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5 Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under 10 Seconds

An election year is a shit blizzard. Every place you go for news online -- whether it's portal sites like Reddit, or aggregators like Google News or Yahoo! News or RealClearPolitics, or goddamned clips from late night talk shows -- they're all about to get buried under a brown storm of bullshit inflammatory headlines desperate for your click.

This turdstorm of pointless click-bait filler is a problem for anyone who wants to be an informed voter. To learn anything useful, you need to be able to sort through all of the garbage to find the actual information and insight. So let me just tell you right now that you can safely ignore any story if ...

#5. The Headline Contains the Word "Gaffe"

Basically, It's ...

A politician accidentally misspoke in a way that made him or her look silly, and the opponents are pouncing on it.

If you're new to following politics, trust me when I say you will grow to absolutely hate the word "gaffe." Go to a news portal or a politics blog and search for the word "gaffe" and watch the server nearly burst into flames trying to serve results. This is from RealClearPolitics:

RealClearPolitics.com

"Obama gaffe," "Romney gaffe," "Perry gaffe," "Biden gaffe" -- every party gets it equally. The word just means "embarrassing mistake," and I have literally never heard it used outside of the context of a meaningless, bullshit filler political news story. I'm not normally an angry man, but it's such an obnoxious word that if somebody at work used "gaffe" in a sentence I would fling my goddamned coffee into his face.

So for instance, during the health care reform debate, President Obama gave approximately 9 million speeches outlining how his plan supposedly would make the system more efficient. Then, in one speech, he stumbled, and instead of saying that the plan would rid the system of inefficiencies, he accidentally said it would bring inefficiencies. This slip of the tongue unleashed a torrent of headlines and blog posts and talk radio rants. On the other side, at a Mitt Romney campaign event, John McCain accidentally mixed up two words that implied Romney liked wasteful government earmarks. Boom! Gaffe!

Getty
"YOU'VE RUINED ME, OLD MAN!"

These are completely information-free news events, and they absolutely dominate political news coverage and analysis. It's like asking your doctor if the X-rays show a tumor, and all he'll talk about is how stupid the radiologist's haircut looks.

You're probably asking why routine slips of the tongue continually become news headlines when they have absolutely no impact at all on the candidates' positions or platforms, or what they intend to do in office, or how capable they are of doing it, or anything else. Good fucking question! The answer is that many (if not most) people don't follow politics in order to find out who to vote for as part of their duty as citizens living in a democracy. They follow it purely as a form of entertainment. They're like sports fans, rooting for their "team" to win.

Getty
If you think these folks are any less drunk than soccer hooligans, you've never been to a political convention.

And as you're going to find out, virtually all political news coverage is written to appeal to those people. They're the most rabid "consumers" of news, and their traffic is the most reliable, so the news is tailored to appeal to them.

In the business, they derisively call it "horse race journalism," where the stories focus purely on the "sport" of politics rather than the consequences. A study found that in 1960, about half of the political news stories were about actual policy and the other half were these frivolous "who's winning the game" stories. Today, only 17 percent of stories are about stuff that matters.

Getty
Screw baseball. We want to see Obama body-check someone into the wall of a hockey rink.

That's where the gaffe stories come in. See, in this game, your "team" scores a point each time the other team says something stupid. It lets all of the supporters of your team mock and humiliate the supporters of the opposing team, on Internet message boards and around water coolers and in coffee shops nationwide. "Haha! The supposed 'genius' Obama thinks there are 57 states in the U.S.!" "Oh, yeah? Well, your last president said he was going to help terrorists plan their next attack!"

And it never ends, because if your "team" gives up a gaffe, then you need to dig one up on the other side to even the score. So, last month the Romney campaign was embarrassed when an adviser came off like he was comparing his own candidate to an Etch A Sketch toy. Thus, this month the Romney campaign had to jump on an Obama adviser's gaffe that came off like she was saying that stay-at-home moms don't do work. And on and on it goes.

MittRomney.com
It's a dark age for politics, but a golden age for the bumper sticker industry.

While You're at It, Look out for ...

A variation of this is the stories of embarrassing yet totally inconsequential "scandals" about a candidate that involve nothing illegal or improper, but supposedly define the candidate as a person.

Hey, did you know that Barack Obama is an out-of-touch elitist because he puts fancy Dijon mustard on his hamburgers? Did you know that Mitt Romney is an insane sociopath because he once made his pet dog ride on top of his car 26 years ago? Did you know John Kerry can't relate to the average person because he puts Swiss cheese on his Philly cheese steaks? Did you know that George W. Bush hates foreigners so much that he wiped his hand after shaking hands with a Haitian? Did you know that all of this is petty schoolyard bullshit that wastes valuable time and energy that you'll never get back?

Getty
His elbows are on the table! CALL MATT DRUDGE!

Hey, that reminds me. Watch out if ...

#4. The Headline Ends in a Question Mark

theatlantic.com

Basically, It's ...

A news story so questionable the publication literally felt the need to mark it as such.

The ugliest use of this is when news aggregators like Matt Drudge use question marks to put forth a bullshit conspiracy theory to avoid having to stand behind it. For instance, when a new book came out claiming President Obama had no valid birth certificate because he was actually a foreigner living under a false identity, Drudge promoted it like this:

Drudge Report

Hey, he's not saying President Obama is living a lie and is secretly a Muslim foreigner sent to infiltrate America from within. He's just asking the question. What's wrong with asking questions? Questions like "Is Matt Drudge a cancer on the asshole of modern journalism?" I don't know. I'm just throwing it out there. You can say absolutely anything as long as you glue a question mark to the end, and nobody can complain.

Of course, the book Drudge was promoting ...


Crackpot conspiracy theories from a 9/11 truther? No one could have called that.

... was turned into an expensive shim for a short table leg when the administration released his real birth certificate right as it was about to go on sale. But that in no way reflects on Drudge's credibility, because he never said he believed the book. He was simply wondering out loud. Same as another outlet wondered aloud about McCain's "Secret Dossier on Romney":

Newsmax.com
If that dossier isn't full of candid Romney nipple-shots, we're not interested.

I like how that one doesn't even phrase a whole question -- it's just a few scary, scandalous words with a question mark ("Ron Paul's Covert Sex Commandos?").

And then you get leading question headlines, like the sarcastic "Can Government Do Anything Well?" or "Is Mitt Romney the Greatest Liar Ever?"

Then you have your "outlandish assertion softened by question mark" headlines:

News Junkie Post

We're not saying America is headed for a bloody civil war, we're just askin.' You can't even rebut it -- how can you rebut a question?

While You're at It, Look out for ...

Sometimes they'll mix things up and instead of question marks just use "may" or "might" or "rumored to" in the title. It accomplishes the same thing:

Newsmax.com

Maybe they are, maybe they're not. Who's to say? Not this headline.

#3. The Headline Contains the Word "Blasts"

abcnews.go.com

Basically, It's ...

A politician or other prominent person has taken to a microphone to say something inflammatory about the other side, usually by rephrasing their own party's talking points over and over.


First they trick you into thinking something cool happened, then BOOM. News.

Politics isn't always a sport. Sometimes it's a schoolyard face-off where all of the press gathers around the arguing kids in a circle, chanting, "FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!" In politics, of course, they don't punch each other, they "blast" each other with words. And I mean it's almost always described that way. Here, let's go to some news portal again and this time search for the words "Obama blasts." Look at how many articles you get just in the last few days:

What does it mean to you? It means a politician publicly disagrees with the opposing party in a completely expected way that changes nothing about the political landscape or national policy whatsoever. When they get tired of "blasts," sometimes they'll mix things up with "rips" or "lashes out at" or "unloads on," but usually "blasts" is the go-to word.

By the way, in case you're tempted to click on one of these because you're eager to hear a 78-year-old senator call another senator "King Fucktard," you'll be disappointed. The "blast" behind this headline ...

ABC News

... was this:

"This new math fits the old pattern of mischaracterizations about the Affordable Care Act when official estimates show the health care law reduces the deficit."

Daaaaamn! Did you see that shit! I swear, the White House was this close to beating his ass! Calm down there, Joe Pesci in Goodfellas!

These stories are, as you can see, just as content-free as the "gaffe" stories. But they are popular for the same reason: There's a petty, tribal satisfaction in seeing a member of our team really put the other team in their place. And there's a rush of outrage adrenaline when the other team says something mean about us. So, instead of covering pending legislation or the impact it could have on your life, the news media covers the dick-measuring contest.

While You're at It, Look out for ...

Like the gaffes, this, too, is a cycle. Any politician can get a crowd of microphones in front of him by "blasting" the president or a candidate or whoever else is a big target for blasting. Then, the crowd of microphones will all rush off to whoever got blasted, and get them to blast back. Or "lash" back:

New York Times

This will mean that the original blaster has now "drawn fire."

Politico

And on and on.

But while we're at it, look out for a much more subtle, and devious, version of this ...

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David Wong

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