When you work in the world of “political consulting,” you work in a world that everyone thinks they know about and have an opinion on, yet few actually understand, or bother to learn about. For 3 years and 9 months of a 4 year cycle, I decline to tell people what I do for a living, simply to avoid some pointless conversation, and to talk about things more fun and interesting when I’m “off-duty.” (It has also been a primary motivator for me to transition away from the profession entirely.)
The only time it’s worth saying the worlds “political consultant” in a bar is when the last few months of the Presidential race are in gear – then you get free drinks for your “insider” knowledge of “the system.” It makes for some good nights out for a few weekends.
When I read things like this little jewel of “reporting” from Yahoo News/PCWORLD, I find I am confronted with the latest example of ill-conceived and poorly researched “journalism” that is considered to be “objective” in today’s discourse.
After reading it with a critical eye, however, it was full of distortions, double-entendres, and overall painted a very deceptive picture of how campaigns are using the Internet to communicate their views. It also reinforced negative stereotypes about the work I do. Hence my evasiveness in public.
So, for today’s fun, I decided to dissect the rhetoric, and the failed attempts by PCWORLD’s “reporter,” to get that Woodward-esque Pulitzer nailing “The Man.”
Using this article, I shall illustrate how the press can tell you something that may have its some of its fact straight, but uses characterizations and innuendo to imply something else.
Let’s look at the “lead.” With emotion-grabbing intensity playing off the reader’s inherent dislike for unwanted email (the bane of all of us on-line) with this witty little opener:
A new class of spam is sliding into in-boxes alongside pitches for Viagra and low-interest loans. It’s coming from President George Bush and Democratic frontrunner Senator John Kerry (news – web sites) and their supporters.
Oooohhh! Scary! A picture is painted of the evil, mind-numbing tentacles of Politician Propaganda, devouring the disk space of the Proletariat. Help us, o valiant reporter and expose this dastardly conspiracy!
Seriously though, this is an example of a mischaracterization that smears the President and Sen. Kerry needlessly and unfairly. While there are plenty of things to tag both men with in their quest for the presidency, this is not one of them. This opener immediately prejudices the reader, regardless of the facts (using the slur of “spam” for their communications). It sounds great, and I am sure he got a pat on the back for being so creative. Too bad that it’s not really true in this case.
I know people at the Kerry campaign, and while I have no direct knowledge of the operations of Bush/Cheney ’04, I can say with almost 100% certainty that they do what the Kerry people do with their email blasts – they send them only to people who’ve signed up to get their daily missives – not to anyone else.
To be sure, there’s the occasional wise-ass who signs up his pro-Bush boss for the “Liberals for Kerry” list after getting outsourced, but both Bush and Kerry provide very easy means for someone to never receive a message from either campaign in their lifetimes if they so desire.
This fact is nowhere in the article, and it’s most likely because either a) the “reporter” didn’t bother to do the research to prove or disprove this assertion or b) has little knowledge on this subject (political communications) so instead discuss what they do know (in this case commercial spammers).
But our intrepid “reporter” does not fire all of his missives at Bush and Kerry – citizen organizations get the slur as well:
White House hopefuls aren’t the only folks taking advantage of the ubiquity and low cost of e-mail. Conservative and liberal groups alike use spamlike tactics (emphasis added) to promote their causes.
The conservative GrassFire.org is an issue-driven group that recently sent 300,000 e-mail invitations to view an online ad that calls Massachusetts senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy “opponents to conservative values.” GrassFire.org representatives say they hope its e-mail will be forwarded repeatedly. Their goal is for 1 million people to view this ad online.
This slur against a conservative citizen’s action group (along with another one aimed at the liberal MoveOn.org group) is particularly clever. Notice how the writer used the phrase “spamlike tactics” in the characterization of each group’s activities.
This gives the reporter a nice way out of a hole should he be confronted with a nasty note from Grassfire.org or Moveon.org. Rather than slur them with the term “spammer” he can say “Oh, but I didn’t say you were spammers – just that your tactics are spam-like. And well, don’t spammers sent out lots of emails? Don’t you?” That sound you hear next is the libel suit going out the window. The vagueness of English once again benefits the lazy writer.
Curious to know more about Grassfire,org, a group I had only heard about in passing, I went to their site and found the following statement in their FAQ:
Do you spam?
Grassfire.org is an opt-in service. We do not spam. Virtually all our online team came to Grassfire.org from the referral of a friend or family member.
Steve Elliot, the president of Grassfire, was kind enough to respond to my inquiry on this issue with this statement:
“Grassfire.org is an opt-in network of more than one million citizens who are using the tools of the Internet to impact the key issues of our day. Every month, hundreds of thousands of citizens give us their personal endorsement by forwarding our messages to their friends and each time. This means more to us than anything the media may or may not say about what we are doing. We believe we are on the leading edge of the future of political involvement and are excited to watch the influence of our online team grow.”
As of presstime, I did not have a response back from Moveon.org, but in the interest of fairness, I did notice this at the bottom of my Moveon.org email message:
This is a message from MoveOn.org. To remove yourself (Schadelmann) from this list, please visit our subscription management page at:
When I get a response, I’ll edit it in here. Really.
Now, without some real evidence to hit these guys with the spammer label, such as oh, I don’t know, a primary source (remember that term when you got your Communications degree, guys??), slamming Grassfire.org simply isn’t fair.
Similarly, as a subscriber to the moveon.org list, I know for a fact they only send email to the people who ask for them – just like Grassfire.org does. Not only is it a matter of political practicality – no group wants to annoy people who don’t want to hear their message – it’s also a matter of logistics – harvesting emails is not an easy task, and would be foolish for any political group to pursue. The negative response and the media attack from one’s opponents would not be worth it.
Thus, the “spamlike tactics” label prejudices the reader about each group’s work unfairly. While I may or may not agree with what some of these groups do, I don’t think that slamming them with a false label does any good.
If the reporter had perhaps consulted with many of the leading anti-SPAM resources out there, such as Emailabuse.org, SpamCop or similar sites, perhaps he’d find that neither group appears to be seriously considered “spammers” as we know the term today. They aren’t using the tools, tactics, (and suffering the consequences) of blasting out unwanted mail to people who don’t want to receive their messages.
Oh, but it gets better. After pissing off the reader with the threat of “political spam” we get the final touch:
Outside the Law (emphasis not added)
If you don’t like the political spam you’re getting, you’re out of luck this season. That’s because the recently enacted Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act, known as CAN-SPAM, applies to unsolicited commercial e-mail only, not to unsolicited political e-mail.
For the record, both the Kerry and Bush campaigns told me their bulk e-mail lists are homegrown and generated exclusively by people who have opted in to receive the candidates’ e-mail.
Here you see the most common tactic of reporters, political and non political, when they want to slur an elected official without much in the way of facts, or in this case, with the facts, but ones that do not fit the construct created by our intrepid “journalist.”
(Side note: look at how the response of the Bush and Kerry campaigns explaining their activity was buried in the story. Perhaps it was inconvenient to mention way up at the top?)
In this case, the bold headline “Outside the Law” implies that all the folks mentioned in this piece are doing something illegal. That of course is false, as the next paragraph states – in the most recent legislation, political advertising was exempted from the anti-spam law, as were phone calls, direct mail, and other forms of communication.
What he fails to understand, or even find out, is why. Over the years, as more and more consumer legislation has been passed to eliminate the harassment of the telemarketer, the junk-mailer, and the junk-emailer, there have been consistent provisions exempting political speech that may make use of the telephone, the Postal Service, or the Internet.
That’s because any time such an attempt has been made to restrict the freedom of citizens to talk to other citizens about political and social issues it’s been struck down by this funny little gadget known as the First Amendment to the United States. Commercial speech designed to sell you something for money has always been considered separately from political/social speech in court decisions and the law.
Now, in this article, you read none of that. Instead the implication is that the “mean politicians” gave themselves a legal break. Right after they’re accused of doing something illegal. It fits nicely with the cynicism that journalists cultivate to claim “objectivity” and feeds into people’s inherent dislike of public officials. Unfortunately in many cases such reflexive cynicism does little to inform people with facts – instead it’s all about fueling emotions to make a great “story.”
Now, if our intrepid “journalist” had done some actual research into real-life cases of politicians who do spam, he may have found out something not only that would perhaps be accurate in the “political spam” debate, but also something quite relevant to campaign 2004: the case of former Secretary of State Bill Jones’ past spamming activities. Bill Jones is now running for the U.S. Senate in 2004 in California.
For those of you who weren’t following Campaign 2002 in California, a quick recap is here at Wired Magazine. Using a forged email header, and routing a list of unsolicited emails through a elementary school server in Korea, Jones’ campaign sent out millions of unsolicited emails promoting his campaign – even to people who didn’t live in California.
A quick Google search revealed many postings by folks who were not from California who got their “Vote Jones” spam. Picking links at random I found some here and here among many, many posts at blogs, Slashdot, and other sources, mainstream and not. Go to Google and do a a search of your own – it’s rather a long list I’m afraid.
But even more fascinating was this link here which would appear to indicate they’re planning to hire the same pack of yahoos who sold them this dumb idea in the first place. Attempts to contact the Jones campaign were not successful as of press time.
Now in this case, the spam slur I’ve decried doesn’t apply to Mr. Jones. Why? In this case, we have well-documented cases of Jones’ campaign using the tools, tactics, and suffering the consequences of blasting out unwanted mail to people who didn’t want it, and should not have received it, for the benefit of both Mr. Jones’s campaign, and the many recipients involved.
Obviously if I were working for a more mainstream publication, I would not discuss this issue as an aside, based on Google research – I’d spend the time, to go talk to many sources and verify everything. Given that Mr. Jones is challenging an incumbent Senator, and has made claims he is in touch with “high tech,” it’s worth a look to see if he practices what he would seem to preach and find out what the actual facts of the matter were then, and now. If they give Mr. Jones a black eye, so be it. If not, so be it as well.
In other words, I’d be doing for PCWORLD or the LA Weekly (or whomever would be willing to pay me) what I thought most reporters were supposed to do – get off their backside and their cynicism and find out what’s going on – not just write a good “story.”
Enough. I’m off to the Waterfront Cafe to discuss the latest about the movie I’m working on. Who woulda thought that telling someone you’re a producer would be more reputable than telling someone you’re a political consultant? After reading coverage like this, you begin to see why!
© 2003-2006 Greg Dewar | All Rights Reserved | Originally Published at www.schadelmann.com
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