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Bloggers, beware the bright, shiny object

By Patricia Murphy, The American Interest
Published April 1, 2007


Dear Political Bloggers,

Did you know that some political campaigns have a tactic called "the shiny object theory" to manage their critics in the blogosphere? Although everyone is susceptible to it, campaigns target bloggers in particular because they can be the most needling voices of all.

The theory presumes that opponents of a campaign can be distracted from large, important issues (like war, taxes and the ins-and-outs of the federal deficit) by smaller, salacious items that are easy to understand and fast to spread. Sometimes campaigns bring out shiny objects to distract you. Sometimes, you get distracted on your own. Either way, the campaigns get to deal with little issues that annoy their staffs instead of big issues that could destroy their chances.

It does not matter if the critics are liberal or conservative, it just matters that they sweat the small stuff.

Did you know some of you have gotten hoodwinked recently?

The shiniest object of late was the now-defunct Fox News/Nevada Democratic Party debate. Liberal bloggers, offended that the first Democratic debate would partner with Fox, beat Democratic consultants down until they called off the show entirely.

Previous objects were the bloggers who resigned from John Edwards' campaign after conservative bloggers pounced on their earlier, offensive posts. Again, unrelenting pressure from the new media forced the Edwards campaign to surrender.

Both events probably made the bloggers involved feel powerful, that they had their voices heard and that they got their way in the end, which they certainly did.

But what else happened while those controversies burned? Edwards announced he would pay for universal health care with a tax increase, something small-government conservatives typically balk at.

On the day that the Fox debate controversy spilled over, the president announced he would send 4,000 additional troops to Iraq to support the surge that the Senate still had not (symbolically) opposed because they couldn't get the votes to do it.

But why was there more virtual anger on the left over Harry Reid's involvement in the Nevada debate than his involvement in the Iraq debate?

The beauty of the blogoshere is its ability to empower a single person. Anyone with an opinion can be heard without a campaign contribution or special interest influence. But the emerging tragedy of the blogospere is that many of its leading activist voices are so ready to be distracted and their intellectual cohorts are so willing to be used.

Outrage and volume are the tools of the trade for political bloggers on all sides, but outrage and volume are diminished when they're deployed too often. They get tuned out entirely after they've been used in the service of matters that don't, well, matter.

That's the shiny object theory.

So how can you know if it is being used against you? Ask yourself a few questions: Does a mom in Peoria or St. Petersburg care about this? Would it foil the plans of a terrorist in Afghanistan? Would the Founding Fathers have a problem with what's going on? If the answer to all three of these is "no," then you're failing the test for domestic, international and constitutional relevance. Translation: Start barking up another tree.

Let's see where the shiny objects have been in the news lately.

Elizabeth Edwards' announcement that her cancer has returned seemed to give a window into her and her husband's decisionmaking process in the face of a personal crisis. Two-million women in American have survived breast cancer, but know the same fear of the cancer returning and the dilemma of how to handle it. Not a shiny object.

The U.S. attorney firings scandal may not rise to the level of great worry for our Founding Fathers, since U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president by statute. But the possibility that Justice Department officials might have lied to Congress would have a tangled a few wigs in 1776. Also not a shiny object.

But what about last week's anonymous YouTube video that portrayed Hillary Clinton as a brainwashing, Orwellian dictator? After days of accusations that Republicans masterminded the unflattering images, the Huffington Post revealed the producer to be an employee of a consulting firm working for the Obama campaign. The tactic itself was novel and attention-grabbing, but would a mom, a terrorist or a Founding Father possibly be affected by knowing whodunit? No. And thus, we have a brilliant, shiny object.

Our country is at war, the Concord Coalition says we're headed for fiscal ruin, New Orleans may or may not be ready for another hurricane and the VA's health care system is broken at the very time it needs to be the best in the world. We have issues for the contenders that don't include Rudy Giuliani's second cousin or Barack Obama's Irish ancestors. It's easier for the campaigns to talk about their candidate's hair care regimen than their health care plans, and they'll be happy to oblige if you let them. But don't the stakes seem higher than that this time around?

Bloggers, I'm telling you about the Shiny Object Theory because I care. It's being used against you. Now you are in charge of what you use against it.

All the best on the campaign trail.

Patricia Murphy is executive editor of the American Interest. This piece is adapted from her posting on the American Interest blog,

[Last modified April 4, 2007, 14:30:07]

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