There’s nothing new about the “Gotcha!” moment in teevee nooze. It was pioneered by some of the most respectable figures in journalism long ago, most notably “60 Minutes” over 30 years ago. Back then, it was a camera crew led by Mike Wallace openly hunting down people where they least expected it – as they got out of their car or on a golf course. More recently we’ve seen public figures such as NPR’s former chief Ron Schiller and Wisconsin Gov. Walker taken in by ruses that make the “gotcha” even more intimate than it was in the past. But is it really newsworthy, and is it really fair game?
These private moments where public figures are goaded into speaking their minds are only news because that they reveal that our institutions are run by actual humans. What’s shocking about this is that it’s considered shocking at all.
Imagine for a moment that you run a big organization that people rely on. You have carefully crafted policies that attempt to set a high standard, one that meets the expectations of the people that you serve. Would you, as a person, turn off your own feelings and never have an urge to vent? Of course you wouldn’t, and those who knew you well would probably be very aware of your inner turmoil. The public and private have to be kept separate, however, because the organization is far more than the people who head it. The strain goes against one of our most cherished traditions, one of speaking your mind.
Anyone who hears these “gotcha” moments has to have at least some empathy for the poor SOB who gets caught. None of us would perform perfectly in the strain.
For that reason, I seriously doubt that the “gotcha” moments we’ve seen lately are going to change anyone’s opinion directly. They are, almost certainly, intended as another attempt to gain “points” in a game where no one keeps score. But they have great value for the troops that each side is attempting to rally because of the basic principles of organizing laid down by Saul Alinsky:
“Pick the target, freeze it, personify it, and polarize it.”
These “gotcha” moments are nothing more than an organizing tool, something that keeps those on your side engaged and active. An institution is a nearly impossible target because it is mushy and hard to define. Any big organization is also going to profess to have high standards that do their best to claim moral high ground. A person? That’s something we can all relate to, however. We’re all flawed and we all have our moments. Capturing the warts of a person on tape is a great step towards demonizing them.
It also opens up obvious charges of hypocrisy. As Alinsky said on Tactics:
“The Fourth Rule (of tactics) is: make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian Church can live up to Christianity.”
If “gotcha” tactics are obviously about organizing a political movement, why do they make the evening nooze? Because they are juicy and sensational. It’s the smell of hypocrisy that makes it seem newsworthy – even though they shed almost no light on a story, at least not in a way that advances the narrative. They could be considered newsworthy, however, in the context of how they play out among the people they are supposed to influence. If reporters only understood Alinsky as well as activists on both the “left” and the “right” do, we might have some very interesting stories in the news.
We can be sure of one thing, however – this trend has been successful in both its primary goal of rallying the troops and getting attention in wider media. As long as both of these are true we can expect a lot more “gotcha” and a lot less attention to how we find our way out of a bad situation.
In the meantime the best we can all do is to read as much context into the “gotcha” as we can on our own. It’s not a great substitute, but a careful consumer of nooze always has the second draft of history in mind even as the first draft is being written.