To my knowledge, Obama first used this phrase in a debate during the primaries, a silly, silly season indeed. I believe at the time Hillary Clinton was trying to accuse him of "plagiarizing" the "Yes We Can" motto of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who likely would have been outraged, were he not a national co-chair of Obama's campaign.
But the phrase has proved depressingly apt throughout this campaign. Today the candidates were ostensibly not campaigning, so the hot topic of the day was... wait for it... "Putting lipstick on a pig."
That's right. Apparently McCain mustered some kind of phony outrage over Obama's use of a common colloquialism. And this is news. Somehow.
Frankly, even writing about this makes me a little sick, because it's kind of perpetuating the problem. But I've seen so many references to this pathetic non-story today that I have to say something, and that something is: "What the fuck?"
Obama responded to the controversy with that phrase he's trying oh-so-hard to coin, telling David Letterman that it was "silly season in politics." But more telling, maybe, was this:
"What their campaign has done this morning," Obama said, "is the same game that has made people sick and tired of politics in this country. They seize on an innocent remark, try to take it out of context, throw up an outrageous ad, because they know that it's catnip for the media."
Given what we've seen, it's very difficult to argue that. So why are these frankly retarded stories such media catnip? Why does the media not spend a similar amount of time on, say, real news? How is it that we find out 100 substantive negative things about Sarah Palin in two weeks, and the only ones that get widespread coverage were her pregnant daughter and her hockey mom pride?
There are three explanations here. The first, and simplest one is that this is what the media thinks the public wants. The public does not care about Sarah Palin's pork lobbyists; it's too wonky, too many numbers. But give them a sound bite to argue over, and they're happy little news readers.
Second, this is what the media wants to write. It is not particularly thrilling, normally, to write about Sarah Palin's pork lobbyists, because of the media's mistaken beliefs about objectivity. This deserves its own post, but in brief, the media view of objectivity is that you must show "both sides" of every issue (no matter how patently false one side might be) and, just as importantly, you must write like a robot. The more serious a story, the more robotic you must become. I know because I do it. Something just exploded in the Middle East? Fire up Robo-Spak. But if Amy Winehouse just raped a man with a pool que? Now I am allowed - neigh, expected - to be snarkily amused. In other words, reporters in America are allowed to have opinions as long as they don't matter.
Sarah Palin's pork lobbyists definitely matter, so it's out with the robot. But lipstick on a pig? That most definitely does not matter, so they can inject that tiniest precious bit of pent up sarcasm. Better still, the candidates and more than that their surrogates will be saying all kinds of stupid things, which almost always means great quotes. Journalists live for great quotes. They make text pop, these gleaming pearls of text unburdened by the robotic objectivity that so onerously shackles them.
But there is a third, more disturbing reason these stories stick: Because politicians want them to. Obama is accusing McCain of purposely turning this story into media fodder. The lipstick/pig controversy could not possibly be more ginned-up, but John McCain doesn't care. He knows all he has to do is have someone in his campaign say something, and then it's news. Politicians know that anything they say is automatically news, assuming it is a good quote. If it's a good quote that allows the repetition of an even better quote - say "lipstick on a pig" or "Goddamn America" for example - then you're really cooking with gas.
Moreover, the campaigns know that these tactics work. The informed public is so polarized that it'll argue about anything - even quiet 'ol Newser racked up 11 comments on the lipstick story. And the uninformed public makes its decisions from such an impoverished knowledge base that these kinds of stories, sound bites and press narratives actually matter to them. One Newser commenter actually said something to the effect of, "I'd been starting to like Obama, but now he's lost my vote." I can only hope this was some troll and not an actual person, but I've heard stupider "average voter" opinions. If McCain can make sure the one thing an uninformed voter knows about Obama is this, why not do it? McCain would much rather the conversation revolved around lipstick and pigs than actual issues anyway.
So with all of that fitting so harmoniously together, it's no wonder these stupid stories erupt. And it's a shame. Because I have my own theory about what the public wants. I don't think the public wants phony outrage and soundbite gotcha games. Not really.
What the public wants is to make an informed decision about who should be the next President. But they don't want to spend very much time actually becoming informed, and they really aren't interested in wading through robotic prose. Moreover, most normal news stories end with quotes from both sides and conclude little.
So most people either a). retreat to their respective village of partisan hackery, reading or listening or watching opinion from whichever side they agree with, delighting in how non-robotic it is or b). only find out about stories that become really, really big. The stories that make it onto the 6 o'clock news, or better still Saturday Night Live. The shit you'd have to be living under a rock not to know about.
These days the stories piercing that learn-by-osmosis culture cloud have to involve something other than taxes and spending and foreign countries. They'd better involve Paris Hilton or bombastic black preachers or lipstick and pigs. In other words, they'd better be silly.