The Media Built It: On the Death of Context

Denny Sollmann, owner of Sollmann Electric Company,  is pissed off at the Prez, and he’d like you to know about it. Speaking directly into the camera, he takes the Barackness to task; “He was trying to say “hey, you didn’t build this on your own….the government helped you build that….Mr. President, unfortunately, you have no idea how we here in Midwestern Ohio have to try to run a small business.” Sollman’s diatribe is part of an Mitt Romney campaign commercial, which is in turn part of an ad campaign called “These Hands”. Said ad campaign was created to rebut and refute a statement that ranks among the most offensive ever made by a sitting president–or it least would rank among the most offensive, had it actually been said in the context to which it is so frequently referred.

If you’re a news junkie like myself, you’re probably well aware of this series of unfortunate events, but here’s a quick recap. While giving stumping for a second term in Roanoke, President Obama gave a speech that included these words:

“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t built that. Somebody else made that happen.”

It was the slip-up heard ’round the world, one that many conservatives and disillusioned moderates insisted cut to the heart of President Obama’s flimsily disguised core belief–that no hardworking individual could do well without Imagesignificance interference from and dependency on the United States. government. In the weeks that followed, this gaffe was met with a groundswell of anger, with everyone from pizzeria owners to private equity managers investing in “I did built it” signs and t-shirts. The Romney capitalized on the burgeoning fury with the “These Hands” ads, and, finally, put the statement at the center of last month’s Republican National Convention. Obama, many believed, had made a significant  gaffe, one that shouldn’t be forgiven and certainly not forgotten. Only one problem…

It wasn’t a gaffe. It was part of a logically coherent and relatively uncontroversially–if admittedly arrogant–speech. If you watch the full clip here, it’s pretty clear that “you didn’t built that” refers to the greater American system of regulation, compensation, and innovation that allows us to prosper–something we may help adjust and improve, but sure as hell didn’t build. How was the meaning of this passage distorted so? That, my friends, has a lot to do with a media manipulation technique that’s growing increasingly popular even as those made aware of it grow increasingly disgusted. I call it radical recontextualizing. Many members of today’s media don’t just take quotes a little out of context–by doctoring a statement, totally divorcing it from the circumstances in which it was said, and then marrying it to a totally new narrative, they repurpose the quote–they recontextualize it.

Having watched the full quote, take a look at the Sollmann video again. Notice some substantial differences? The embrace of teachers, the ode to the American system, the praise for individual initiative–all are missing. The Romney campaign isn’t just taking the quote out of context, it’s actually altering the quote, cutting words here and there until it gets the desired effect. They aren’t subtle about it, either. Listen to how Obama’s voice cuts in and out, as if someone’s listening to his speech on the radio and then playing with the dial.

This is an openly dishonest attempt to stir up populist anger, to turn Obama and his administration into a radical outgroup and instigate a cultish “us-vs-them” reaction. This is an open deception.

It’s also been a highly successful one. What’s worse, it hasn’t been the only recontextualized ad that’s dishonestly shifted the political discourse. An earlier Romney ad featured Obama saying “If we make this about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Never mind that Obama was actually quoting John McCain when he said this. This ad isn’t even misleading us regarding why the President said what he said; it is, in effect, putting words in his mouth. Those responsible for producing campaign media have never been straight-out truthful, but it seems as if they’ve really taken a nosedive in the past month, not just ignoring the circumstances in which an individual said something but actually altering what they said.

How do we fight back? The answer is obvious. After any ad based upon a statement by a political candidate, get thee to YouTube and watch the actual statement from beginning to end. If we are cursed with living in an age where media is more easily manipulated than ever, we are also blessed with more fact-checking resources than at any time in our history. We’d do well to make use of them, or our elections may very well be won or lost based on words no one ever spoke.

Oh, and for the record, government didn’t build this blog–I did.

NB: By no means do I claim that the Romney campaign alone is guilty of this communicative charlatanry. The “you didn’t build it” example is simply the most famous example of this sort of manipulation, and the one that best lends itself to detailed explication. It’s worth noting that both the Romney and Obama campaigns engage in this sort of recontextualizing, as did the Santorum, Gingrich, and Cain campaigns, may they rest in peace.

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