Deep Thoughts: Who Validates the Validators?
Web whacker alert: As the Ebert & Roeper of the still-emerging fine art of online political attack videos, Calbuzz believes that the pallid gnomes laboring away in the campaign media shops of eMeg and The Commish are having entirely too much fun.
The latest You Tube exchange between GOP don’t-invite-ems Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner features nice examples of two very different, but equally effective, dirt-dishing genres: Team Whitman’s offering is a high-concept, full-length (1:28) narrative rip job that bashes the Insurance Commissioner for junketeering to Las Vegas and making exaggerated claims about his record, accompanied by The Who doing “Who Are You?” and highlighted by grainy images of Poizner amusingly framed by yellow crime scene tape.
Stevie Wonder’s posse by contrast checks in with a spare, minimalist (0:28) design noir approach that uses as its central image a blurry video of a Y2K-era Billy Bass singing fish – neo-post ironic cultural iconic chic! – belting out “I Will Survive” in front of headlines that proclaim eMeg’s enduring love affair with the Delta smelt.
We love the smell of napalm in the morning.
The truth about bullshit: It goes without saying, of course, that the audience for these things is small – if select and influential (we name no names). But web whackers nonetheless are significant, both as off-Broadway sneak peaks of themes that may be later recycled in actual, obscenely expensive TV campaigns, and as hints to the level of credibility the candidates believe it’s necessary to meet in their abiding efforts to kneecap the other guy.
Production values aside, what we find praiseworthy about these new web ads is that the Whitman and Poizner camps both e-blasted memos citing the third-party sources that support their attacks. Because your Calbuzzards were pioneers (We walked to school – uphill – through six feet of snow – barefoot!) of what has come to be called “the truth box,” the standing feature graphic by which the MSM deconstructs and factually checks claims made in campaign ads, we applaud these responsible exercises in assertion attribution.
Given that, the latest round of online fusillades raises several key points:
1-Memo to flacks: In the future please include in your fact sheets the title, artist and recording date of all music used in ads. We’re old, have two good ears between us and don’t have time to hang out on Lime Wire.
2-The meat of the toughest claims in both ads is drawn from the reporting of Ken McLaughlin of the Murky News, who appears to be the only guy in California doing any useful work. In several pieces packed with Actual Reporting, McLaughlin has not only revealed the squishy, tree hugging beneficiaries that Smokestack Meg selected for the largesse of her charitable foundation, but also bitch slapped Poizner for inflating and enlarging his record and role in delivering savings to consumers and taxpayers. Hello? Is anyone else playing the game or are you gonna let Ken just keep running round and round the track by himself?
3-Whitman’s web hit includes a number of faux headlines, most of them quoting language lifted directly from the Merc story. However, the toughest punch is a hed that screams “Steve Poizner Caught Lying” which is from a different source altogether.
And that one raises some interesting questions.
Whom do you trust? In Whitman’s ad, the “lying” headline is attributed on screen to “California Political Blog.” That phrase is written in bold-faced letters over a smaller, plain type face underline that reads “Orange Juice Blog 11/15/09.”
Orange Juice Blog is a venerable (2003) site that promotes itself as “Orange County’s top political blog.” It’s run by a fellow named Art Pedroza who’s been in and around the OC’s Beirut-style politics for years, variously as an advocate, candidate, consultant, public official and Republican operative.
A stroll through the site shows a strong, hyper-local focus on Orange County – “Al Amezcua and Dennis DeSnoo joined forces to oust AUHSD Trustee Harald Martin” – in-your-face heds – “Republican Ed Perez incoherently babbles about Lorri Galloway” – plus funny photos of political enemies pictured with cat whiskers or above captions that say things like “Colonic extraction was deemed necessary to save the patient.”
There’s also evidence of feuds with other conservative bloggers and blogs, like Flashreport and Red State, as well as utter disdain for Steve Poizner:
Poizner is the Republican Party’s Phil Angelides. A rich, funny-looking guy with an odd last name. He may prevail in the primary – but he will be toast in the general election.
In other words, it’s your run-of-the-mill, highly-opinionated, irreverent, score-settling, rip-your-face-off, stick-it-in-and-twist-it political web site with agendas that may or may not be completely transparent. Fair enough, but one thing Orange Juice is not is a take-it-to-the-bank source of journalistically-based information about the California governor’s race.
As noted above, Whitman in her ad attributes the “Steve Poizner Caught Lying” headline to Orange Juice Blog only as a secondary source, underneath a cite line that reads “California Political Blog.” On the Orange Juice site, the original hed (“GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner caught lying”) was splashed atop a brief anti-Poizner rant that introduced excerpts from McLaughlin’s carefully written and balanced piece (which the blog attributed to “The San Jose Mercury Bee”).
While the OJ post falls obviously and fully within the bounds of fair comment on the story, it raises an intriguing question for the truth box patrols: Who validates third-party validators?
Questions without answers: Put another way, does the “lying” headline meet the basic standard and level of credibility worthy of use by a major candidate campaigning for the highest office in California? In other words, does the singular fact that something is published on a web site, any web site, qualify that information to be employed by a serious contender leveling a serious charge in a big statewide race?
If it is, what is to prevent candidates from using campaign cut-outs, perhaps clad in pajamas and tin foil hats, from posting all manner of web-based vitriol beneath all manner of screamer headlines, and then featuring those posts in TV attack ads as evidence that neutral parties think ill thoughts about their rival?
Is it acceptable political practice to use some neutral, official sounding name, like “California Political Blog,” as a beard for partisan sources? How will truth-box referees analyze the quality of the information behind such allegations, or determine the motives and agendas of the allegators? At what point do we throw a penalty flag when the original source of charges is something like the Breitbart/Newsmax/Drudge re-validation crapchurn loop? Where, exactly, is the line to be drawn? Or is the very notion of a line self-incriminating evidence of discredited MSM-style thinking?
As Roseanne Roseannadanna famously said, “You sure do ask a lot of stupid questions.”
In fact, reflecting on these matters gave Calbuzz a major headache (which didn’t get better when we asked the Whitman campaign about the issue, and the volcanic Sarah Pompei offered this lavamoric answer: “We might even consider using Calbuzz.” Walked right into that one).
At first we thought, well, third party validators should only be considered credible if they have some proven form of journalistic cred. And then we thought, oh no, Calbuzz, that can’t be right: as hip, black jeans-wearing New Media guys, we fiercely oppose all forms of institutionally credentialed gatekeeper journalism.
Which left us with three basic conclusions:
1-The whole concept of third-party journalistic validation is being rapidly devalued by the unlicensed, uncredentialed, unapproved, unruly Internets.
3-Never forget the ABC Rule: Always Believe Calbuzz.
It might be worth noting that yesterday’s endorsement of iCarly by right wing-nut OK US Sen Jim Inhofe excluded any mention of her media consultant , Fred Davis, being the nephew of said wacko. To add insult to injury, the iCarly press release misspelled the Senator’s name.
I haven’t been around nearly as long as you guys, but it seems to me that the value of quoting third party’s for validation has always been dependent on reputation of the quoted source. Which is why you get all manner of industry groups called Consumer Advocates R’Us producing independent reports from high paid consultants. Its like movie poster quotes, PR people will just keep pushing credibility to the point where they think they can just make the quotes up, then if at some point they get caught there will be a minor dust up and they’ll go back to being less clearly dishonest for a while.
Its a problem of the cost for “the people” of identifying the trustworthiness of sources, looking it up yourself is expensive which is why people will default to a general tolerant distrust and tentative acceptance. But thats why I why to buy news, I’d pay for that service if there was anyone willing to provide it. Speaking of which gotta click on some ads.
A few thoughts: First, the production values on the Whitman piece are far superior to the Poizner one, in my opinion. And the points made in the Whitman piece, which relate to whether Poizner is telling the truth about his record and to the state budget, seem far more relevant to voters than whether Whitman supported an environmental organization which, among many other things, fought to protect the Delta Smelt. I wonder whether Poizner is prepared to say that he is against the Endangered Species Act?
I think the Whitman ad provides enough information about its sources to allow viewers to decide whether they are reliable or not. I’m assuming that most viewers would view the Mercury as being more credible, in part because of the editorial and fact-checking processes that it employs. But maybe that’s changing?
On the substance, I think that he criticism of junketeering to Las Vegas is a cheap shot. The Commissioner spoke at an annual event attended by lawyers representing the insurance industry, and it’s important that he communicate his views to such groups (as well as to consumer groups, etc). I think Whitman will make a mistake if she injects lifestyle into this campaign. On the other hand, the Mercury News article states that Poizner has been taking credit for reductions in insurance rates that were implemented by his predecessor, liberal Democrat John Garamendi. Seems like a fair criticism to me.
The Republicans figured this out a long time ago. Create some “think tank” with a noble sounding monicker (“The Heritage Foundation”, “American Enterprise Institute”), hire a bunch of hacks to do non-peer reviewed “research” that supports the conservative cause du jour, and voila, we are instantly credible and look we have the “sources” to back us up. Brilliant!
Yea. Sure… the Reeps got a lock on that.
Ever hear of the Center for American progress or Tellus Institute?
Just one indication of how deceptive these hit-ads can be:
Our veteran political reporters at CalBuzz report that “Team Whitman’s offering is a high-concept, full-length (1:28) narrative rip job that bashes the Insurance Commissioner for junketeering to Las Vegas…”
Which got me thinking “Really? An ultra-rich guy would be stupid enough to take a handout from the industry he regulates on the eve of a gubernatorial campaign to save a measly couple of hundred bucks?”
So I watched the video, then read the source article in the Sacramento Bee (http://www.sacbee.com/politics/story/2179049.html), then checked their linked database of gifts to state officials, then rewatched the video more closely.
Oops! Turns out that no one has accused Poizner of being on the Vegas junket — it was six attorneys from his department. Poizner isn’t even mentioned in the Sac Bee article, and a search of the Bee’s linked database reveals no gifts to Poizner (as opposed to say, Jerry Brown – who downed over $1,000 worth of tequilla, lunches, and dinners).
The text of the Whitman ad correctly reports it as a “Department if Insurance” junket – but sandwiched between personal attacks on Poizner there is a clear (and successful) intent to mislead. I still think Poizner is responsible for failing to stop this type of obvious conflict of interest from occurring within his department, but the Whitman ad suggests something worse.