Stirring the Pot

Every family has at least one. Every neighborhood and office and every classroom has them as well. We’re talking about gossips: people who spread rumors and stir the pot. Our brains are wired to emphasize the negative, but some of us are addicted to the onslaught of neuropeptides that wash through our brains when we’re indulging in drama.

Billions of dollars in revenue are dependent on that addiction. Gossip has become institutionalized to a degree never imagined by the architects of the age of information. Technology has allowed the gossip column to escape the relatively benign confines of the newspaper and merge with mainstream media, where little effort is made to separate fact from interpretation, and where the ideals of the Fourth Estate have been subsumed by political and corporate agendas. Unless you read technical journals, every page is an opinion page, and even scientific studies are not immune to financial motives.

We’ve had this discussion many times here over the years, but I was motivated to revisit it by some recent efforts to stir the pot.

At our house we indulge in holiday media this time of year, and any of the Peanuts classics, any appearance by Rudolph, and a growing list of holiday movies are likely to be enjoyed on a chilly night by the fire from now until January, and a time tested stack of holiday music emerges from the closet to stand ready by the sound system. Unfortunately, this year mainstream media couldn’t wait to tell us that some of our holiday traditions and childhood classics are now part of the battle ground in the culture wars.

Battle ground. Culture wars. Observe how important framing can be in stirring the pot or surreptitiously advancing a point of view independent of the facts. We grew up conditioned to believe that what was important enough to appear in print or on the screen was true and relevant. So when a headline appears simultaneously on diverse websites and in local television news reports, it must be important.

This year we were told that Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving is racist because of how the kids were seated around the table. We found out that Santa’s reindeer are misogynistic because Rudolph’s alpha-male father preferred to take on the risk of searching the arctic wastes for Rudolph himself, to the exclusion of Rudolph’s mother and girlfriend. We were dismayed to find out that Dean Martin’s classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” encourages rape culture.

Should we laugh or be offended? Surely there are other choices, including the choice to disregard this “news” entirely. The Thanksgiving story was compiled from a selection of tweets, and the story begins with “viewers have suggested.” The same was true for the headlines about Rudolph. As far as I can tell, the story about the song was recycled from “A Line By Line Takedown of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ which appeared in the Huffington Post in 2014.

There are billions of tweets and other forms of social media posts ever year. If you look for them, on any given day you can find people discussing the conspiracy behind the effort to convince people that the earth is round rather than flat, including the fake moon landings.  If I wrote a column for The Daily Mail on a slow news week, I could copy and paste a few of those tweets and say, quite truthfully, that “viewers have suggested…” The story might be picked up by Drudge and the Huff Post and if a major network needed filler between shootings and stabbings, it could then be repeated across a network of hundreds of local affiliates. Someone scanning the headlines over a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning might be dismayed to discover that the Flat Earth Society had attracted such a large following.

Stories like this are produced every day by keyboard “journalists” who do little more than cast their nets into social media for the tackiest and most prurient catch they can find. Sometimes it’s a simple (and lazy) effort to grab our attention. Sometimes the motive is more insidious. If I wanted to motivate, for example, conservative voters to go to the polls, what better way than to headline the “culture wars” and the ongoing “attack” on our values. If I wanted liberal voters to turn out, I would remind them of the desperate need for resisting that deplorable basket of “isms”

Several times now we have discussed here how that, though the world continues to improve across almost all of the metrics by which we judge success, the fear that the sky is about to fall at any moment is persistent. We can thank politics and media – and the internal wiring of our own brains – for this.

Nevertheless, people act on their beliefs no matter how skewed those beliefs may be, and if we can believe numerous studies and the science of sociology, our partisans on the left and right are more ideologically divided than at any time in recent memory, and the great exhausted middle is not motivated to forward any candidates who reflect the more balanced views of the majority.

And now my friends we have reached the point where, as my grandfather used to say, we are about to “quit preaching and go to meddling.” The view from the middle is this:  For many of the years when media was more conservative and when the nation itself was, in fact, more conservative, the ascendant right did not often speak kindly of those on the left. Today, however, the majority of mainstream media except for Fox News promotes a viewpoint well to the left of center. Younger and more technologically savvy citizens dominate social media. They are not any kinder to the “other side” than the other side was to them when they dominated the narrative. The pendulum swings both ways.

For the sake of the country, I hope that the center holds, but in order to do so we must overcome our exhaustion and continue to engage in the narrative. We must not be lead or discouraged by the toxic flow of information of unknown motive and provenance that passes for news today, and we can blissfully ignore any efforts to re-frame Charlie Brown and Rudolph in order to promote someone’s effort to stir the pot.




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