What Borat and the Service/Professional Economy Can Teach Us About The Latest Round of Right-Wing Taping Faux-Scandals.

UPDATE:   Sigh.  I should have waited two hours before writing this.  I could have pointed to someone who went in and showed how doctored the footage is.  The Republican hijacked line isn’t even him saying his own believes but attributing them to senior GOP people he knows on background.   This is more manipulated than I imagined – and yet someone is fired and reputations have been drawn through the mud. Watch some of the videos on the taking it apart piece by piece, by The Blaze. Kudos to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze for putting this out there.


Kevin Drum writes the age of the political sting. I have a theory about why the Right has functionally become very good at scandal mongering through video stings, and it goes to the movie Borat.

First, let’s line up the fake scandals.

Ryan Grim on the doctored Planned Parenthood tapes:

Rose promoted the edited video as proof that Planned Parenthood knew that a 13-year-old child was impregnated by a 31-year-old man but continued to counsel the patient. But in the full-length video, it becomes clear that Rose, who is pretending to be pregnant, tells a volunteer that she is 13 and later tells a nurse that her boyfriend is 31. Each person has only one piece of the information, though in the edited tape it appears as though Rose is talking to the same person the entire time. Rose was in fact over 18 at the time of the video, so the nurse would have little reason to suspect statutory rape. At the very end of the longer clip, Rose tells the nurse that she is 13, at which point the video cuts out and the nurse is seen giving no further counseling. An official affiliated with Planned Parenthood said that the nurse suspected that Rose was lying about her age and so ended the conversation. Had Rose gone forward with the process and become an official patient of the center, she would have then been required to show identification, said the official.

Gawker tears the NPR taping to shreds:

Anyway, O’Keefe “caught” Schiller expressing many views common to pointy-headed liberal elitists, like “we need Muslim voices on the air,” and “we believe in nonracist, non-bigoted, straightforward telling of the news.” Schiller also—after explicitly “taking off [his] NPR hat” and making abundantly clear that he was speaking personally—said the Republican Party has been hijacked by anti-intellectual reactionaries and that liberals are better educated than conservatives. These are political views, and some people in America hold them! Keep in mind that Schiller is a fundraiser—he’s basically the NPR equivalent of an ad sales guy. To catch him expressing his personal political views, which align fairly closely to those of about half the electorate, is kind of like catching CNN’s chief adman speaking admiringly of Ross Perot, in that it would mean absolutely nothing.

A few things. I watched the heavily-edited scare video of the NPR fundraising lunch (at the gawker link). Within 12 seconds we get “two citizen journalists posed as Muslims…” Heh. I usually pose as a lapsed Catholic, though during holidays I pose as a reluctant Catholic around family.   It’s amazing that O’Keefe is one of the most important and influential voices under 40 working in the conservative space.

Listening to the scare quotes, there seems to be two pulls: 1. The fundraising guy thinks the Republican Party has been hijacked by its extreme wing and 2. this wing is racist and xenophobic. Adjusting the words a bit, I think #1 has a widespread amount of acceptance – the election of 2008 and subsequent years has moved the party, its ideals and its elected representatives further to the Right rather than to a center. That’s the narrative the Tea Partiers themselves will put into words. Its why one of their big moments was when they put Bob Bennett’s head on a spike for proposing a health care bill and voting for TARP and then showed it to all potentially wavering Republicans.

#2 One of my personal theory is that anti-immigration is a serious glue for the current conservative movement. The most intense moment inside the political class of the past two years, the moment that most obviously crossed the line, was Joe Wilson’s “You Lie!” during Obama’s speech on health care reform. And that was in response to Obama clarifying that undocumented workers would in no way get health care (“the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally” “You lie!”).

But whatever.  I don’t see racist, but he’s talking to a donor who made the point initially and he amplified it in a carefully controlled way. Imagine if he didn’t do that. If a potential donor said that the Tea Party is racist – not an out of bounds statement by any means – to a fundraiser, and then the fundraiser said “you Sir are a jerk.” Wouldn’t you fire that fundraiser?  Making people writing $5,000,000 checks feel comfortable, amplifying their arguments and explaining what parts of your large organization might fit well with what they are looking for, if applicable, are exactly what fundraisers are supposed to do.


But that’s the catch, and it goes to Borat. A huge part of the Borat humor is taking people whose jobs are to behave a certain way under a familiar, professionalized script and then start acting like a weirdo. A local morning TV anchorman, someone who is a humor coach, a lady who is into proper dining manners, someone who does wonky-expert driven arguments, etc. They all try to keep to their scripts while the person opposite of them acts like a buffoon, and the jarring thing about the experience is how seriously they keep to the script instead of going “stop acting like a buffoon.”   The Southern dinner party lady who politely shows her guest Borat how to use the bathroom without breaking the social script of good manners is the obvious example.

These right-wing videos take this and amplify a particularly interesting part of the service/professionalized economy. When so much of our economy is driven by professionals there is a lot of work done in making sure that there are layers of people between the consumer and the professional. The professional’s time is valuable money, and so its usually beneficially to get layers of cheaper, less professional service staff on board as vetting intermediaries.  You don’t want the expensive brain surgeon making sure you’ve filled out your address and contact information correctly or taking your temperature – that’s why there’s a secretary and a nurse in-between these steps at the hospital.

What the right-wing videos do – the ACORN and the Planned Parenthood ones – is present the front-line staff as the actual decision making professionals. They make it seem like the first person you talk with in the door is the one who signs off on the actual decisions. Notice the Ryan Grim article on Planned Parenthood – the “scandal” occurs before the person in question is an actual patient. The front-line service staff’s job is to gather information in detail, whittle it down to appropriate and not appropriate, and then present it those who will make the actual decisions.

The scandal machine doesn’t actually make it to the actual professionals who would have made decisions.   Instead their scandal was at the level of service, front-line workers who couldn’t exercise judgement in a full way because it isn’t their job.  What the videos do is make it look like the secretary is the boss, as opposed to someone whose social script is to not make any of the cutting decisions.  What’s amazing is how much the front-line staff cuts the O’Keefe political stingers out at the knees or calls bullshit on their lies (examples they usually edit out), not how few.

The same goes for NPR.   Fundraising is a game that involves a fair amount of flattering, or at least making people feel comfortable.   These videos exploit that to make it seem like NPR doesn’t care that their donations might come from shadowing organizations who provides Muslim educational centers for children.  (As someone who went to Catholic school, is this what it was like for Catholic schools in the 1920s?)  But of course when it comes time for the actual vetting of documents, NPR vets them as full professionals on the law making it clear that they need to follow all applicable laws.  Those emails are clear and direct and entirely professional.  That part of the story gets lost.

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3 Responses to What Borat and the Service/Professional Economy Can Teach Us About The Latest Round of Right-Wing Taping Faux-Scandals.

  1. JP says:

    I never would have made the Borat connection, but this sounds absolutely right. I’m sure that the film was a kind of touch-stone for these conservative “documentarians”.

    One of things about “Borat” is that the film blends fiction and reality nearly seamlessly over 90+ minutes. That’s pretty amazing. e.g. stunts like the Pamela Anderson abduction were planned in advance with the principals, the scene at the rodeo had some edited moments, many of the other moment were “genuine” pranks — so you get genuine reactions.

    The thing with the O’Keefe tapes is that they tend to be pretty amateurish — and the world that they create is almost entirely made up in the editing bay. Even in the case of the ACORN tapes the intros involving the Pimp and Ho outfits were added in the editing booth. It was also discovered by DAs in San Diego and NYC that looked into the tapes that sections of the audio had been doctored. If these tapes were combined and released as feature films they undoubtedly would be box-office busts. Of course, the amplification of these vids by the distribution channels that treat them as actual news without any scrutiny lends them an air of credibility that they don’t deserve (e.g. Fox didn’t bother to go to ACORN early in the process; the channel never mentioned that the videos had been edited in a way that was misleading; you never heard mention of the fact that a couple of the offices refused to play along with the stunt and called the police; Fox was apparently more than happy to lie by multiple omissions). Even after running with the story for close to a month a “news” organization like Fox never bothered to vet the story, and it never bothered to run corrections. It helped to create a false perception based on a lie.

    Another side of this too is that the target audience for these tapes probably doesn’t care that they are fabrications. These tapes basically reinforce existing attitudes that the target audience has, so you don’t have to even deal with the issue of an audiences’ “suspension of disbelief.” The target audience is already on board for the ride and they won’t ask too many questions. In order to achieve that effect in a fictional work, you need some real professional skill.

    The observation that these vids target low-level staff and then portray them as principals sounds right too. Once again, if you’re dealing with an uncritical audience its easier to manipulate appearances in a way that the audience will still buy as real.

    On some level though it is pretty amazing that amateurish propaganda works on the small screen as they do. It reminds me a bit of an Orson Welles quote about Reagan: “I always knew that an actor would be president, I just never thought it would be a second-rate one”. First-rate fiction is hard to create and requires artistry and craft. Second-rate low-budget fiction may actually be easier to pass off as “real” if it’s simply labeled as real by the creators (you could also file this under the heading “L. Ron Hubbard”). In this case, it’s especially true if you’re dealing with an audience that has very little media savvy and very little inclination to be critical in the first place.

  2. EMichael says:

    JP said, on March 11, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Another side of this too is that the target audience for these tapes probably doesn’t care that they are fabrications.”

    I think you can safely eliminate the “probably” from this sentence. Wth all that entails.

  3. janinsanfran says:

    I just want to say this is one of the few interesting discussions I’ve seen of how a rather silly political attack phenomenon works. I still think that if the targets of this garbage would simply call out the perps of attack journalism as the shills for privilege they are, this would be harder to amplify. But I appreciate your explication of the “craft” of these tactics.

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