Media Bait

Some people really, really, really want to be interviewed

If you like media bait, you would like Denver. There is plenty of it here, so much so that, at times, the streets near the Pepsi Center resemble the least exuberant Mardi Gras celebration in history. Over the past few days, I have seen many good examples of this. You have probably seen them too:

-Two men holding a gigantic “Rednecks For Obama” banner, bearing a suspicious resemblance to the two men who claimed to have found the Sasquatch, being interviewed by an intrepid reporter in a cheap gray suit. They are talking a lot, but it is unclear that they have anything to say other than “We live near a Fast Signs.”

[N.B. A successful media baiter will have mastered the art of the comic juxtaposition. “Rednecks For Obama” is a good one. Here are some others that I would one day like to see:

McCain Supporters For Obama: A group of blue-blazered Republicans who are rallying for the Democratic candidate. Slogans could include “McCain’s Our Man; Vote Obama,” or “Vote For John McCain; Obama/Biden 2008”

Abortionists For Life: Lab-coated practicing abortionists who, nonetheless, are eager to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Grandmothers Against Hard Candy: I can pretty much guarantee that this would be the most successful media stunt in the history of media stunts.]

-Several women in homemade P.U.M.A. (Party Unity My Ass) T-shirts, marching in tight circles and proclaiming their undying support for Hillary Clinton to a revolving cast of cameras, both before and after Clinton’s Tuesday evening speech. The obvious care with which the shirts were made is incongruous with the anger being professed by their wearers. They are very nice shirts, the sort that are made by people who probably spend a lot of time at Hobby Lobby. The P.U.M.A. ladies are the sort of women who would bake you a carrot cake, but scrawl “Bite Me” in icing on top.

-Three bedraggled men carrying signs that read “Stop Bird Porn,” being watched with amusement by several reporters who understand that it is a joke but will likely write columns pretending that it is not. (The Bird Porn people were the subject of Dave Barry’s column today. It is OK for Dave Barry to cover the Bird Porn people. This is why Dave Barry exists.)

-The obnoxious nerds in Halloween costumes who are running around admonishing people to “Trick or Vote.” As I wrote yesterday, they are mostly being covered by foreign media, who are likely making fun of them in all five Romance tongues.

There are more examples, but you get the idea. The DNC is flush with media bait—publicity hounds who seek to lure reporters with bright colors, outrĂ© costumes, and chantable slogans. This sort of fits. After all, the convention is itself a political tourist trap of the highest order—the wonk’s answer to the Springfield Mystery Spot.

But still. The majority of the people attending the DNC are indistinguishable from anybody you’d see on the street, albeit perhaps a bit better informed. It’s only a very small percentage that came here determined to get on TV. And, sure enough, these are the ones that seem to draw a disproportionate amount of coverage.

It’s not that reporters are lazy, because they’re not, primarily. They are, however, deadline creatures, and it’s expedient to write the story that’s right in front of you. This is why Flag Shirt Man gets interviewed while Khaki Pants Guy walks by unmolested. This is why the opinions of a Hillary-loving P.U.M.A. person get mistaken for the opinions of female voters as a group. As Lester Feder so astutely put it last week, too much attention given to political costume parties leads to “the media confusing activist opinion with public opinion in general. And public opinion generally defies such a simple—if dramatic—storyline.”

Call it Peters’s Law of Convention Coverage: The level of enthusiasm somebody shows for being interviewed is inversely proportional to the level of discourse they will provide. (The same inverse proportion applies to the number of political buttons one is wearing.) Anybody who wants to be interviewed that badly most likely has nothing to say.

Denver is done, but political reporters would do well to remember this rule as they go into Minneapolis. If anybody would like to discuss this more, I’m happy to oblige; I’ll be standing outside the convention center, wearing an Uncle Sam suit and toting a sign that reads “Media Critics For Illiteracy.” You won’t be able to miss me.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.