For 24 hours, people cared so much about a mean thing Hilary Rosen said about Ann Romney that more people searched for "Ann Romney" on Twitter than "Justin Bieber," the tween Twitter god. This fake outrage -- the "Umbrage Wars"! -- is a terrible thing, according to lots of hand-winging reporters, and getting worse thanks to the speed of social media. They're wrong.
For PBS, Christina Bellatoni and Ryan C. Brooks curiously argued that the Mom Moment both didn't matter and was troubling: "Remember when the "lipstick on a pig" comment completely changed the direction of the presidential race? Yeah, didn't think so," they wrote.Then they continued, "But the last 36 hours of drummed-up controversy, dubbed the 'Mommy Wars' by the media, do serve as an important reminder of where this contest will be focused for the next six-and-a-half months." Implication: the focus will be in a dark, disturbing, severely annoying place.
Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Brooke Brower of NBC News' First Read were more upset: "If this first week of the general election has taught us anything, this is going to be a long next six months," the group blog says. "Of course, manufactured controversies are nothing new in American politics," they concede. "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." At the Columbia Journalism Review, Brendan Nyhan warned, "A bored media is dangerous for politicians."
The New Republic's Alec MacGillis might have been the most demoralized by the temporary mom infestation of his Twitter feed:
This stuff is ridiculous, and I’ve been through enough of these campaigns to know that it’s getting worse… When the possible future First Lady, a woman who by most reports is as dignified as they come, is dragooned into setting up a Twitter account late on a weekday night so she can tweet her outrage over a line spoken on a news network no one watches, and her grown sons then chime in with their own go-mom tweets, and the rest of us get breathless ("game on!")—well, it’s time to pause for at least a millisecond and recognize that while this is how it is, it doesn’t have to be this way.
As much as Ann Romney might secretly hate having to tweet for the sake of stay-at-home moms of America (and we don't know that she does), all the candidates, and especially Romney's husband, should be grateful for how fast outrage explodes these days, because it dies even faster. Here are three times when Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and whatever else we use to disseminate outrage would have been awesome:
August 31, 1967: Mitt Romney's dad's political career was destroyed by one comment. The Republican presidential candidate -- liked for his warmth, gregariousness, and modern views on civil rights -- said of a 1965 trip to Vietnam, "When I came back from Viet Nam, I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." The outrage didn't move fast at all, but it was much more deadly. The comment showed up in The New York Times a few days later. On September 15, Time said, "Last week Michigan's Governor George Romney offered so inept an explanation of his shifting views on Viet Nam that it could end his presidential ambitions." But eventually, Romney was made to look like a buffoon. The next Harris poll found a 16-point drop in his support. He became the butt of late-night jokes. Romney quit the race a few months later.
Obviously he didn't mean he was literally brainwashed. More important, he was right! If there'd been YouTube and Twitter, his campaign could have passed around the video, in which he sounds perfectly reasonable. Maybe he could have saved his candidacy, maybe he would have pulled the U.S. out of Vietnam. Instead, by 1972, the discussion in the White House about the Vietnam War was like this:
Nixon: I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?
Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.
Nixon: No, no, no, I'd rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
Nixon: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes.
May 11, 1972: It's well known that Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie's campaign was destroyed because reporters thought he teared up when he defended his wife in a speech during a snowstorm. (Muskie said it was snowflakes.) But there was also the moment in 1972, when Hunter S. Thompson joked in Rolling Stone that Muskie was addicted to the powerful psychedelic ibogaine. And people believed it! Reporters! Thompson later told Playboy, "I said there was a rumor around his headquarters in Milwaukee that a famous Brazillian doctor had flown in with an emergency packet of Ibogaine for him. Who would believe that shit?" People believed it, Playboy said. "Obviously, but I didn't even realize that until about halfway through the campaign -- and it horrified me. Even some of the reporters who were covering Muskie for three or four months took it seriously. That's because they don't know anything about drugs." It's also because Thompson wasn't on Twitter saying, "LOL that was a joke you clueless squares."
November 30, 1999: Al Gore spoke to some students at Concord High School in New Hampshire. A student asked Gore how they could get involved and make a difference. Gore launched into a story about how a girl had written to him about funny tasting water in her town, and how her dad got sick. Gore said he investigated, and "I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing. I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the first hearing on that issue in Toone-Teague, Tennessee. That was the one you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."
But The New York Times and The Washington Post slightly misquoted Gore. Instead of "That was the one that started it all," they quoted Gore saying, "I was the one who started it all." People flipped out. Gore was taking credit for things again! Like inventing the Internet! On This American Life, Sarah Vowell described the mayhem that followed:
After The Times and The Post, the Love Canal mistake snowballed. US News &World Report listed "I was the one that started it all" as one of its quotes of the week. And then there was the following little round table on This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. Among the two hosts, George Stephanopoulos and Bill Kristol: "Love Canal." "Yeah, Gore again revealed his Pinocchio problem." The Late Show with David Letterman dreamed up a list of the Top 10 other achievements also claimed by Al Gore."
All of this (and the Iraq war? Haha, kidding! Maybe?) could have been prevented with YouTube. One little YouTube clip and the controversy could have ended neatly in a single day, just like Hilary Rosen (who?) and her war on moms. "Apparently, we’re supposed to shrug at all this, roll with it," TNR's MacGillis sighs. "Deny or complain about the reality of the modern news cycle, and you’re a nostalgic prude." Fine: Alec MacGillis is a nostalgic prude. You heard it here, I dunno, thirteenth? About a dozen reporters tweeted MacGillis's post. And then they moved on to the next thing.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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