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Does Media Cynicism Matter? A Retort

Congratulations to Elspeth Reeve who, writing at Atlantic Online, became, as far as I can tell, the first person to lampoon my upset over the false outrage that blew up around Democratic talking head Hilary Rosen's comments about Ann Romney having never "worked a day in her life." Writing with a wizened cynicism impressive for her relative youth, Reeve argues that, contra my lament about days lost to inanity, the explosions of faux umbrage and Twitter-fed media hysteria around episodes like the daylong outbreak of the Mommy Wars come at little cost. "All the candidates, and especially Romney's husband, should be grateful for how fast outrage explodes these days, because it dies even faster," she writes.  She goes on to list three moments in the pre-social media past when reporters blew up campaign moments out of context in ways that might not have been possible today, when Twitter, YouTube and the rest might have initially fueled the fire but eventually served to tamp it down: George Romney's 1967 comment about having gotten a "brainwashing" from generals in Vietnam; Ed Muskie's "tears" in the snow before the 1972 New Hampshire primary; and Al Gore's alleged exaggeration of his role in cleaning up the Love Canal, leading up to the 2000 New Hampshire primary.

I agree with Reeve that that in each of these instances, the media blew things way out of proportion -- I've been particularly puzzled, in reading up on George Romney this year, how his off-the-cuff comment explaining his shift on Vietnam could have been so damaging (though I also think Reeve overstates the strength of the campaign that Romney's comment helped derail.) But here's the thing: if Reeve is suggesting that people like me ought to have been more upset about these other instances than about last week's Rosen-Romney affair, let me assure her that, well, I was. In fact, it so happens that I fell into playing a central role in exposing the blatant distortion of Gore's comments on the Love Canal. I was a reporter at New Hampshire's Concord Monitor at the time, assigned to the paper's lead guy for the Gore campaign, and I was at the event at Concord High School where Gore talked about the Love Canal. I was also at his next event in the state, where I observed the Washington Post and New York Times reporters covering Gore conferring about what exactly Gore had said about the Love Canal, and how they would report it. The next day, both papers ran reports focusing on his Love Canal comments and casting them as yet another example of his wildly exaggerating his historical role ("inventing the Internet," etc.) A few days later, I learned that a class of Concord High students were so outraged about the way the papers had taken Gore's comments out of context that they had arranged a kind of media-studies lesson around it. I went over to the high school to talk to them and wrote a piece about their upset, not before calling the Post and Times reporters for an explanation. They offered some grudging regret about the way the story had been blown up, but of course the damage had already been done.

So yes, Elspeth Reeve, YouTube would have helped contain the damage in that instance. But I don't really see why declarations of dismay about the way these things get blown up -- for a day, two days, or a week -- are any less warranted now than they were then. As I see it, remaining vigilant against the media-political complex's cynicism and the false outrage of campaigns and their hangers on is the work of a lifetime.

Oh, and it is false, by the way. Did you see what Ann Romney, not realizing that she was in earshot of reporters at a fundraiser in Palm Beach, Florida, had to say about the Rosen comments that the Romney campaign found so offensive and wounding? "It was my early birthday present for someone to be critical of me as a mother, and that was really a defining moment, and I loved it." Just outrageous.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis