How I Became a Right Wing Talking Point

MelissaLafsky-1Just how effective is the right wing media at hijacking a topic, blasting controversial sound bites, and stirring widespread outrage, all without a shred of context, debate, or discussion of salient issues? Incredibly, as I found out the hard way.

My intention was not to bait national controversy when I wrote a piece after Ted Kennedy’s death titled, “The Footnote Speaks: What Would Mary Jo Kopechne Have Thought of Ted’s Career?” for The Huffington Post. The short editorial discussed Kennedy’s accomplishments and the role Kopechne may have played in them, and speculated as to whether she would have felt that his singular career (made possible by his failure to serve jail time for her death) might be worth the injustice she suffered.

I thought it was an apt time for reflection, free from the ideological battles of the past; the right thought differently. The post — in particular the last line, “Who knows — maybe she’d feel it was worth it” — was picked up by the conservative echo chamber and repeated ad nauseum by the right wing media machine. First it was Fox News Radio, blasting me for my “offensive and amoral suggestion.” Then Rush Limbaugh entered the fray, announcing that my post meant that “liberal young women like to die for the cause of advancing Kennedys’ careers.” Then came The Washington Times, The O’Reilly Factor, The National Review and just about every right-wing blog on the Internet. I was denounced as a “sick and twisted liberal.” In poured the hate mail, filled with violent and sexually explicit language. The blogosphere exploded with vitriol. A few people called in threats to my office. I fielded questions about security, and began to worry about going outside.

No one can say the right wing media isn’t efficient when it comes to creating maelstroms in teapots, or that they don’t make full use of the resources available; The Huffington Post and other left wing sites have become easy trolling grounds for conservative media looking for a sound bite or quote to stir easy controversy. Twitter, the perfect medium for disseminating a short, context-free message, is also a quick feed for more knee-jerk reactionism. In fact, the right’s topic hijacking was so effective that in a matter of days, the conversation about Kennedy’s Senate record, the causes he championed, health care reform, or any other relevant and important issue was entirely sidelined by entire news segments about…a single line in my blog post.

As for the now-infamous kicker itself, there was no discussion or debate – I was asked to appear on John Gibson’s Fox News Radio show, and had an argument that went nowhere (the highlight was when Scott Allen Miller asked if Mary Jo would have approved of a minimum wage increase), while other conservative radio hosts asked me to come on their show and “defend my offensive remarks.” (I declined.) But no other news outlet offered me the chance to appear and have a rational debate, or even expound on the intended meaning of my remarks. The lack of relevant discussion in favor of flame-fanning sound bites was impressive in its effectiveness. As with “death panels,” “socialism,” and countless other partisan shibboleths, the power granted to the phrase “maybe she’d feel it was worth it” was exhaustive. It was pure political theater wielded beautifully, with conservative news outlets veering the discussion wherever they choose – which is usually straight into fear-based misinformation. This tactic for delivering information is irresponsible and unethical, sure – but even more invidious is the effect it is having on American discourse.

It’s no small irony that Kopechne, a staunch Democrat in life, was the centerpiece for this frenzy. The gist of my post was that she believed passionately in the causes that Kennedy championed — a fact that may lend those causes even greater importance. But that slightly nuanced point didn’t matter a bit to Limbaugh’s foot soldiers, who wasted no time launching their full-on rage assault. So I’m spending the summer’s end deleting e-mails without reading them and looking over my shoulder, while a loud and substantial portion of the news media has reduced its conversation about the greatest Senate career in history to a sideshow act about my personal failings. Then again, at least it kept Laura Ingraham from plugging death panels.

Melissa Lafsky is the founder of For money, she’s the deputy web editor at Discover Magazine, and the former editor of the New York Times‘s Freakonomics blog. You can follow her on Twitter at @lafsky.

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