Thursday, May 3, 2012

Elsewhere: Media Hype, Various Flavors

At Plum Line, I noted that reporters and pundits are overhyping each new economic report, and tried to provide a bit of context for how to take new economic reports seriously without overdoing it. And over at Post Partisan, I took a shot at Politico and at Dave Weigel for overhyping possible revelations-to-come about Barack Obama's background.

It seems to me that this latter sort of mistake happens all the time. For example, in 2004 the real message about stories about George W. Bush's National Guard service was that by 2004, absolutely no one cared any more. Well, that's not quite right; lots of liberals wanted to finally, once and for all, prove that Bush was a shirker, or whatever it was that they were proving. And if we're interested in Bush's biography, sure, that's of interest. But as a voting point in 2004? No way. People were going to vote based on the recovery from his early-term recession, and from his reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, and Iraq, and whatever issues people generally vote on. I'm very skeptical whether an incumbent president's (apparent, perceived, broadcast) personality matters very much at all, but to the extent it does everyone was already heavily invested in whatever they thought of the guy, and while events might change that, it's highly unlikely that revelations about his early life would. Same, of course, with Bill Clinton and the various pre-presidential scandals Republicans cared about in 1996.

I suspect that the dynamic that matters here is repeated each time: the out-party just can't believe that anyone would actually like this guy, and if only we can turn up one more piece of information, that will finally open their eyes about him. It's not true, of course, but I guess I can understand why it seems that it might be. For partisans, that is; there's really no reason for the press to fall for it.


  1. imo, books like Maraniss' are not designed, primarily, to persuade Obama loyalists, but rather reinforce the views of Obama opponents, with imaginary conversion of loyalists part of said reinforcement.

    Consider the excellent film The Social Network. If you're a liberal, the anti-Zuckerberg angle probably reinforced your view that aspirational young billionaire execs can't be trusted, they must be up to no good, etc, and that movie proves it!.

    If you're not a liberal, you were probably scratching your head at the Zuckerberg hatchet job, even as you were entertained by the film. Zuckerberg's friend Eduardo Saverin, erstwhile CFO of Facebook Inc - who thought his job description was...rustlin' up advertisers?...was not taken along to the VC discussions where many millions were at stake? I can understand why Saverin was bitter about how that went down, but unless I'm instinctively inclined to feel hostility against folks in Zuckerberg's position, why would I take up Saverin's pique, entertaining though his story was? Even Saverin's own sympathetic narrative makes it clear he was left out of a rodeo that was far too sophisticated for his limited abilities.

    IOW, I suspect that many liberals thought a movie like The Social Network put the young capitalist Zuckerberg in his place, though non-liberals probably shook their head about the transparent Zuckerberg hostility from Saverin (entertaining though the film was), and thus changed their opinion of Zuckerberg not at all.

    When those non-liberals see this WSJ article, profiled on Yahoo! Finance this morning, it only confirms what Saverin, and Zuckerberg, and the others' places really are.

    Oppo research is only for the opposition.

    1. the excellent film The Social Network

      Oh CSH. Are there no movies we agree on? They were just making things up to create background psychological motivations in the worst Hollywood way. Maybe that's why -- as you agree -- the movie tells its story totally unpersuasively: because it keeps pretending it's telling a true story, and interjecting bits of that true story, but really it's imposing an utterly hackneyed outsider coming-of-age tale on those bits of true story.

      Qualification of my negative judgment: The scene of Larry Summers with the creepy WASP twins was great. (Come to think of it, if they wanted to tell a story about an Asperger's-spectrum talented Northeastern Jewish boy whose incomplete integration into various elite circles fuels his ambitions, maybe they should have gone with Larry in the first place.)

    2. If you're not inclined to think that Mark Zuckerberg, as reflected by his prosperity, Must Necessarily Be Evil, then you may have clicked on the WSJ link above and been shocked! at how well ol' Eduardo Saverin is doing. Has anyone in history ridden the combination of incompetence and pique as far as that dude? Assuming its not your politics, you may even reflect on Saverin's high living and think that, you know, this Zuckerberg may actually be - perish the thought - not such a bad fellow.

      If you don't categorically dislike Zuckerberg-types, a movie like Social Network is not going to convince you to dislike him; if you are inherently suspicious of Zuckerberg-types, you'll see Social Network as the truth finally revealed. Same thing applies to political figures, I'm sure.

      Oh, and by the way: if I'm chit-chatting with intellectuals such as those in a community like this, I would probably say my favorite movie was something pretentious and cliche like Godfather or Citizen Kane. But if measured by number of viewings, my favorite movie is an utterly hackneyed coming-of-age tale. So I'll cop to the charge.

    3. In re: Zuckerberg: I have always simply assumed he is personally similar to several hundred people I have met who have gone through the same or parallel institutions. But giving $100m or whatever to the Newark school system was a nice thing to do, so he's certainly less useless than most of the comparison class.

      In re: movies: I'm not especially into "CK," I've never even seen "The Godfather" (I know, I know), and I had never heard of your most-watched. But my most-watched is also, almost certainly, a fluffy-plotted musical.

    4. also -- is there anyone who thinks someone must be a terrible person just because they have a lot of money? I'm inclined to pity those born into fortune, and I'm sure I know people who would be a priori suspicious of a fortune made on Wall Street -- but I thought liberals loved tech boom people (who are also much more liberal on average than the Wall Street wealthy)?

  2. Saverin was cheated out of his percentage ownership according to the movie, not that I care deeply about the movie or Zuckerberg anyway.

    Jonathan's theory can be tested by looking at natural experiments. I think long ago scandals, real or imagined, can sink politicians. Chappaquidick (sp.?) stopped Teddy from being president for many years until he was too old. The unfair charge of plagiarism against Biden also sank his first presidential campaign.

    Newt's mistreatment of most of his wives has probably cost him something. Romney's dog thing, who knows.

    It's all about reinforcing/disrupting the framing you like/dislike. Obama's a good guy frame, disrupt it with ex-gfs. Romney's weird/amoral, reinforce it with how he treats the family pet.

    My guess is that past events contribute to but aren't game changing aspects of framing.

  3. I do not think it's that the out party cannot believe that anyone would like the incumbent President of the opposite party; this Republican understands very well why his Democratic friends and relatives like Obama. The hope in a close election is that the incumbent can be tarnished just enough with a small fraction of low information swing voters to change the electoral outcome. I agree with Dr. Bernstein that the Bush National Guard service story was not going to change a large percentage of votes in 2004, but given that a swing of 60,000 votes in Ohio would have elected Kerry, Democrats could reasonably hope that had the CBS story panned out, it could have (narrowly) changed the election outcome. Republicans hope that tarnishing Obama's reputation a bit with low information swing voters will swing this election to Romney. While that is not very likely, it is not inconceivable.

  4. This was an interesting discussion, since (o/t, but bear with me) the Saverin case is a great example of how someone could be not indifferent to social welfare concerns and still end up a conservative.

    I think most of us are savvy enough to realize the following: when Zuckerberg met up with Napster's Sean Parker, looking to access Parker's extensive VC network, Saverin's back-of-the-envelope Facebook role was a showstopper for at least two reasons: first, because Saverin's ~30% stake crowded out room for VC investment, and second, because Saverin's gross incompetence would have been offputting to raising millions of dollars.

    What we're left with, as third parties, is the realization that either Saverin could have remained in place, and Facebook would have never took off, or Saverin could have been unceremoniously pushed aside, and he would have been left with a residual 2% interest in a $100 Billion empire.

    Obviously, if you ask Saverin, it was a great injustice that he was pushed aside. Saverin no doubt envisions himself a bon vivant, great talent, CFO-of-the-century. We would see ourselves that way too, if we were Saverin. This is just human nature.

    The problem is that none of the rest of us see that in Saverin's case. I trust that just about every one of us would say, regardless of ideology, that for $2 Billion Mr. Zuckerberg is welcome to hurt our feelings as much as he likes.

    Which gets to the heart of the issue: one can be sympathetic to an ideology that redresses grievance while still being suspicious of allowing grievance to be measured by first-person reports. We are all Eduardo Saverin, we all believe we have been hard done by, and some conservatives are hesitant about liberalism as a policy basis that seems to start with Saverin's self-report of what happened to him. That doesn't mean they hate Saverin, or even don't sympathize with him. They may very much identify with him, even as they think that his opinion of what happened to him is a bad basis for policy.

    To be sure, there are a lot of assholes in the conservative tent too. Its just that Saverin is a good illustration of how one can be not an asshole and still end up (more or less) conservative.


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