Charlotte’s Web and Wesley Clark

by Ted on January 14, 2004

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.

{ 19 comments }

1

Katherine 01.14.04 at 8:36 pm

“if a writer wants to spin a candidate, it almost doesn’t matter what that candidate actually says. What really matters is framing.”

Agreed, 100%. For an excellent send up of this, go to this site:
http://www.comedycentral.com/tv_shows/thedailyshowwithjonstewart/
And watch the clip with Stephen Colbert entitled “Mean Dean” (first video under “Correspondent Pieces”, in the column on the right side of the page.)

2

dipnut 01.14.04 at 8:37 pm

Hmmm. I’ve variously introduced Clark as a Mad Dog and a spastic dunce. I suppose I should let my readers decide.

The funny thing about Clark is, you can surf here and there and find people saying omigawd, did you hear what Clark said? and it’s something different every time. The guy can’t even pick a gaffe and stick with it.

3

Matt Weiner 01.14.04 at 9:39 pm

Thanks for reminding me that Fametracker is back from vacation! (Just up: Ian McKellen’s fame audit.)

4

wetzel 01.14.04 at 9:53 pm

It’s kind of like Roosevelt’s gaffe when he said ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ and neglected to mention the Japanese and Germans who wanted to kill us all.

5

Keith M Ellis 01.14.04 at 10:57 pm

I didn’t realize the Sullentrop piece was satire, but I also wasn’t persuaded by it. I recall thinking that a candidate is faced with an almost impossible task in preventing everything they say from being spun against them. I took Sullentrop’s piece seriously in the sense that I came away thinking that, though sisyphean, perhaps Clark should try harder.

Reynolds et al should be embarassed that they’ve been trolled in the old-fashioned sense.

6

seth edenbaum 01.14.04 at 11:19 pm

Since when and by whose definition are Kleiman, Marshall and Drum left wingers?

7

Glenn Condell 01.14.04 at 11:57 pm

‘No one (including myself) realized that it was intended as satire.’

If it doesn’t fly, call it satire. If your game is rumbled, cry satire.

David ‘I didn’t mean it that way’ Brooks can tell you all about it after his anti-neocon=anti-semite kite took a dive. So can Maureen Dowd, reprising the Al Gore ‘earth tones’ approach with Wesley Clark’s sweater. Apparently she was SATIRISING columnists who do that stuff. Honest! I seem to recall Thomas Friedman backtracking on one of his more offensive sallies last year, hiding behind ‘irony’ or something.

They figure if they throw enough mud, much of it will stick no matter what minor comeuppance they have to endure afterwards. And they’re right.

8

Decnavda 01.15.04 at 12:22 am

I always thought it made sense for the humans to consider Wilber special – How amny pigs have spiders writing great things aobut them in English? Must be SOMETHING special about the pig to get that done for him.

Of course, I did always wonder why none of the humans was similarly impressed by the SPIDER.

9

mike d 01.15.04 at 1:46 am

It turns out that Sullentrop intended to satirically make the point that Clark wasn’t being covered like Dean.

Ummm… I just glanced at Slate‘s site, and I don’t see Suellentrop waving the ‘joke’ (err… ‘satire’) flag anywhere. Did I miss it, or did this realization spring fully-formed from your head?

10

Walt Pohl 01.15.04 at 2:19 am

Mike D: Suellentrop claimed it was satire on Slate’s comment boards.

11

Barry 01.15.04 at 3:25 am

Rrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiigggggggghhhhht.

Considering it’s Slate, I’d stick with ‘he screwed up and got caught’.

Slate is an example of the problems with today’s journalism. They had a nice subsidy from Microsoft, and could play with new niches.

But it’s clear from Hitchen (and secondarily from) Saleton and Sullentrop that they really fear being rejected by the Kewl Kids of mainstream journalism.

12

Ted Barlow 01.15.04 at 5:56 am

Mike D,

Here’s the link. I guess it’s possible that he’s being dishonest, but I didn’t make it up.

13

Shai 01.15.04 at 6:45 am

andrew sullivan writes:

“MOORE ENDORSES CLARK: That’s according to Drudge. It’s all you need to know really, isn’t it?”

is this really a problem of perception? dennis miller and bill maher are at least funny in addition to being hacks. what’s andrew sullivan’s excuse?

14

Doug 01.15.04 at 9:01 am

Or maybe Suellentrop’s piece is just badly written satire. If the audience didn’t receive what the author of a non-fiction piece intended to convey, I’d say the fault is the author’s.

15

Nicholas Liu 01.15.04 at 12:45 pm

I’m looking for the satire, but I still don’t see it. I’d put it down to not being an American, but other people’s responses seem to indicate otherwise.

16

Rick Coencas 01.15.04 at 4:05 pm

What if Newsweek or the Times printed erroneous and misleading stories and then hid behind a defence of “just kidding”? When you hear it on The Daily Show you know it’s satire, when it’s in Slate, they ought to give you a warning.

17

Barry 01.15.04 at 4:21 pm

Rick, that’s the best and most succinct comment of them all.

18

nofundy 01.15.04 at 6:51 pm

dennis miller and bill maher are at least funny in addition to being hacks.

Miller is funny? On what planet? He used to be funny, back when he had decent writers.

19

marc 01.16.04 at 5:29 am

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.

Try reading Sullivan’s last few posts (as of Thursday evening) and see if you still think that he is ‘shock[ed]’ by any questioning of Bush.

One is titled It’s Even Worse Than Your Think and concludes, “I’m afraid that the answer is that this administration simply doesn’t care what it’s spending or will spend. Deficits don’t matter, remember? These people are beginning to make Lyndon Johnson look like Herbert Hoover.”

The next is titled And When In Doubt, Lie. That is followed by an endorsement of Moveon.org’s latest ad.

A little later, in a post titled Bush in Iraq, he says that they screwed up the WMD arguement and much of the post war planning, and are too arogant to admit to having made a mistake.

I assume I don’t have to mention his disagreement with the Bushies over gay mariage.

Whatever else Sullivan may be, I think it’s past time that he can creditably be accused of being an uncritical Bush sycophant.

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