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Dead Tree Alert: The Year of the Nontroversy

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Who’s nicer to dogs? Whose idiot supporters said more obnoxious things than the other guy’s idiot supporters? Who didn’t eat a cookie that it would have been more advisable for him to eat? These are some of the burning issues that have faced America as the general election of 2012 has gotten under way. And in my column in the print TIME magazine this week (subscription required, sorry), I look at the political-news genre of the campaign nontroversy, and how these stories are injected and inflated into national headlines.

It’s partly a matter of new technology and partly a matter of old motivations. There are any number of reasons a campaign may want to make news out of a trumped-up “gaffe” or a manufactured outrage: to neutralize a problem for your own candidate by trying to create an equivalent on the other side, or to regain momentum in a bad news week by protesting theatrically about something someone connected to the other guy said somewhere. (If you’re embarrassed by Rush Limbaugh, find a Bill Maher.)

And the new-technology angle comes in the form of social media and blogs, which allow partisans and their supporters to trend topics and fan buzz over “outrages,” daring the larger media to ignore them. The parties’ histrionic shows of grievance over Hilary Rosen saying Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life” or Ted Nugent’s whacked-out hyperbole before the NRA remind me of a basketball player writhing in “agony” on the floor, trying to draw a penalty call after a minor bump.

“Working the refs” is an old analogy, of course, but it also reminds us that, in the end, you’ve got to lay responsibility on the refs themselves: in this case, the political journalists who can’t resist a shiny, hot-button distraction, or who don’t want to be the only ones not covering a story, or who fear that they’ll look biased if they don’t cover Stupid Nontroversy A about one campaign, because they covered Stupid Nontroversy B about the other one at some point in the past.

The complicating problem, as I mention in the column, is that a nontroversy usually has to have a grain of news value in it to be successfully trumped up into news. That is, yes: a gaffe can be telling about a candidate’s character, a hot-mic moment can expose hidden truths, associations are sometimes revealing, and little offenses can resonate with bigger issues. The question is, when is one of these stories revealing enough to be considered legitimate political news? And the answer, unfortunately too often, is: when it’s about the other guy.

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