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The Gaffe Machine

By Brian | August 30, 2007 | Share on Facebook

Let’s talk for a minute about this woman:

Her name is Caitlin Upton, and she was the fourth place finisher in the 2007 Miss Teen USA Pageant. Despite the fact that the pageant didn’t even make the Top 20 Nielsen ratings, the above video has (as of this writing) been viewed by approximately 1.5 million people. Other versions of the video are on YouTube as well, and two of them are currently listed in YouTube’s Top 10 Most Viewed video list. It’s safe to say that more people have seen the video clip than watched the actual pageant to begin with.

It’s also safe to say that every last one of them thinks Ms. Upton is as dumb as a brick. The user comments on the above video call her everything from a “moron” to a “dumb bitch” to one who “only exists to give pleasure to men.” The thing is, she’s not so dumb. This from MSNBC:

Held up on the Internet as the quintessential dumb blonde, Upton was an honor student in high school who played varsity soccer for four years. This summer, she traveled to Germany with an elite soccer team that placed second in a tournament involving teams from a number of European countries. In her junior and senior years, she was her school’s president of SkillsUSA, which describes itself as “a partnership of students, teachers and industry working together to ensure America has a skilled work force.”

Upton’s long-term goals include enrolling in Appalachian State University to major in graphic design. On graduation, she wants to study special effects at the International Academy of Design Technology in Los Angeles and embark on a career designing special effects for movies and television.

On the Today Show the following day, she gave a much more coherent answer to the pageant’s question, and also came back later in the show to deliver “a flawless explanation of lunar eclipses.”

So what we have here is a character assassination. Caitlin Upton is not a dumb blonde, but she did commit the worst sin in America: she looked bad on television. Once she did that, millions of Americans formed and cemented their opinions, and no amount of explanation or second chances was going to help.

She’s also not the first non-moron to fall victim to this phenomenon. President Bush jumps immediately to mind. As does former Vice President Dan Quayle, and Vice Presidential candidate James Stockdale (of “Who am I? Why am I here?” infamy).

But there’s something else going on here as well. This is a new, 21st Century version of character assassination, in which no individual or group conspires to destroy a person. At least in the cases of Bush or Quayle, one could argue that their political enemies conspired to spin up injurious tales about them, altering public perceptions to achieve their own ends. In Ms. Upton’s case, our cultural mechanisms, including the glut of entertainment content available across thousands of cable and satellite channels, not to mention the almighty Internet, seem to automatically generate this kind of story, leaving the victim no one to blame and no effective recourse, despite the fact that the message is horribly inaccurate.

It feels as though the pageant is not so much televised to be viewed by the public, but to provide raw materials for those who would scan through it, find an embarrassing or humorous moment, and then highlight it for the world via YouTube or some similar vehicle. Then, social networking takes over and distributes the “gaffe” around the world, pointing people back to the source material only if they’d like further context.

In a weird way, the same can be said of the 29 “Presidential” debates that have been scheduled so far. I put the word “Presidential” in quotes because we all seem to be ignoring the fact that there is no presidential election this year, and so these debates are really about giving the candidates the opportunity to say something newsworthy. There is no real reason to watch them when they happen (and, in fact, very few people have). Instead, we count on the teeming millions out there (mainstream media and bloggers alike) to extract any controversial, embarrassing, humorous, or otherwise interesting snippet from them, post them in a publicly viewable forum, and then spread the word to the rest of us.

Both the pageants and the debates (and while you’re at it, throw in Reality TV shows, Award shows, most sporting events, and anything that’s ever been on C-SPAN), are no longer the end product. They are inputs for the giant Gaffe Machine that we’ve built with our technological capabilities and our short attention spans.

It all makes me wonder whether this Gaffe Machine is the cause or the effect. If the only way to see the gaffe was to watch the debate, might the entire debate be more informative? If the only way to hear Ms. Upton fumble on about “U.S. Americans” was to watch the pageant, would the pageant itself be more popular, and by extension, more entertaining?

Topics: News and/or Media | 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “The Gaffe Machine”

  1. Jeff Porten says at September 5th, 2007 at 1:44 am :
    I’m resisting the temptation to engage you on the offhand dismissal of the “Bush and Quayle are idiots” meme.

    Regarding Ms. Upton, I’m a bit less sympathetic than you are. Yes, she’s getting her 15 minutes of fame as America’s Favorite Anencephalic, thanks to her misphrased 15 seconds. Then again, she also voluntarily put herself on national television, and she did so in an area where there is a presumption that every participant is an over-coiffed idiot.

    I’m in agreement with you, however, that whatever Ms. Upton is, the people who take the time to abuse her are clearly lower forms of life.

    Finally — no, this isn’t new with the Internet. This has been going on for over three centuries in this country, that I know of. Read Ben Franklin’s Autobiography sometime to see what impact the pamphleteers had in their day. If anything, the Internet is a boon to Caitlin, because it fairly well guarantees that her gaffe will be forgotten shortly.

  2. Brian says at September 5th, 2007 at 10:28 pm :
    Well, we agree on the people that take time to abuse her. I’d also reserve a slightly less harsh version of that criticism for people who take time to insult her without knowing all the facts. But that’s just picking nits, I think.

    As for the Internet, I think it’s a stretch to say this isn’t new. It’s like saying eBay wasn’t a new idea because auctions existed before. Except now I can bid on a Star Wars Action Figure that someone is selling from their basement in Utah.

    As I said in the post, character assassination isn’t new, but real-time assassination done without an identifiable perpetrator is new (at least Franklin could blame the pamphleteer).

    Also, this concept of “content as context” is new. I swear we’re moving to a mode where candidates go into a room with a moderator and debate for 8 hours, everything is videotaped, but they only post the “gaffes” on the internet. It’d free up a TV channel that no one’s watching anyway…

  3. Jeff Porten says at September 6th, 2007 at 4:57 pm :
    As for the Internet, I think it’s a stretch to say this isn’t new.

    Hey, I’m the last guy to say that the Internet didn’t change anything. I’m just pointing out that human beings have been in engaging in this sort of behavior for a long time. Case in point:

    As I said in the post, character assassination isn’t new, but real-time assassination done without an identifiable perpetrator is new

    Nah, far from it. Here’s what’s new: our definition of “real-time”.

    Today we have the technology to make “real time” equivalent to instantaneous. But check out the news cycle in 1774. A debate is held on 5th and Market. Outside Independence Hall, this information is relayed, and in some cases announced via town criers. The “reporters” of the time run back to their presses, set the news in type, add in their own commentary (there was no such thing as “objective” at the time), and the papers hit the streets.

    These then start circulating. Farmers in Lancaster might get a copy in a few days. Printers in Boston, New York, Richmond and Atlanta might hire people to throw a bunch of papers in a sack and carry them down. Wealthy people might set up their own “subscriptions” — Franklin did this both in the colonies and in France.

    If you’re in Boston reading a Philadelphia newspaper three days after printing, that’s “real time” for that era. Not only are you getting the news as quickly as anyone else can — but the events themselves are slowed down because they are also keyed to the speed of the news. An elite Bostonian would have time to affect the actions of the Continental Congress, because the Congress itself needed to wait to hear back from the Massachusetts legislature on the same time-scale.

    In the case of pamphlets, they very much acted as the websites and blogs of their day. Many were printed anonymously (sometimes both printer and author), especially pre-Revolution — Franklin himself used at least two pseudonyms and it was not known who the author was. They were disseminated based on their quality (primarily entertainment value), and if you were the target of a pamphlet, you had less ability to counter it than you do today — likewise, good luck getting your own message to the people who read the first pamphlet.

    Read what the elites had to say about pamphleteers back then — it sounds awfully similar to what’s being said today about Wikipedia.

    this concept of “content as context” is new. I swear we’re moving to a mode where candidates go into a room with a moderator and debate for 8 hours, everything is videotaped, but they only post the “gaffes” on the internet.

    I agree that it’s bad, I disagree that it’s new. Perhaps the “new” thing is that you actually have to do something to create a gaffe. In the past, they could make it up out of whole cloth. Today, they at least need source material to misquote. Keep in mind that the “I invented the Internet” “gaffe” routinely misquoted what Gore said in the first place. Or that the Dean Scream only took place electronically — people live at the event heard it very differently.

    Personally, my thinking is that we’re setting up a panopticon that will capture everyone’s actions the same way we capture politicians’, and that many lives will be ruined while we wait for our culture to catch up. There’s already plenty of evidence that our generation has a very different conception of privacy than the next one. The end result is going to make our culture extremely different than it is today — politics is the least of it, IMO.

  4. Brian says at September 7th, 2007 at 9:50 pm :
    I think you’re missing my point – there’s a big difference between anonymous attacks and attacks that weren’t initiated by any one particular person. Notice that no one knows/cares who put the “Macaca” video on YouTube. Our public perception is that it “appears” there, and people tell each other to watch. Then people in the various forms of media feel compelled to react, in order to fill their 24/7 tapeworm…

  5. FamilyGreenberg.Com - Insta-Scandal! says at July 13th, 2008 at 2:16 am :
    [...] on the graphic above to watch hilarious video that backs up my oft-mentioned Gaffe Machine [...]


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