually the real problems make their way from dinner tables, to local politics, and eventually the ballet box and congressional laws. The silliness will eventually leave the silly singing only to the fools, we’re never going to rid of all of them.

      Continue to reject the b.s. and keep up the hope. November 6th may surprise you, and restore your faith in America. I know I’m banking on it.

  3. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 04/13/2012 - 04:16 pm.

    Hit Mic

    Look, I’m very sympathetic to the idea of faux controversies, but how in the world can you include the Obama hit mic incident in the same category? We have a sitting President, all on his own, creating doubt in allies minds about how serious he takes defense agreements. That seriously isn’t an issue?
    If Romney was caught making secret promises to, say, the Israelis, that wouldn’t be an issue? Does anyone believe that?

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/16/2012 - 08:01 am.

      Is it really shocking to you that Obama feels it unlikely that anything can be agreed to at this time? Months away from an election for president and deep into a term characterized by a House that demonizes of anything proposed by Obama. It’s to the point where if Obama likes ice-cream, then it becomes his homage to Stalin’s gulags where everything was frozen!!

      By the way, speaking of secret promises:


      That shared experience decades ago led to a warm friendship, little known to outsiders, that is now rich with political intrigue. Mr. Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, is making the case for military action against Iran as Mr. Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, is attacking the Obama administration for not supporting Mr. Netanyahu more robustly.

      The relationship between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Romney — nurtured over meals in Boston, New York and Jerusalem, strengthened by a network of mutual friends and heightened by their conservative ideologies — has resulted in an unusually frank exchange of advice and insights on topics like politics, economics and the Middle East.

      When Mr. Romney was the governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Netanyahu offered him firsthand pointers on how to shrink the size of government. When Mr. Netanyahu wanted to encourage pension funds to divest from businesses tied to Iran, Mr. Romney counseled him on which American officials to meet with. And when Mr. Romney first ran for president, Mr. Netanyahu presciently asked him whether he thought Newt Gingrich would ever jump into the race.

      Only a few weeks ago, on Super Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu delivered a personal briefing by telephone to Mr. Romney about the situation in Iran.

      “We can almost speak in shorthand,” Mr. Romney said in an interview. “We share common experiences and have a perspective and underpinning which is similar.”

      (end quote)

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/13/2012 - 04:26 pm.

    It’s not the silliness that bothers me

    because for the most part, those “stories” run the 24-hour news cycle and go away.

    What bothers me is the outright revisionist history and blatant falsehoods that politicians and their team spew on the teevee without the press calling them on it. Maybe if the press were more like journalists and less like stenographers less BS would make it to the public’s eyes and ears.

  5. Submitted by Ross Williams on 04/13/2012 - 05:19 pm.


    The media doesn’t cover any “eat your vegetables” issues. But they certainly treat their audience like children, which that analogy implies.

    The fact is the “media” is in the advertising business. It is there to attract an audience. How it does that is irrelevant to its success. Are there any complex college level text books on a subject that have made the best seller list? No. So why would you expect the media to cover complex issues? Professional journals that do have very small audiences.

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 04/14/2012 - 04:13 pm.

    You can’t call it news anymore

    News is a bygone thing. All news has become entertainment because the dollar is driving all of it. If it isn’t sexy enough or bizarre enough you won’t hear much about it because it doesn’t meet the criteria of generating dollars. We have Fox and MSNBC making up data to suit their political wishes. Talk shows essentially litigate cases before they ever have gone to court. It is easy, and it is high profit. They don’t need facts, just speculation to make a program. Political fact checking is nearly non-existent. Politicians only go to the favorable stations for interviews so they don’t have to answer anything but softball questions. America is in deep trouble and without the press helping the public filter the BS we won’t be able to recover from anything to the point that it will help all citizens, not just the wealthy.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 04/15/2012 - 11:10 am.

    remember the weekly reader ?

    What if news reports were more thorough deep and complex. I am sure if the three mentioned at the beginning of the piece would not of generated so much rancour. Maybe we need to have a national discussion on what constitutes news in terms of reporting. Then we can choose wethrr to defend or advocate an issue. There is work required of the reader. Remember the default piece from earlier in the week?

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