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 ...
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:
"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!
"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.
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.
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.
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?
His elbows are on the table! CALL MATT DRUDGE!
Hey, that reminds me. Watch out if ...
The Headline Ends in a Question Mark
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:
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":
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?").
Then you have your "outlandish assertion softened by question mark" headlines:
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:
Maybe they are, maybe they're not. Who's to say? Not this headline.
Related: People Keep Confusing 'It's Always Sunny's' 'Mac' For Ryan Reynolds's Pal and Mark Wahlberg
The Headline Contains the Word "Blasts"
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 ...
... 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:
This will mean that the original blaster has now "drawn fire."
And on and on.
But while we're at it, look out for a much more subtle, and devious, version of this ...
The Headline Is About a "Lawmaker" Saying Something Stupid
Basically, It's ...
A low-level politician with no power said something incredibly stupid, and the opposing party is trumpeting it from the mountaintops to make everyone in the low-level politician's party look stupid.
Here's one: "Kansas Lawmaker Says Women Should Plan Ahead for Rape: 'I Have a Spare Tire'":
Now, that story is true. The guy did say that. But now we need to ask ourselves a two-letter question:
In every single group of human beings, you have a certain percentage of crazy shitheads. Find me an organization of a million charity workers who have devoted their lives to saving homeless golden retrievers, and I'll bet my life that within that group I can find a faction of crazy shitheads. Hell, I'll bet I can find at least one in any group of a dozen people. Liberals, conservatives, moderates, weed advocates, anti-drug advocates, cupcake bakers, window washers. They all -- all -- have their crazy shitheads that can be pointed out. I bet I can find at least one in your family.
Therefore, their existence proves nothing about the group as a whole. And, therefore, it is always wrong to dismiss a political movement by simply pointing at their craziest shitheads and saying, "See! That is what (insert group here) is REALLY thinking." It's a cheap shot, anybody can do it and it's an outright lie.
So if you see a headline citing something a "lawmaker" said, the first thing you should know is if it's someone with actual power with implications on policy (i.e., a senator stating how he or she is going to vote on upcoming legislation) or if it's simply a nobody who's being held up as the Crazy Shithead of the Week (CSotW).
For instance, in the headline earlier about the CSotW comparing rape to a flat tire, the crazy shithead was a member of the Kansas state legislature -- one of 165 members of the body that makes laws in Kansas. This guy is so hugely important that it took a whopping five thousand votes to elect him. You could fit every one of his supporters in a high school gym. Which is to say, he has just slightly more power to enact law than you do. And none outside of Kansas.
See, headlines tend to use that word "lawmaker" for a reason -- if he were a U.S. senator, by God it would say "U.S. Senator," and if he were a member of Congress, it'd say he was a congressman. They use "lawmaker" because it makes him seem prominent, like he should somehow matter to people who don't live in Kansas. Now, don't get me wrong -- if the Kansas legislature collectively passes some atrocious rape law, that's news -- a lot of people are affected. But the fact that their legislature is 1/165 crazy shithead is not news.
Actually, that would probably be a big improvement.
It's important to the voters in that one tiny district in Kansas. It's not important for a random college kid in San Diego trying to keep up with politics. But that quote will sure as hell be in that kid's news feed the next morning. And a week later, there'll be another CSotW -- hey, here's a "Missouri Lawmaker" equating gay rights to terrorism. Here's a "Democrat Lawmaker" attacking a colleague on the House floor.
Even if you disagree and think that these people do have enough power that the stupid shit they say -- rather than the legislation they pass -- should be national news, then how far down the ladder do you go before you can safely let it bypass your indignation circuits?
"Before you hand me that letter, how do you feel about capital gains taxes?"
After all, there are 7,382 state-level legislators in the U.S. -- New Hampshire alone has over 400. Some of them got their seats while getting fewer than 1,300 people to vote for them -- there are literally high school class presidents who garnered more votes. What if the CSotW is a mayor? There are more than 100,000 of those in the U.S., some elected by a small enough group of people to fit them all into one Cracker Barrel restaurant. Add in all of the city councils and such and you're surely over a million people in some kind of position that could be called "lawmaker" or "leader" or "politician" in a CSotW headline. When are you finally allowed to just let it go?
Because I'm telling you, these stories exist purely so that supporters of the opposing "team" can get that cheap sugar rush of self-righteousness, and in the process completely turn off the part of their brain that might otherwise consider what anyone in that other party might have to say. So where does it end? Do we get riled up about random members of the party who don't even hold office?
Republican Takes Last Parking Space, Democrat Compares Him to Hitler.
While You're at It, Look out for ...
Shit, yes. At the time of this writing, there is a massive firestorm over comments made by Democrat Hilary Rosen (the Obama adviser who made the "gaffe" I mentioned earlier). I referred to her as an "Obama adviser," and that's the title opponents keep using, even though she literally is not and has never been an adviser to Obama. See, that's the trick -- when the people making the controversial comments don't actually hold political power, the pundits and politicians have to invent a position for them (in reality, she's just a pundit for CNN and a former lobbyist). And you will never know, just as you didn't double check when I used it earlier.
Now, I know exactly what you're thinking: "But what does the guy who made the hit '70s rock album Cat Scratch Fever think about all of this?"
"Every political crisis can be solved by machine guns and terrible shirts!"
What's that? You weren't thinking that at all, and are confident no human has ever thought that since the dawn of the species? Well, the news media has, because every time aging musician and crazy shithead Ted Nugent says something, they put that shit right into a headline. Quick! Go get a rebuttal from Foghat!
If you're wondering how they possibly can tie a random "only still famous because he says crazy things" celebrity to an actual politician or candidate, why, it's very easy: You simply go to the candidate and insist that they "denounce" what the irrelevant celebrity said:
Note: "Denounce" is another marker of a bullshit news headline. Feel free to make your own list, I can't cover them all.
Do you see the genius of that? If the candidate refuses to comment, then he must be agreeing with the outrageous thing the irrelevant celebrity said -- you can even phrase the headline to put the inflammatory thing in his mouth ("Obama Refuses to Denounce Kanye West Tweet Calling Romney a Voltron Made of Butts").
And if he denounces it, even better -- he's agreeing that he answers for all celebrity supporters as if they worked for him personally, and can be tagged with all of the stupid shit they say from here on out. "You denounced Kanye when he said Romney was butts, but you're not denouncing Michael Moore for saying Romney 'speaks in farts.' Therefore you must agree this time."
Related: Idaho Lawmakers Heard Pitch About Taking Over 3/4 of Neighbor Oregon, Potentially Parts of California and Washington
The Headline Includes the Phrase "Blow To"
Basically, It's ...
Neglecting to explain hugely important policy changes in favor of focusing on the drama, and how it affects the personal political careers of the politicians involved.
OK, you know about the huge fight over health care reform in America, right? Whether you think it's a good or a bad plan, you can't deny that it's freaking huge (to the tune of a trillion dollars over 10 years, and 31 million people getting health insurance). It will impact almost every single human being living in the United States, either through their personal ability to get coverage, or their taxes, or changing health care costs, or changing rules to their existing coverage -- there are dozens and dozens of new regulations that completely change the landscape of one of the largest sectors of the national economy.
So, when the Supreme Court recently threatened to completely overturn this gargantuan piece of legislation, how did it get reported?
The ruling could deal a blow to the "Obama presidency"? Fuck you.
I don't give two shits about the "Obama presidency" except in terms of what legislation it gets passed and how it changes the country and my life. I'm not following this story because I think it's a freaking Barack Obama reality show and I'm really eager to see how his life turns out. I don't see no goddamned crab boat. I'm following it because I want to know what it means for my own goddamned life and for the lives of the people I care about.
Again, I apologize if I come off like I'm angry, but I'm not kidding when I say that every goddamned important political story seems to get reported this way:
A slowdown in U.S. jobs growth deals a blow to Obama? How about the millions of people who are out of work? Hey, guys, I don't know if you realize this, but the world actually exists. Those numbers on the screen represent actual humans who are actually suffering. No, really! It's not a video game! Come down to my home town, I have a neighborhood I want to show you. Bring your meth money!
And, as smarter commentators have pointed out, there's an even bigger problem with this: It actually implies that the issue itself is completely unimportant. For instance, if the courts overturn some regulation about mercury in the water or Congress blocks car mileage standards, it always gets reported as "A Blow to Environmentalists."
Oh, no, it's not a blow to the people who have to drink the water or breathe the air, or the taxpayers who have to fund the regulations, or the businesses that lose jobs over it. It's either a "blow to environmentalists" or it's not. They specifically make it sound like the effects extend purely to some fringe special interest group and absolutely no one else.
It's not only following the issue as a horse race/fight/reality show, it's actively prohibiting you from seeing it any other way. After all, if the building were really on fire, somebody would be telling me to evacuate. They wouldn't be calmly speculating about how this fire alarm is going to be a "blow to" the landlord. Not unless the person giving me the news had gone completely freaking insane.
"What a terrible blow to your insurance company!"
While You're at It, Look out for ...
It also gets phrased in the other direction. Congress passes a cut in payroll taxes. That's good news for the people paying the taxes, right? Nope, it's a "victory for Obama." Who is affected by billions in stimulus money? One man, apparently.
It's quite the burden.
And here's the worst part:
I'm telling you from experience, watching political races this way is addictive as shit. You have thousands of years of violent tribal instincts pumping through your veins, itching for a fight. That makes you an easy tool for manipulation, and every good politician and pundit knows how to push those buttons to make people march neatly in formation.
Hint: There is no "them."
Don't succumb. Or else you'll start supporting the most bullshit legislation just because your guy is for it. Or you'll start knee-jerk rejecting anything the other "team" proposes. Not because it's bad for the country, but because you want to deny them a "win."
It's a poisonous way of thinking. It will lower your IQ, it will rot your ability to think critically about the subjects that really matter. It's bad for you, it's bad for democracy, it's bad for the world. You have to be better and smarter than the person they think you are. Or else we're all fucked.
What the Hell Did I Just Read: A Novel of Cosmic Horror, the third book in David Wong's John Dies at the End series, is available now!