Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Tale of Two Scandals That Weren't

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One of my favorite quotes from President Barack Obama came during a recent press conference. When a reporter asked why he'd taken three days to respond to the AIG bonus scandal, Obama answered: "I like to know what I'm talking about before speaking."

A couple of recent Internet-driven scandals demonstrate that both sides of the political aisle would do well to heed those words.

The first story: While campaigning in St. Louis last year, then-Sen. Obama had lunch at a pizza place called Pi, like the Greek letter. He immediately declared that it was the best pizza he'd ever eaten. So when restaurant owner Chris Sommers came to D.C., the White House asked if he'd come by and make pizza for 140 or so White House staffers, as well as the president and his family. Sommers, probably realizing that a small business doesn't get a chance for that kind of publicity every day, said yes.

Enter right-wing bloggers, for whom no matter is too small to trigger a teeth-gnashing frenzy of rage and hatred. The popular Republican blog Ace of Spades started the conniption when a contributor identified only as "Jack M." began by calling the president a name that I cannot repeat in this newspaper, then went on to rail: "Hey, you guys know what says you are really sincere about this whole Global Warming thing? Jetting a dude across the country to make you a freaking pie."

He went on to say a few more nasty things about extravagance in troubled economic times, and generally painted Obama's pizza party as the worst case of imperial excess since Marie Antoinette. Pretty soon, Pizzagate, as it was inevitably dubbed, was the outrage du jour all over right-wing Web sites.

Only problem is, "Jack M." managed to get pretty much everything wrong about the story, other than the part about Obama liking pizza. Political reporter Tommy Christopher did something radical: He picked up the phone and did some fact-checking.

His findings: Obama didn't "jet anybody in"; Sommers flew coach on a commercial airliner, and he was already coming to D.C. on other business, so his ticket was paid for by the restaurant, not the taxpayers.

The pizzas were paid for by Obama himself. Therefore no increase in carbon emissions, since that plane was coming to DC anyway. The pizzas weren't on the taxpayer's dime, unless you consider Obama's presidential salary the taxpayer's dime, in which case we can expect another complete wingnut meltdown the next time the man buys toothpaste.

Then, over Easter, my fellow liberals proved that they're not immune to shooting first and asking questions later.

It started when customers of the online book retailer noticed that books by gay and lesbian writers or with gay or lesbian themes were disappearing from the sales rankings on the company's Web site. This is a big deal, since the rankings also determine whether or not your books turn up when someone searches on the site.

A few people e-mailed Amazon and got back a reply from customer service that the books had been removed for "adult" (as in X-rated) content. Problem was, the books delisted weren't necessarily any kind of erotica; one of them was Nathaniel Franks' "Unfriendly Fire," a nonfiction book about gays in the military.

Indignation spread like wildfire, aided in large part by the online messaging service Twitter, where angry messages flew fast and furious. Many of the messages accused Amazon of some secret anti-gay agenda; some could be summarized, as writer John Scalzi put it, by "FOAMY FOAMY FAIL FAIL BOYCOTT GAAAH!"

When higher-level Amazon executives returned from their Easter break, they quickly put out a press release: Yes, they were trying to keep actual "adult" products from turning up in searches. (You'd be amazed by what you can buy on Amazon. Really.) But putting gay- and lesbian-themed books in that category was, in their words, "an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error."

Gradually, the formerly delisted books started showing back up.

Of course, there are always going to be people who'll continue to believe the worst. A significant number are still saying they don't buy the "cataloging error" explanation from Amazon, and I predict that years from now we'll still be hearing from people still fuming that "Obama used taxpayer money to fly a guy in to make him a pizza."

The great thing about the Internet is that it has sped up access to information. Unfortunately, misinformation spreads just as quickly. Maybe waiting three days to learn what you're talking about would be a good rule for all of us to follow, at least from time to time.

1 comment:

Gerard Saylor said...

As a library type I can guarantee that catalogue records and the software that organizes the records gets little screw-ups all the time.