“She’s a Monster”: A Media Generated Controversy

Bruce Nielsonmedia manipulation, Mormon, news, politics 20 Comments

I am not an Obama supporter and this article is not politically motivated. It is actually a commentary on how the media often creates a controversy rather than reporting an existing controversy. This issue has been weighing on my mind since the Danzig case and the Salt Lake Tribune’s quick retraction of the headline. The Samantha Power story seemed like an apt example.

The headline read:

‘Hillary Clinton’s a monster’: Obama aide blurts out attack in Scotsman interview

As the article explained:

In an unguarded moment during an interview with The Scotsman in London, Samantha Power, Mr Obama’s key foreign policy aide, let slip the camp’s true feelings about the former first lady.”

And thus ended Samantha Power’s advisory role for Barack Obama. But what is the real story here? If the news media was being candid with us, wouldn’t the headline have read:

Obama Campaign Does Not Like Their Competitors Because They, Um, Compete With Them

But of course there is no news worthy story in that headline at all. But isn’t this the real story? Perhaps one could argue that the real story is that someone from the Obama campaign publicly stated their private feelings – that we all knew they already had. I admit that would be newsworthy, so let’s redo the headline to read:

Obama Campaign States Publicly the Private Feelings That We All Know All Competing Candidates Have for Their Competitors

But this isn’t really right either. In reality Samantha Powers was just talking to the media about her book on Sergio Vieira de Mello. So this wasn’t the Obama campaign talking to the media, it was just Powers speaking for herself. The idea that she spoke for the campaign was something the media just made up (i.e. lied about) because I’m fairly certain Samantha Powers didn’t tell them “I speak on behalf of the Obama campaign with this next comment!” So let’s change the headline to the more truthful:

Samantha Powers, member of Obama Campaign, States Publicly the Private Feelings That We All Know All Competing Campaigns Have for Their Competitors

But you know what? This really isn’t the truth either. Powers in fact stated that her comment was off the record, so this was actually — in her mind at least — just a private conversation not meant for the public. The only reason it was published at all was because she made the mistake of stating it was off the record after the comment instead of before. As the news story explains:

WHEN is off the record actually off the record? When the rules are established in advance. … If a conversation is to be off the record, that agreement is usually thrashed out before the interview begins.

So if the media is to be honest and non-manipulative with us, the real headline should read:

Media Uses Legal Loophole to Allow Them to Publish a Private Comment that Explained the Private Feelings That We All Know All Competing Campaigns Have for Their Competitors: Aide Loses Job

Comments 20

  1. Bruce, I love it. On top of the points you made, I think truth (or at least accuracy) is unfortunately not as interesting to the general public as short, snappy headlines.

    As for the church, I think a lot of people on both ends of the church spectrum like their arguments clean and free from too much mess. It’s not easy considering ALL the facts/details of some historical issue. We take the ones we like, and discard the rest. Like the headline, the paper takes the parts it likes, spins it a little, and gives you a nice controversial headline.

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    >>> I think a lot of people on both ends of the church spectrum like their arguments clean and free from too much mess. It’s not easy considering ALL the facts/details of some historical issue. We take the ones we like, and discard the rest

    I think this is the heart of the human problem. We try to take a giant mess and make sense of it by simplifying it or polarizing to a certain point of view. Life is complex and not everyone will see things the same way even if given the same set of facts. We need to stop making up conspiracy theories to justify why not everyone agrees with us. 😛

  3. Heh…this reminds me of Connie Chung’s interview of Newt Gingrich’s mother, in which Chung enticed the elderly Mrs. Gingrich to tell her, “just between us” what Newt thought of Hillary Clinton. That “just between us” communication, of course, became the headline of the day, and the only reason anyone watched the interview!

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    Nick, that story makes me feel ill. It’s such obvious media abuse. But I suppose the point you were also making is that we are all equally guilty because we consume it and thus support it. Guess I can’t argue with that.

  5. Bruce, I’m sorry if it appeared that I condoned Chung’s actions in that case. I don’t. You’re right, however, that we’re all gossip-hounds at heart, and even when we know better, part of us wants to hear these things.

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    I think you misundrestood me. I thought you were *condemning* Chung’s (and the public’s) actions. (i.e. “That “just between us” communication, of course, became the headline of the day, and the only reason anyone watched the interview!”) Or at least I didn’t think you were condoning it. I apologize if my response sounded like I thought you did.

  7. First and foremost, please let not get into a “liberal media” blushing session over this. I think this situation is part of a case Powers wanting to stir things up and show how much she is “inside” the campaign and besides, Hillary Clinton is a monster, right?.

    It speaks to a few of my universal truths about politics and the media:

    1. Politics is a rough business. Politicians will say or do anything to get elected and maintain their office and power. They’d roll their grandmother in a minute for a vote or a dollar.

    2. Politics is mainly about ego. How in the world can someone stand talking about themselves all day for more than six months unless they really enjoy hearing about themselves.

    3. All politicians say they do more than they really do. Taking credit especially when not due, is the hallmark of a good politician.

    4. Not taking responsibility for their actions is also a trademark of a politician. Examples: “I’ll take the responsibility, but not the blame.” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

    And now the media:

    1. The truth is not that important, it is the selling, whether it is newspapers, magazines, commercial air time, etc. As long as it sells, its good. The more negative, the better.

    2. Media outlets tell stories that match their point of view. No matter what side their are on.

    3. With the instant on communications and 24×7 news coverage, it takes many hours to get a “breaking story right.” But the time they do, we are all in bed and hear about the real story next day just like before. Except we may only remember the sensational stuff that was reported earlier.

    4. Media people have become stars in their own right and begin to act more like politicians than seekers of truth.

  8. I don’t think this has anything to do with the perceived bias of the media one way or the other. This is all about the media as a business that needs to create headlines in order to get viewers in order to sell advertising. Since junk sells, junk airs.

    You’re headlines capture the problem spot on, Bruce.

    Hilarious, but also so sadly true…!

  9. #8 John Hamer – I think you are right. The media headline isnt the worst that I could have thought of considering the explanation after the colon. There are several aspects to this. And most of it is selling papers.

    But important is the agenda of mainstream media. Most Americans are now waking up to the fact that the mainstream media is used to “manufacture consent” with the Iraq War being an example. Apparently, and this is just rough from a study I saw yesterday, 55% of Americans are now turning to alternative forms of media on the internet because they realise that the mainstream media is run by about 5 companies with similar agendas that are not in line with the populist agenda.

    For example…there is a breaking news story about the US funding Fatah with weapons in the 2007 civil war in Palestine in Vanity Fair. They are calling it Iran-Contra 2.0. Hamas was a democratically elected government, although their interests were the opposite to the US and Israel, they were legitimately elected in reaction to militaristic government of Israel. Surely this should be mainstream news that democracy is being thwarted…but no…complete silence.

    Also…one only has to watch Fox News to realize it is a 24/7 plug for the republican party…and in particular the neoconservatives. The rough time they gave Ron Paul was despicable…we would never call that news in the UK although the BBC is similarly biased. Our reserved nature finally counts for something!!

    Read Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent or watch this movie with the same title:

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    >>> please let not get into a “liberal media” blushing session over this

    >>> I don’t think this has anything to do with the perceived bias of the media one way or the other

    Yes, that was my point. It’s not about a perceived bias, which I’m sure media outlets do in fact have. (How could they not? They are human, right?) It’s about the ethics of the industry.

    Let me get up on a soapbox for a moment. People tell lawyer jokes all the time because lawyers have, to an outsider, a skewed sense of ethics. However, once you really understand the purpose of lawyers, it’s hard to argue that the ethics of that profession are in some sense “unethical.” They are doing the job that they need to do for an ethical societ to exist: i.e. take the side of their client and not even try to be fair about it.

    But I have an open question in my mind about the media. Their “ethical standards” are that they “report facts.” A “fact” in most cases is “that so-and-so said such-and-such about you-know-who.” Certainly that someone said something, even if it’s flatly false, is still a fact. It is not necessarily the new media’s responsiblity to sort it all out. It would be unfair of me to think otherwise. (Though I can hope that they will at least make the attempt, which I feel they do on rare occaisons but often do not.) I can, at least on the surface, agree with this standard of ethics for their profession.

    However, I feel they take this too far when they start to make their own controversies. I feel that reporting “facts” (i.e. that so-and-so said such-and-such about you-know-who) is not a sufficient ethical standard for this industry when it can be used to create a non-existent controversy or uproar. I think they need to not cause harm that wasn’t there before as part of their industry ethical standards. I think the Power’s story does not qualify.

    I saw another egregious example of this recently where a nightly news show on a major network was reporting on two twins separated at birth. The caught on to the fact the mother thought the twins went to the same family. So they confronted the lawyer and made on air accusations that he might not be ethical (i.e. “have you ever been investigated for unethical behavior?”). He was forced to, on national tv, admit he had been investigated but it had been thrown out and was just a mistake. He then produced a document signed by the mother that stated the twins were going to two different families.

    The news then went back to the mother and confronted her. She, of course, melted down right on national TV. The actual truth was that the mother barely spoke English and was not very educated. It appears, once all the facts are in, that the lawyer ethically did his best to explain things to her but she was confused the whole time.

    I was so appauled that I walked out of the room to not have to listen to it any more.

    Because they showed each of these things, one step at a time, it almost seems like you are discovering this with them moment by moment. This reduces the perception of abuse by the media. It makes you feel like the human cost being extracted is accident, rather than intentinoal. But the real truth is that the show was cut up and edited after the fact and after the truth was already known. The human pain was just part of the entertainment value.

    Okay, off soap box.

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  12. The media is not liberal, moderate or conservative. It is sensational in a capitalistic, in a lose your ideals and moorings sort of way.

  13. Glenn Beck had an interesting run-in with those that manufacture headlines.

    Glenn Beck, Obama, and the anti-Christ

    Glenn Beck jokes on Headline News that nutjobs think Obama is the Anti-Christ
    Think Progress picks it up as a serious inquiry
    Media Matters picks it up from Think Progress
    Keith Olbermann reports it on his MSNBC show, Glenn as “Worst Person”
    Sunday New York Times: Glenn Beck is racist.

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  15. Doc….very good point. My essay in the upcoming Mormon Worker about the Financial Banking Coup of 1933 on the White House gives a good example of this.

    If Glenn Beck wasnt fundamentally biased before he approached the issues then perhaps he wouldnt have these sorts of problems. Entertaining to watch? YES Unbiased journalism? No.

    Thanks for the link Peter…sorry if I have bashed your main man. If it helps at all…I agree that the other media outlets also have an axe to grind and did a poor job with this interpretation of Beck’s conversation.

  16. Stephen (#16). I don’t think Glenn ever claims to be unbiased, which is the major difference between him and a whole host of other so-called journalists.

    I actually have no problem with pundits and others who opine about the world. I like hearing opinion, satire, and ranting about the problems in the world from all sides of the spectrum. What I don’t like is when sensationalism is dressed up and sold as supposedly unbiased fact–‘THE NEWS’. [Cue trumpets, if you like, for that last bit–it might help set the right tone.] Glenn Beck may have all sorts of biases toward the right, but frankly, that’s not really a problem as long as he’s open about it–and I don’t think anyone is going to accuse him of being closed about his opinions.

    Now, I personally don’t agree with him 100% on politics, and I don’t agree with you 100% on politics. I don’t even agree with myself 100% on politics–I figure if I wrote something on politics more than about 3 days ago, chances are that I’ve reconsidered my opinion in the time since I wrote it. Why? Because I don’t LIKE to be caged in my thoughts on political matters. Mostly because I realize that when it comes to solving the world’s problems through political action, about 99.9999999999% of us are rank amateurs. There might be one person living today that has sufficient insight and understanding to make clear and accurate decisions about how to properly enact policies that will without fail change the world for the better, but I seriously doubt it. I think such a person is only born once in a few ten billion people or less. For the rest of us, we must simply muddle along and hope that we don’t muck up things too badly.

    Noam Chomsky was a pretty good linguist, but when it comes to politics, I don’t trust all that much. I know a bit too much about the cognitive sciences to be completely trusting of everything he did. I have a deep distrust of anyone who spends their life writing about how to solve problems in politics but is unwilling to enter the fight and actually run for office. This includes the pundits on both sides of the spectrum. To EVERY political flamethrower I say: either shut up or get in the game. If you think you know so much about what is best for your country, then run for office and start fixing it, because I’m tired of listening to you whine about the problems while doing nothing but earn money from the problems. Of agitators in the media I’ve had enough. Authors and writers can go fly a kite. Bloggers and activists can too. I’m tired of it! If you want change, be the change.

    Sorry about the rant, and I’m not directing it all at you, Stephen, I’m just sick of the media, and I’m sick of a lot of things. I’m also disgusted because I don’t want to go into politics, but I feel drawn to it like a train wreck.

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    >>> I have a deep distrust of anyone who spends their life writing about how to solve problems in politics but is unwilling to enter the fight and actually run for office

    Wow! Good point, Ben.

    Yes, I have to agree with your thesis. It’s easier to shoot holes in something than to come up with your own solution: http://mormonmatters.org/2008/02/21/the-improbable-versus-the-nearly-impossible-the-existence-of-jesus/ (to plug one of my own posts.)

    I’m going to pitch one of my own ideas, that so far no one but me has liked. I think news people should expose their biases. I think the news would be much more effective at telling us the truth if we all got to know in advanced what their biases are. I’d love to see a newsreporter, who is reporting on some Evangelical Christian rally start the report with “Well, personally, I hate Evangelical Christians. I’m an Atheist myself. I pretty much despise everything they stand for. So let’s go do an interview with this little lady over here…”

    In fact, I think people giving interviews to the media should start to utilize this. They should insist that if the media asks them a question, they only have to answer if the media answers the same question first. I think this would fix the dodge the issue problem that currently exists because the media intentionally asks questions that have no good answer.

    Current way:
    “Bob, what’s your stance on Bush’s decision to go into Iraq. Do you think it was a mistake now that we know there were no WMDs?”

    “Well, Dana, as I was telling my sons the other day. We should all join hands and sing kumbyar and promote world peace while I explain my totally unrelated plan to cut taxes and lose weight.”

    New way:

    “Bob, what’s your stance on Bush’s decision to go into Iraq. Do you think it was a mistake now that we know there were no WMDs?”

    “Well, Dana, what’s your honest opinion?”

    “I’m the one doing the interview.”

    “What, you think it’s fair to ask me a politically difficult question like that and expose my personal biases but you don’t have to? What possible answer could I give to that question that wouldn’t make me look bad to needed electorate?”

    “Well, okay, I admit I was against the war from the beginning.”

    “Well at the time you thought there *were* WMD’s. Were you still against it?”

    *nervous now* “Well, yeah, I think it wasn’t worth the human cost of life even if there was a threat of WMD terrorism in our future.”

    “You mean to tell me, Dana… and remember you’re on national TV… that you would have prefered to have not gone to war even if there had been WMDs owned by a dictator that intended to use them if possible?”

    *blushing, and wondering if she’s going to get hate mail* “Well, yes.”

    “Well, Dana, I respect your opinion. I can definitely see where you are coming from and I wish I had thought more like you back then. But honestly, I was concerned at the time with WMD and, let’s remember, this was just after 911, so the nation just wasn’t ready to admit that it was better to do nothing and risk WMD terrorism in our future….”

    When handled like a real dialog, we actually have a chance of capturing nuance. And the media has less incentive to ask impossible questions for entertainment value because they might have to answer them too.

    Oh, and I would also love to see more people who interview with the media have their own cameras with a threat of putting the whole interview on the internet if the media starts to take them out of context. That way the media will know they can’t use that trick any more without fear of being exposed.

  18. McCain should hire Samantha Power and state that at his campaign no one gets fired for calling Hillary a monster. From the other side of politics (not that he’s that far into the GOP side) he could get away with it while Obama’s campaign cannot. Coming from Obama’s camp 1) he can’t beat up a teammate, even one who’s an opponent, and 2) it’s unsportsmanlike to kick someone when you’re beating them–you have to be a gracious winner. So he had no choice.

    Turning the cameras on the media would be interesting indeed.

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    Yes, McCain would probably benefit from hiring Samantha Powers at this point. But it seems unlikely they agree on politics well enough to want to work with each other.

    I think you are right that Obama must walk a fine line between trying to appear like “not another politician” and doing what he needs to to win (i.e. you can only win if you act like a politician because the public requires that.) If he can keep it up long enough beat out Hillary, I think he can discard the gentlemanly conduct after than and take the gloves off against McCain and probably still win based on the war issue alone… well, unless really good news comes out of Iraq between now and the election, in which case McCain wins no matter what happens.

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