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The feigned-outrage game

Harry Reid's 'Negro dialect' comment is just the latest out-of-context remark to fall victim to the phony indignation so common in today's news cycle.

January 12, 2010|By David Greenberg

During the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama's campaign perfected a brilliant technique for gaining the upper hand in the short-term news cycle -- feigned outrage. In the Democratic primaries, Obama's team would alight on an ill-phrased but ultimately innocent choice of words by his rival Hillary Rodham Clinton or one of her surrogates -- like her claim that President Lyndon Johnson did as much as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to pass the Civil Rights Act -- and use it to whip up outrage and score political points. Often, the indignation would be joined by a call for the aide who uttered the supposedly offensive remark to be, in the reigning cliche of 2008, thrown under the bus.

The Clinton campaign soon taught its spokespeople to huff just as indignantly over stray remarks made by Obama or his surrogates, giving words like "cling" and "bitter" and places like Pennsylvania an undeservedly long sojourn in the headlines. And in late summer 2008, John McCain's campaign got into the act, suggesting that Obama's benign "lipstick on a pig" remark about Sarah Palin amounted to rank sexism -- leading Obama to try to scuttle the whole business.

"They seize on an innocent remark," Obama fulminated, as he offered a nice analysis of the technique, "try to take it out of context, throw out an outrageous ad because they know it's catnip for the news media."

It's appropriate that a book about the 2008 campaign -- Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's newly published "Game Change" -- has given us yet another example in which phony outrage over an out-of-context sound bite captivates the media all out of proportion to the offensiveness of the remark. The statement was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's 2008 comment that he expected Obama to fare better electorally than previous black presidential aspirants partly because of his lighter skin tone and lack of "Negro dialect" -- a term, incidentally, that the "Google Books" search engine finds in 3,780 publications, all before this year, none apparently racist. Republicans are shocked, shocked, and applying as much heat as they can, despite the explicability of the remark. And unfortunately, the technique of ginning up outrage and demanding heads over decontextualized or poorly phrased comments is here to stay.

The most obvious reason is that it's a political game perfectly suited for our new news cycle. Episodes like the Reid comment provide "catnip for the news media," as Obama said, because of the new rhythms of cable TV and blogging, which intensify the old talk-radio pattern: polarized and combative, with guest experts and pundits chosen to parrot each side's arguments with requisite rage. Verbal missteps work well for cable because they require little explanation (so the fight can begin quickly); they lend themselves to simple partisan battles; and viewers can readily align their own emotions with one side or the other.

The media, of course, reflect our politics, and a second reason these flaps are so common lately is that they fit well with our divided and mutually suspicious condition. As the Republican Party has become over the years more uniformly and aggressively conservative, and the Democrats (to a lesser degree) more uniformly liberal, the parties see little reason to work together. With enmity and constant partisan combat now the norm, both sides seize any chance to give their opponent a black eye. The stakes are rising as we enter 2010, an election year.

Then there's a third, less obvious reason that the outrage game is thriving: its connection to the politics of race. Although race has been at or near the center of American politics in every age, Obama's candidacy and election elevated it in a new and complicated way. On the one hand, the election of an African American president makes it natural for race to emerge often in our presidency-centered political discourse. On the other, Obama has always been careful and understated in his efforts to address the subject. He talks about it infrequently and often obliquely, and he almost always assumes a moderate stance that tries to dignify all positions. As president, he has focused on race mainly when it has been thrust upon him, as when reporters asked him last summer to comment on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates on Gates' own property.

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