The Attack on Oprah: a case study of the strategies of the conservative noise machine

by Harold Feld, Tales from the Sausage Factory

If I told you after the Palin announcement that Republicans would attack Oprah, you'd have called me crazy. Oprah is beloved of the precise demographic Rs hope to win over by naming Palin. It would be suicide! Besides, what would be the grounds for the attack?

Then when I told you “because she is keeping her promise to keep politics off her show,” you would say I was doubly nuts. “Impossible! Everyone knows that when Oprah backed Obama she made it clear that she was not going to leverage her show for him. How on Earth are the Republicans going to turn that into an attack?”

Welcome to PalinPetition.com. You will find that after the initial blip on Sept. 5-6, it has slowly leaked into the mainstream media. I discovered it via the ever excellent Benton Foundation media headlines service, which linked to this trade press piece. I expect it will start to dominate the cable and broadcast news rounds via FOX and other conservative commentators soon. Timing will no doubt depend on focus group polling on whether Obama is gaining traction or if passion about Palin begins to wane. But from the current ferment in the vectors, I'm pegging it to be next week's distraction.

The fact is that the developing attack on Oprah is an excellent case study of how the Republicans manipulate both their base and the mainstream media. It also highlights what Obama and the Ds need to do to defend. It is not simply about going after smears or going negative sooner stronger or any of these things. It is to understand that the Republican stategists at this level do not wait for targets of opportunity, nor do they hitch their train to a single issue or person. It is a matter of understanding overall methods of operation and developng proactive counter-strategies rather than reactive counter strategies. Along the way, it also helps highlight the current problem with our mainstream media and illustraights how the Rs are taking advatange of the internet in non-obvious ways.

Full analysis below . . . .

First, go read this piece by U Va psyche prof Jonathan Haidt. Briefly summarizing, Haidt's underlying theory is that people generally employ emotional reasoning and that our logical/rational thoughts tend to follow from our underlying emotional states. Thus, we will interpret data from people we feel share our values differently from those with whom we don't.

This applies equally well to Dems, Progressives, or anyone else. By and large, it takes conscious effort for us to lift ourselves out of our own perspective and understand how other people can possibly interpret the same set of data differently. To take a simple example from the mote in the progressive eye. How many progressives really like thinking about the fact that Bush has probably been the most supportive President of Africa in U.S. history in terms of pushing for foreign aid, debt forgiveness, and other programs. In fact, I bet progressives reading this are now mustering all their arguments about how Bush isn't “really” supportive of Africa or how he has allowed all manner of bad things in Africa or how his African policy cannot possibly make up for his other policies, blah blah war criminal, blah blah croney, blah blah. Because progressives are not disposed to believe that there could be anything good about Bush.

A bit closer to home, many of my fellow progressives accuse me of being “soft” on Kevin Martin because I believe that Kevin Martin is not a bastard 24/7 or a shill for the Telcos. Becuse so many of the progressives I know don't want to believe that Martin might actually care about market power and consumer protection, all evidence of such progressive tendencies is explaned away by ever whackier conspiracy theories.

Now lets flip it. Assume you are someone who voted Republican. You want to believe you made the right decision back in 2000 and 2004. You are much more receptive to messages from people who you feel “share your values,” even if the current Amdinistration has betrayed your trust. And you already have a sense as to which source of information you believe more v. those you are less willing to believe.

This gives us the basic recipe for success for the Republican messaging team. Always assume the following very important rules:

1) The base wants to believe. Just like you really want to believe that when that total hottie said “I'll call you sometime,” he or she might actually possibly call, the base wants to believe and come home. The job is therefore to make it as easy as possible for the believer to come home.

This does not mean people are stupid or irrational. But it means that one set of people will be receptive to arguments that look ridiculous, contradictory, or paranoid to party opponents. Becuase just as the base want to believe, the other side wants to hate everything you say. But this can be turned to an advanatge by causing the other side to react with equal predictability. The other side will not recognize the potency of issues, and can be manuevered into reactions that your own base will want to judge negatively, because the base deeply wants to believe.

Consider, ever have a friend who does outrageous things and when your other friends ask “why do you hang out with that guy” you go “oh, that just so-and-so, he doesn't mean any harm by it.” You are cutting that person slack because you know him and like him and make a decision about that person's overall value, while an objective person thinks you are being irrational because they judge based on one piece of information.

2) It is not necessary for the base to love you all the time. All you need is for your believers' emotion to peak on election day. But this does not happen by itself or overnight. You need to carefully nurture it - but without over doing it. You must have a constant stream of little stimuli and predictable reactions from the opposition to keep confirming for them what they want to believe.

This is why McCain and crew have siezed on this “lipstick” nonesense. It was not siezing an opportunity. The Passion and Martydom of Sarah Palin was an integral part of the strategy in selecting her. It was not, as most folks say, to stiffle criticsm. That is thinking way too small. The Rs always understood that they could manufacture an “attack” to drive identification and sympathy becuase the base want to believe. No matter how ridiculous to the disinterested — indignant Clintonites wondering how their sisters can “fall for this crap” take note — the Rs could always claim Palin was attacked and make it stick enough with the people they want to keep pumped. Because those who identify with Palin as a woman struggling, or who are “not ready to vote for a black man” or who want to vote Republican but spent the last 8 years learning to hate John McCain expect Palin to be attacked, they want to beleive the spin given it by the campaign because they identify with her and it confirms what they want to believe.

And even if they don’t believe this “attack,” there will be another attack, and another, and another – because you can always manufacture something into an attack. And if not from Obama or Biden, you can keep reaching until you find someone, a staffer a blogger or past friend or companion, whose statements can be credited to Obama by association. This ensures that those who identify with Palin and feel she shares her values come to believe she is under constant attack, even if any specific “attack” seems too much of a reach for any given person.

This is also why the Swift Boat attacks worked so well, despite all evidence to the contrary. People looking to support Bush despite their doubts wanted to have a reason they could discard Kerry's military experience and ignore Bush's lack of same. It was not even necessary for them to believe the Swift Boat attacks. It was enough to create a way to rationalize the obvious inconsistency. It is why Elliot Spitzer's moral failings show how corrupt the Democratic Party is, but similar failings by Jim Vitter deserve sympathy and don't apply to the party generally. Or vice versa if you are a Democrat and not and Republican.

As the Bush folks found out, and as the Rs found out in 2006, you can eventually exhaust your supply of good will beyond repair. People move on to disillusionment and rationalize how they can dump you without admitting error on their own part. But this brings us to point 3.

3) Simultaneously, you want as much of the other side's voters to stay home. You do not need to convert them, you just need them to stay home. Which is why the Rs are not afraid of alienating the independents by carrying on in this way. They understand that it is enough to create confusion and general disgust with the entire process on the part of the marginally interested. If you assume that your base outnumbers their base in key battleground states, this works quite brilliantly. Remember, a win by 500 votes is as much a win as a win by 1,000,000 votes.

But this also means that you go for your opponents greatest strength, rather than weakness, and you always work proactively to create “incidents.” They don't need to be big. In fact, the more trivial the better. Triviality is hard to fight, disgusts the independents with the process, but constantly reaffirms for your base that everything about the other side is just awful and disgusting. (I expect this and other such lines to be thrown back at me in comments, but I will save disection of the comments for a future post on strategies for poisoning the new media well.)

The Oprah Case Study

With these general principles in mind, we now turn to the Oprah case study, which neatly illustrates all three principles in action.

As a strategic matter, if you are trying to win a specific demographic and undermine your opponent, you look at the strengths your opponent has and seek to neutralize them. Folks will recall that Oprah Winfrey gave a huge boost to Barack Obama in the primaries when his candidacy seemed in real trouble. If you support McCain/Palin, you obviously don’t want to see that happen again. But how can you sideline Oprah when the very demographic you hope to court loves Oprah? You can’t just say “Oprah is prejudiced because she supports Obama.” Everyone already knows Oprah supports Obama and are cool with it.

Worse, because your target demographic has a positive association with Oprah, they will be more receptive to her endorsement. After all, if Oprah is my friend and I trust her – even though she is a black woman – why shouldn’t I trust her about Barack Obama being basically O.K. and not one of “those blacks” who hate white people because of slavery and oppression that wasn’t my fault and they need to get past anyway?

So what you want to do is undermine the emotional connection your target demographic has with Oprah, at least on the question of Barack Obama. To do this, you want to play on another emotionally alluring line of reasoning: that Oprah supports Obama because he is black. This also helps underscore another emotionally appealing line of reasoning, that black people will “naturally” help other black people even at the expense of white people. (Happily, thinks the target, I – enlightened white person that I am – rise above this, and can therefore “forgive” Oprah and keep watching her show like I want to.).

Note, this is not nearly as straightforward and simple as saying that the target demographic are prejudiced, hate black people, etc., etc. Indeed, their very acceptance of Oprah and existing emotional attachment shows the opposite (particularly to themselves). What we are talking here is the very fundamental human emotion of tribalism. All people to whom I feel some connection above and beyond the general population – members of my religion, fellow high school or college alumni, fellow members of “Red Sox Nation” – creates a tie and we expect others to feel similarly.

To make matters more interesting, Oprah made a clear initial decision, long before Sarah Palin came on the scene, to avoid any appearance of favoritism. Oprah could interview Obama or any other candidate without giving equal time for others, since under existing FCC precedent Oprah is almost certainly a “bona fide news interview” and not subject to the equal time requirement of Section 312 and 315. But Oprah knew that would not sit well and would violate her relationship with her audience, so she created a firewall between her support for Obama and her show.

So the first step in attacking Oprah is to find some reason why she “should” interview Palin despite this firewall that has persisted for nearly a year – well before Palin came on the scene. Which brings us to the first challenge: how do you make it seem unfair that Oprah took a position to keep her show neutral more than a year ago, and that interviewing Palin would go directly against a commitment she made before McCain won the nomination, let alone before Palin was nominated as McCain's running mate?

Answer: You start by taking the position that Oprah should naturally have Plain on the show, and that therefore the only reason she isn’t is because of her support for Obama. Thus, the Palin Petition website gives this justification:

Oprah Winfrey is an inspirational figure to millions of Americans, who admire her strength, resilience, and force of character. She has become a role model, and an example of someone who overcame hardship and stereotypes to build the life she wanted.

That is why we respectfully ask that Oprah reconsider her position concerning a public interview with the Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Like Oprah, Ms. Palin has carved out her own path in life, from pursuing a career in a field (and political party) dominated by men, to her difficult choice to raise a child with Down Syndrome.

In the interest of empowering women and providing them with examples of strong female leadership, we request that Oprah Winfrey arrange an interview with Sarah Palin.

This is carefully designed to resonate with those who identify with both Palin and Oprah (i.e., the core demographic). To put it in high school terms (and lets face it, everything you need to know about politics you experienced in high school), this is “why isn't my friend Oprah inviting my friend Sarah so we can have a great time together. It must be because Oprah likes Barack more than she likes Sarah. If Oprah were fair about it, she would have my friend Sarah over too.” This, in fact, the approach now being taken as the attack percolates to peak.

It doesn't matter that Oprah has never had Obama (or any other candidate for President) on the show, never used her show to benefit Obama, and would have been accused of all sorts of terrible things if she did. What resonates on an emotinal level with the base that wants to believe is that Oprah should have Palin on because both stand for the same thing (strong women like us), and the only reason she isn't having Plain on is because of her support for Obama. Educators who study the “queen bee” phenomena (where a popular “queen bee” emerges as the dominant force in groups of teenage girls) refer to this as the subject-object paradigm By making Oprah the object of the discussion, the queen bee (the petition drive) and the target demographic become the subject of action together and draw closer to each other and away from the object. It's why Queen Bee gossiping about one wanna bee to another wanna bee works so effectively.

Note that this will not prove 100% effective. It doesn't need to get everyone in the target. All it needs to do is provide one more confirmatory piece of evidence for a base that wants to believe that Palin is being unfairly attacked by the media and that her friends (the target demographic) must defend her by turning out to vote. Even those who accept the neutrality of Oprah will still come away with an overall impression of media attack and unfair bias, because it fits with what they want to believe.

Needed Separation From the Campaign

Of course, if Palin herself were involved, it would be much to obvious. This is why it is necessary to work through “non-partisan” intermediaires. It means that the particular tendril can always be disavowed. Better, it provides a “fact” so that when partisans on the Obama side do respond, it can be “proven” that this has “nothing to do with Plain” which confirms that Palin is coming under unfair attack from “liars” who “hate her.” (This meme will be repeated in comments to this entry.) It is a double win, because it makes the Obama supporters (and, by extension, Obama) disgusting as “liars” and “bad people” and reenforces the expectation of attack on Palin and the emotional bond.

But a close look shows that the individuals in question are “non-partisan” and “unconnected with the campaign” in the same way that Moveon.org is “non-partisan” about Obama. Yes, it is separate from the RNC, but they are huge Plain supporters and well known parts of the conservative movement apparatus. Yet the disconnect from the RNC maintains not merely plausible deniability, but sufficeint proof to the base that wants to believe.

Thus, I note that the website is registered by one “Josh Bolin” in Augusta, that it is backed by a Christian conservative organization called the Political Fish and a conservative publisher called Patriot Books. All of these are perfectly legitimate operations (although they do not strike me as huge Oprah fans beyond this single issue). One can expect my comments to recount how paranoid or crazy I must be to believe they are “in conspiracy” with Palin and the RNC. But it is no surprise that the initial vector for the formation of the attack and the increasing deemphasis on the actual facts and the gradual build up along more emotionally pleasing lines of reason are emerging from a well idenitified sector (which the base will regard as being where “truth” comes from, as opposed to the evil media and liars like me; once again, what the Obama side considers a devestating counter attack is, in fact, merely confirmatory to the expectations of the conservative base).

Predictability of the Mass Media

For the conservative noise machine, it is possible to drive this through the news cycle because the news cycle has become both consolidated and predictable. One can plot the vectors with almost mathematical precision. As the conservative noise machine cranks up the volume in the blogosphere, it engenders a predictable response in the progressive blogosphere. It becomes the focus of trade journals and specialty outlets that cover campaign controversies and issues, or who cover the subject matter (here, Oprah). When Fox is ready to move on it, they have an adequate basis to point to the controversy that “justifies” their treatment and allows them to castigate the “liberal media” for its “failure” to cover the “controversy.” This, of course, drives the cable networks — which have their own stable of conservative pundits able to equally drive the agenda.

Now the non-conservative pundits are in a bind. Ignore it, and you provide substantiation that you are “favoring Obama” by “ignoring the controversy around Oprah favoring Obama.” Criticize it as a trivial distraction and you again provide an emotional attack to those invested in it who think it is a big deal — or at least noteworthy. Cover it as a “he said/she said” and you add legitimacy.

Or, in other words, by the time it reaches the mainstream media, it is too late for the Obama campaign to do anything other than limited damage control. Which makes the Obama campaign look weak for “not fighting back” and being wrong no matter what it does. Because when you reach this point, the attack cycle has done its work on the target demographic. By the time the Obama campaign is addressing this attack, the proactive conservative machine has the next atatck already germinating — based on focus groups and polling data in response to the previous attack which show which emotionaly arguments resonated best.

Ultimate Effectiveness: Democrats Disheartened, Blame Obama Campaign Instead of Focusing Efforts on Actual Opponents.

Which brings us to the final element of what makes for a succesful campaign and why what looks like such a ridiculous strategy (attacking Oprah) succeeds so brilliantly. Because it is manufactured, it can be cooked and percolated for as long as needed. This appears to be peaking witha target of early this week to resurface back on mainstream video: starting with Fox News and its broadcast news pieces, spreading to CNN and other news networks, and culminating with the late night comics. The conservative noise machine controls not merely the content and the tming, it can accurately predict the response of the mainstream media and of the campaigns.

Most commentators identified that picking Palin was a way fo neutralizing criticism. What they failed to understand was that it would always be possible to make something look like an attack. This would require coverage of the “attack” by more neutral media sources, who can be driven with the same certainty as sheep. The stability of the media environment gaurantees that if you can control timing and content you can control MSM response and the response of your opponents as precisely as a well calibrated dental drill. Reaching a specific stage will trigger a desired defensive response, which will be respun to confirm the emotional expectation that has been steadily building for the last week or two.

In this case, the effort to attack this as trivial or obviously false or obviously manufactured has no impact on the target demographic, because they have already bought into the emotional storyline and anticipate precisely this response. The response itself therefore confirms what they already believe. Because what the Obama partisans believe is irrefutable proof, the Palin partisans will interpret as confirming the opposite.

Which is why the independents will be turned off by the whole thing. Because the evidence in the chain is subject to multiple interpretations and the matter is absurdly trivial to those without an emotional investment. Which, again, is one of the critical elements in voter suppression.

Finally, the ineffectiveness of the Dems in anticipating and countering the strategy helps dishearten the Obama base (by convincing them the conservatives are undefeatable). Or, as the spies who explored the Land of Canaan told Moses and the Children of Israel, “as grasshoppers we must have appeared unto them.” And, believing themselves grasshoppers, they become grasshoppers and are squished.

Conclusion: The Conservative Attack Machine Is A Sophisticated, Pro-Active Machine Operating Under A Set of Assumptions that Takes Into Account The Predictable Responses Of The Media and Opponents To enhance Its Effectiveness.

As one can see by the above analysis, the conservative stragey cannot be defeated by saying the right thing, avoiding potential gaffes, “fighting back” with negative adds that simply parallel the other side, or any of the other usual explanations proferred. Because the Conservative Atatck Machine is a proactive and focused campaign relying on generating a constant stream of emotionally appealing incidents designed to mobilize a base that wants to believe, it can employ strategies that continue to surprise opponents that do not understand the strategies or goals of the conservative noise machine.

In my next post on the subject, I will discuss possible counter measures. In the meantime, I will predict that Oprah and her “refusal to interview Palin” is now on schedule to dominate the news and talk shows in the early part of next week, and that it will have predictable spill over into campaign coverage.

article originally published at http://www.wetmachine.com/item/1317.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey