Everybody Loves a Good Manufactured Outrage


Last night President Obama was on Jay Leno, normal enough for a candidate but unusual (if not unprecedented) for a President, and when Jay Leno mock-complimented him on his higher (but still low) bowling score, Obama said: “It’s like the special Olympics or something.”

The line was immediately picked up by commentators, was walked back by a Presidential spokesman, prompted a Presidential apology, and became a top blog issue within the hour. The internet and the 24-hour news cycle have turned word-parsing into a science, but it’s also become, in a strange way, a “scoop.” Jake Tapper, who “broke” this story on his ABC News blog, is basically obsessed with turning up mis-statements or gaffes that others have ignored; he’s ABC’s Senior Trivia Correspondent. In this case, the story may get even more play because it fits into an emerging media narrative, that Obama can’t say anything right without a teleprompter. Gaffes get more play when they fit an overall narrative.

I have to admit I’m not terribly outraged by the manufactured outrage machine in this case. Powerful political figures do need to watch what they say and choose their words carefully. It’s a different matter when someone says something that is not stupid but is then wilfully misinterpreted to mean something else, like Al Gore with his internet comments (he never said he invented the internet, but a whole media narrative was created around the idea that he did). But this is just standard-issue stuff where somebody makes a poor choice of words, it becomes a 24-hour story and is then forgotten. Besides, I suspect that politicians don’t always mind this kind of outrage, since it creates a distraction from the genuinely controversial or embarrassing things they say. So Obama probably considers himself lucky that he’s getting more outrage over that than his statement that Tim Geithner is doing an outstanding job.

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