In the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, a spider saves the life of Wilbur, a pig bound for slaughter, by spinning webs in English that say that Wilbur was an amazing, special creature. The humans believe anything that they read, and ignore the evidence of their senses that says that Wilbur is just another pig.
As a kid, I enjoyed this book very much, but I didn’t believe that people would be that dumb. As it turns out, I should have trusted E.B. White.
In case you missed it, Slate’s Chris Suellentrop wrote a short piece about Wesley Clark on the campaign trail. He picked a handful of campaign rhetoric from Clark, and labelled each quote as if it was an outrageous accusation. Right-wingers (including Andrew Sullivan, Instapundit, and lots of others) took this piece as evidence that Clark was a big ol’ loon, and left-wingers (Mark Kleiman, Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum) argued that Clark was being sharply misrepresented.
It turns out that Sullentrop intended to satirically make the point that Clark wasn’t being covered like Dean. Unlike Dean, his statements were less likely to be distorted and blown out of proportion. No one (including myself) realized that it was intended as satire.
Sullentrop has learned accidentally what I’ve suspected for a while: if a writer wants to spin a candidate, it almost doesn’t matter what that candidate actually says. What really matters is framing. If the story says, “Clark made a crazy accusation when he said ‘X’”, the contents of ‘X’ don’t matter much. The target audience, the ones who desperately want to believe, just aren’t going to read it very critically. (This goes both ways, of course. Volokh conspirators have frequently noted that there’s often little or nothing wrong with the “Bushisms” published in Slate, other than the fact that they are framed as humorous errors.)
It also seems as if some people truly seem to read criticism of Bush as outrageous by definition. Read Sullivan; his shock that Bush is being questioned is palpable.
Sigh. I’m going to Fametracker to talk about hobbits or something.