Our Shiny New Shiny Object Economy

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

A friend emails today to say that he sympathizes with my desire to avoid blogging too obsessively about the media’s unending infatuation with shiny objects, but uses the Hilary Rosen flap as an example of the harm this stuff does:

Rosen’s comments gave the opening, faux outrage was generated at extremely high levels, wallpaper on Fox. Apologies, explanations, distancing, Presidential condemnation, etc. — all ineffective.

Then the golden nugget, the reward the right was seeking lands today in an article in the WaPo by Tumulty. Regardless of the content of the article, the web-only headline was the power: “Firestorm over Stay At Home Moms Gives GOP Edge in War on Women.” Then the article goes on to give one the impression that a careless remark has eliminated the ill will towards women caused by Republican and conservative commentator conduct. It’s not hard to see that Tumulty was fed a lot of the conclusions, but this is their pocket victory. They’ll take it, boil it to a soundbite and move forward.

It’s frustrating because, I’m sure like you, I ignored this because I believed it would pass fairly quickly. But the call by the refs today tell me that this stupid event landed a punch. Sure it will pass, but these do add up. This is just the first in the general.

First Read says today that manufactured controversies are nothing new, but: “What is new, however, is how much faster and professionalized — due to Twitter and the drive to make something go viral — these manufactured controversies have become. Indeed, we’ve now seen three of them in the past 30 days: Etch A Sketch, hot mic, and Hilary Rosen.”

Here’s what I’d like to know: how much effect do these things really have? One of my personal touchstones for not worrying too much about them is my wife. Almost every time, if I happen to mention one of these nano-kerfuffles to Marian, she’s never heard of it. Neither has my sister or my mother. In other words, non-political junkies simply don’t hear about this stuff unless they stay up late to hear Leno or Jon Stewart making fun of it.

That doesn’t mean they’re harmless, of course. There are other avenues for influence besides direct contact. In fact, it’s an article of faith among the politerati that high-attention voters have a big impact on their low-attention friends. And maybe so. But the high-attention folks are mostly pretty hardened partisans already, so I have my doubts that the constant stream of shiny objects really affects them very much in the first place, which in turn means the indirect effect of shiny objects on everyone else can’t be all that high either. This is doubly true because, as First Read points out, these things have such microscopic lifespans these days. Just a couple of weeks ago we were all being assured that L’Affaire Etch A Sketch was no passing fancy, but would have a permanent effect on Mitt Romney’s campaign. Then the Supreme Court heard oral argument on Obamacare, Romney won big victories in the April 3 primaries, Rick Santorum dropped out of the race, and Hilary Rosen provided everyone with a brand new shiny object. Sadly for the Ohio Art Company, Etch A Sketch is now just a dim memory.

Some of this stuff matters. The Al Gore internet meme ended up mattering. The Swift Boating of John Kerry mattered. But my guess is that about 98% of it has no material effect at all. It just gives writers something to write about, talking heads something to talk about, and the chattering class something to chatter about.

WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

payment methods

WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate