One of the increasingly predictable aspects of the information age is how even the most obvious acts of calculated publicity mongering can grab the spotlight.
Take for example the concocted “controversy” at Colorado State University, where 19–year-old school newspaper editor J. David McSwane ran a screaming headline spelling out “Taser this... F*** BUSH.”
The incident earned cover stories in both Denver newspapers — though the school is almost 60 miles to the north — as well as news coverage, comment strings and radio gab around the country. Now facing firing and getting help from the same lawyer who represents Ward Churchill, McSwane said his headline was in response to a Florida incident where some guy got tasered while trying to disrupt a John Kerry speech. He figured this was the best way to “spark conversation” about first amendment issues and free speech.
Of course that’s bull. This headline wasn’t about free speech. It was about a 19–year-old editor wanting to be a notorious up-and-coming member of the new activist media. He wanted to be the center of attention. He wanted to be the news story.
And he managed to do it with one word.
McSwane admitted his purpose even as he tried to rationalize the publicity stunt. “Local and national media will inevitably jump on this controversy,” he wrote in a follow-up letter, “I strongly urge the university community to try and understand that the intentions of the students on staff, including me, were not to cause harm, but rather to reinforce the importance of free speech at our great institution.”
A great institution now associated with proper journalistic use of the F-bomb, thanks to him.
But let’s step back. College newspaper editors have been rattling establishment cages since young Horatio hand-scratched Roman letters reading “Spear this… F*** CAESAR” onto the school scroll. That’s what they’re supposed to do. What’s different today is how these little episodes of sophomoric insolence like McSwane’s headline become part of the national dialogue.
One day it’s a crude op-ed in the college newspaper, the next day someone files a lawsuit against God, then some high schoolers are rewriting the Pledge of Allegiance, then MoveOn.Org runs an ad calling a top general a traitor. Each event is more sitcom hijinks than high-impact news event, yet each one is given life as legitimate grist for the insatiable mill of news coverage, talk show pundits, blogs and social networks.
At the core of all this is a profit-driven reality. Conflict — even the manufactured, stupid kind — is inherently newsworthy. Somebody does something outrageous to make a point, then people opposed to that point get outraged, then people who agree with the thinking behind the first outrage become outraged at the other people’s outrage. On and on and on. And all of this happens in the Internet-fueled echo camber where news becomes entertainment and entertainment becomes news.
Mutually assured outrage fills media space, tells people what they want to believe and sells advertising while doing it. Whether or not it’s actually relevant is a whole other question.
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