Saturday, June 07, 2008

About that vast media conspiracy...

I’m going to ask you to suspend disbelief for a few minutes. Read what I have to say, click on at least some of the links, and consider what I’m saying with a fresh mind.

We all know Jacob Weisberg - the outgoing editor of Slate (actually now promoted in the WaPo organization). Well, we also know Jake's dear friend from childhood, Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell has made quite a name for himself. His mother was a social psychologist, presumably instilling in him an interest in social dynamics, because it's on the topic of social dynamics - more specifically attitude change - that he's had his greatest publishing success, writing best-selling books such as Blink and The Tipping Point. These days, he's a staff writer at The New Yorker.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell discusses cultural memes at some length - a term I believe was originally coined by Richard Dawkins. Memes are cultural beliefs that one might consider contagious, and are modeled along the same lines and biological constructs. We transmit them to each other (and they tend to evolve), and we use to make a unified sense of the world in a social context. They are closely related to the concept of framing, which I suppose you might consider a special type of proto-meme. (This is not a specialty area of mine, so forgive me if I mash up some of the details.)

Framing is an issue with broad application in the field of politics - in fact, there was an attempt recently to develop a liberal think tank devoted to framing issues - something to counteract the work of conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (click on that second link and you'll see an article authored by Ann Applebaum - a name that should sound familiar, and not the only Slate writer with links to the organization) - both conservative think tanks who've already been active in developing frames to be utilized in political discourse.

It goes without saying that politics is an avid interest for Weisberg, and judging by the relative slant in coverage on Slate (and there are perhaps other indications), it's reasonable to assume he is a fan of Barack Obama. The question is whether or not Weisberg, with the technical assistance of Gladwell, is also a political activist.

It's surprising, to an outside observer like myself, that Hillary Clinton did not pick up more steam as the American feminist's candidate of choice - there is certainly precedent. Also surprising has been the majority of the content of the XX-factor blog - a blog one might expect would cover issues from a feminist perspective, but whose coverage has been anything but - even from (previously, in my case) well-respected writers such as Dahlia Lithwick.

So the conspiracy is this: the XX-factor blog was created deliberately to counteract a cultural meme - that of Hillary, as the champion of women. If so, judging by a startling (for an ostensibly liberal site) number of posts on the XX-factor fray, I'd say it's been a very successful project. Remember - this was a very close race, and memes can be powerful agents of attitude change in a population.

So if I was correct, what kind of conspiracy is it? Is it the vast right-wing conspiracy previously alluded to by Clinton, and associated with the conservative groups we know are affiliated with some Slate contributors? Or would this be motivated by liberal concerns, perhaps associated with groups like the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, or

You've got me - this is as far as I can go. Well, except to note a couple of other puzzling things (perhaps to entertain Apollonius, if he happens to be around).

George Soros is a billionaire philanthropist who provided substantial funding for the Center for American Progress,, and who is rumored (though he denies it) to have funded Media Matters through the Democracy Alliance or The Progressive Media Project) as well. He has been one of the primary financial backers for Democratic candidates for a number of years. Though he's been a supporter of the Clintons in the past, this year he's backed Obama - and remember, he's cozy with - Howard Dean's grassroots organization, which represents the now-dominant faction in the Democratic party - victors in the philosophical dispute with the Clintonistas.

Did I happen to mention that, in addition to providing substantial funding for Obama, that Soros has been a chief contributor to McCain as well? Or that he was allegedly a prime mover in the passage of the McCain-Feingold act, which makes it easier for him to wield political influence relatively unimpeded, through his media organizations (and which apparently served to alienate McCain from conservative elements of the Republican party)?

Oh, and as a last aside, did I mention that Malcolm Gladwell is an opponent of nationalized health care? Just sayin'.

I feel a little like Homer Simpson; "Aliens, bio-duplication, nude conspiracies... Oh my God! Lyndon LaRouche was right!" It's a novel feeling - I've never been a fan of conspiracy theories.

However, the idea of a coordinated media campaign in support of a single candidate is not farfetched, and the implausible character of the XX-factor blog, on it's own, begs for rational explanation.

Well that’s it. If you find this argument compelling, feel free to repost elsewhere. Please. (Though attributed to me, if you would.) If not, I hope you found it entertaining reading. But if I am right, then the only antidote I know for such manipulation is inoculation. As sympathetic to a political cause as I might be, there is a world of difference between framing taxes as an expression of social responsibility, and using sexist language to undermine the credibility of the first female candidate with a legitimate chance of winning the Democratic nomination. I find such tactics reprehensible – regardless of who they are used against.

Cross-posted to Best of the Fray, Fraywatch, and the XX-factor blog.


Aaron said...

Here's my question - who at Slate has been shut out of the conversation in order to ensure that the site remained anti-Hillary? That, to me, is the "smoking gun" of a larger media conspiracy. Not to discount that Senator Clinton has had a very hard row to hoe, but people simply not being on her side isn't enough to prove a conspiracy, rather than a group of like-minded individuals in a single workplace.

Slate is a commentary site - not a news site. I expect the various writers there to have biases, and sometimes fairly obvious ones.

JohnMcG said...

We'll see if they start an "Ebony Factor" group blog of African American writers who are not big fans of Obama.

Or a group blog of ex-military who are not keen on McCain.


It's like what I said about Oprah's endorsement, things like the XX Factor gave people who claim sympathy with the feminist movement cover to support Obama. If all these prominent women aren't going for Clinton, surely I don't have to...

JohnMcG said...

The more I think about this, the less sense it makes....

* None of your links show Weisberg, the XX-Factor writers, or any Slate writers engaging in, "using sexist language to undermine the credibility of the first female candidate with a legitimate chance of winning the Democratic nomination" because it wasn't there.

What XX-Factor writers did was pooh-pooh when Gloria Steinem or Geraldine Ferraro would imply that feminists owe Hillary Clinton their support. You may disagree with that, but that's not using sexist language.

* The XX-Factor writers also didn't jump up and down everytime Chris Matthews said something stupid or some shock jocks pulled a sexist stunt with the Clinton campaign. Should they have? I'm fine with living in a world where they do not.

* Given Slate's place in the life cycle of a journalism career, and the demographics of each campaign's supporters, it's not surprising that a group of women Slate writers would tilt toward Obama. The unanimity may be statistically odd, but I don't think it takes a conspiracy to round up a group of young female political writers who favor Obama.

* So what if they were biased? As Aaron mentioned, Slate deals in opinion journalism, not straight news. And, if Slate really is as influential as you claim, then a big part of the Clinton campaign's job was to have a campaign that appealed to the writers and editors. And the Clinton campaign should have known that.

Which brings me to my final point -- Obama simply beat Clinton because he was a more appealing candidate.

Bite oftheweek said...

Did Obama really beat Clinton?

Because there are those who say she got more of the popular vote. She also would have won if the Democrats used the same system as they do in the general election.

But even still, with an election this close, he hardly smoked her. No mandate there.

He needed those superdelegates that his campaign has complained about for months to put him over the top.

Go figure.

JohnMcG said...

Oh, I didn't realize Clinton would have won if they used the same rules as the general election. I guess you're right then -- Obama didn't beat Clinton...

Aaron said...

"Because there are those who say she got more of the popular vote."

That's bogus reasoning because it reduces Caucus states to 0 votes. Pretending that caucus states have less representative contests than primary states to the point where they should be ignored completely doesn't make any sense.

"He needed those superdelegates that his campaign has complained about for months to put him over the top."

The whole superdelegate system doesn't make any sense - their whole purpose seems to be to decide close elections, since the Democrats (unwisely) set up the primary system so that you could have a majority of pledged delegates without having enough to actually win the nomination. In my mind, the system was designed to allow the Democratic leadership to, in the case of a close election contest, chose the candidate that they felt would play better with the public as a whole.

I never really cared which of the Democratic candidates won the nomination. I would have been (and still would be) just as satisfied with Senator Clinton (or Edwards or Richardson, for that matter) as I am with Senator Obama.

But I'm starting to have difficulty with the whole idea that Democratic voters were somehow hoodwinked into voting for a lesser candidate, with the help of an establishment that a) somehow decided that it wasn't racist anymore or b) will turn on Obama to then hoodwink everyone into voting for McCain, since it's racist as well as sexist.

The idea that somehow, the millions of people who voted (and caucused) for Obama are either ignorant or insincere is what bothers me. It makes it easier to have no respect for people. Once the Clinton camp decides that the Obama supports are phonies, or don't know what's good for them, it's easier to justify punishing/"educating" them by torpedoing their hope through staying home or crossing party lines. This can only lead to a fragmentation of the party into deep factions - do the strident supporters of Clinton really think that they'll be forgiven in four years if Obama loses? Or that their "Told you so's" are going to reunite the party?

I'm honestly starting to wonder if the historic even that we're going to wind up witnessing is in fact the start of the first breakup of a major American party since the Whigs, and the demise of arguably the oldest extant political party in the world.

Wakefield Tolbert said...

More troubling still, is that for all intenstive purposes the Republicans have lost their moorings and feel the need to place what is effectively a Dem in office, while the Democrats for their part have gone beyond the pandering to illegals (the major hurdle with McCain, for pete's sake) and now have added the American Idol crowd--not to mention, as Robert Samuelson pointed out some time back, the semi-socialist euro trash styled goody-bag politics.

Though I can't tell if Obama is so deadly serious about turning us into some drab Swedenic state of affiars or just so dumb its THAT which makes him laughable.

A big happy face Nothingness.

JohnMcG said...

On another note, now that the election is over, and even though I disagree with 90% of the opinions expressed there, I have to say the XX-factor is a great and interesting read. I find that they are often a platform for my own posts, and I enjoy the give-and take.