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Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen

Posted: August 20, 2008 10:35 AM

Hype Busters at Mother Jones Bring the Noise


Is the concept really so hard for the editors of Mother Jones to grasp? Hype-busting and the exercise of hype are very closely related things; one may easily turn into the other if you're not careful, in the same way that playing the race card and accusations of playing the race card bring on the same dynamic.

Mother Jones is currently running a feature called The Audacity of Hype? It offer us the views of 24 writers, thinkers and historians on a question the editors find important:

Is Barack Obama exaggerating when he compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in US history?

There's no quote from Obama comparing his campaign to the great progressive moments in American history. There's no link to a text where he says that. This seemed odd for 2008; by now, the ethic of the link is reasonably well known among those who publish online. I asked the people in my Twitter feed, "If you're editing this for Mother Jones, do you run the feature without a quote or link where Obama offers the comparison?" Russ Walker, formerly an editor at washingtonpost.com, said, "Absolutely not."

In the email I got from David Corn as he pushed out to his list a promo for the Mother Jones feature, it says, "Prominent thinkers and writers ponder Obama and his claim that his campaign is comparable to the great progressive movements in U.S. history." Obama really said something like that? He said his campaign is a "movement" comparable to, say, the civil rights movement, or to second wave feminism, or to the labor movement after the industrial revolution? If so, I had missed it. So had Dan Kennedy. ("Let's have the precise language.")

Now I've heard Obama say, "this is our moment, this is our time." So have you. But that's different from a truth claim like, "my campaign is a movement comparable to the great progressive movements in history." My doubts were increased by the phrase: The Audacity of Hype. This doubles the editors' bet. They're not only suggesting he made the claim, they're saying it's been repeated often enough to be an audacious form of self-promotion. They're provoking Pat Buchanan and giving him a forum to say things like...

It is absurd to argue that the nomination or an election of Barack Obama would be as important a historical event as the liberation of 3 million slaves after the bloodiest war in American history, that took 600,000 lives and set the South back a century.

Well, yeah, it would be absurd, if anyone had argued that. Buchanan is clowning, and Mother Jones is helping him. Why? From what I know of the contemporary attack machine, any statement from the candidate himself that compared Obama '08 to the great movements for freedom and justice in our history would have been quite the controversy, what with the McCain camp already mocking his messiah complex and calling him "The One." Why would Mother Jones, a progressive magazine, accuse Obama of the same thing McCain is attacking him for?

It didn't make a lot of sense, especially without a quote, link, or reference point. So I wrote to David Corn, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, asking him: where did Obama make this claim? What were you guys talking about? He kindly sent me an excerpt from a speech given by Obama. He said it should have been part of the introduction to the published forum, but somehow wasn't. (Okaaay... so you're going to fix that, right?)

This is what Mother Jones editors sent to the participants along with the question, "Is Barack Obama exaggerating when he compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in US history?" I present it as a public service. See if you can find the point where that particular comparison is made. I couldn't, but I am just one reader.

Nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened unless somebody, somewhere is willing to hope. Somebody is willing to stand up. Somebody who is willing to stand up when they are told "No you can't" and instead they say, "Yes we can."


That's how this country was founded. A group of patriots declaring independence against a mighty British empire--nobody gave them a chance--but they said, "Yes we can." That's how slaves and abolitionists resisted that wicked system, and how a new president charted a course to ensure we would not remain half slave and half free.

That's how the greatest generation--my grandfather fighting in Patton's Army, my grandmother staying at home with a baby and still working on a Bomber assembly line--how that greatest generation overcame Hitler and fascism, and also lifted themselves up out of a Great Depression.

That's how pioneers went West when people told them it was dangerous, they said, "Yes we can." That's how immigrants traveled from distant shores when people said their fates would be uncertain, "Yes we can." That's how women won the right to vote, how workers won the right to organize, how young people like you traveled down South to march and sit in and go to jail, and some were beaten and some died for freedom's cause. That's what hope is. That's what hope is.

That's what hope is. That moment when we shed our fears and our doubts. When we don't settle for what the cynics tell us we have to accept. Because cynicism is a sorry sort of wisdom. When we instead join arm in arm and decide we are going to remake this country, block by block, precinct by precinct, county by county, state by state. That's what hope is.

There's a moment in the life of every generation, when that spirit has to come through if we are to make our mark on history. And this is our moment. This is our time.

Okay, Huff Posters: Which comes closest to your view?

1.) Sure enough, Obama in this excerpt "compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in US history" and Mother Jones caught him at it, puncturing the Obama hype. Good for them!

2.) No, Obama does not "claim that his campaign is comparable to the great progressive movements in U.S. history." Not even close. Mother Jones is engaging in the kind of audacious hype it claims to be opposing. Bad move.

3.) It doesn't matter whether Obama himself actually said anything like that because his supporters believe his campaign is a movement of transcendent historical importance, and that's what Mother Jones really meant, it's just that the editors phrased it badly, attributing to the candidate claims that have been made by others about him.

My vote is for 2.) Yours? And if you have a better text where the claim is made that "Barack Obama for president" is like the great social movements of the past, send it along. (This speech to the NAACP might have had that language in it, but doesn't.)

I've been around the block before on an issue like this. (""Mother Jones invites you to question if the Politics 2.0 revolution really lives up to its hype.") I think the editors should correct their mistake, which was to publish this feature without any reference point or link. That would be "smart, fearless journalism," circa World Wide Web. They should add that Obama didn't explicitly make the claims they are accusing him of making, unless they have a passage where he does.

I'll update you if anything happens.

UPDATE (Aug. 20, 10:00 pm)

The editor of Mother Jones replies and the magazine adjusts its feature online, adding the text of the speech that participants were reacting to. That corrects for part of what's wrong with it.

Dan Kennedy, The audacity of Mother Jones. "I think the truth is #2 plus a strong dose of #3, along with at least a slight whiff of #1.... It's not so much that MoJo is completely wrong; it's that the magazine is being reductionist and stupid. Why?"

At the MoJo blog, Jonathan Stein posts Obama's Historical Comparisons, with more explanation. "Obama does indeed put himself in a historical context alongside the great progressive movements of the last century," he says. "Do I personally think that Obama sees his candidacy as on par with the civil rights movement or Revolutionary War soldiers? No." Hmmm. But it's okay for the magazine to suggest it?

CJR's Campaign Desk read it. Mother Jones's Obama feature falls flat.

Kennedy points to this earlier observation by Jonathan Stein at the MoJo blog, back in February. Barack Obama's Messiah Complex. Definitely worth reading.

Does this post play unhelpfully into the pernicious and growing Obamaism-as-cult meme that we'll likely see repeated over and over by the right wing if Obama gets the nomination? It does. Sorry. But Obama's rhetoric makes an undeniable suggestion: that his election, not an eight-year administration that successfully implements his vision for America, would represent a moment in America of the grandest, most transformative kind. And that's a bit much.

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