Monday, July 26, 2010

Alvin Greene Behind the Scenes: or, 'How to Get the National Media to Hoax Itself Without Even Trying'

By now you might have read the true story of the Youtube video, "Alvin Greene Is on the Scene," a DIY campaign video promoted on Twitter by "Alvin Greene's" GreeneForSenate account. Earlier, I treated it 100% seriously, speculating about its origins. I did this despite knowing that it was not made by any member of the Greene campaign, but rather San Francisco MC Jay Friedman (aka "Satellite High") and freelance copywriter Justin Cass.

I had to bend over backwards to be able to take the video the slightest bit seriously. Neither man made any significant effort to disguise himself as Alvin Greene or campaign staff, and the contents of the video — song lyrics, music style and editing — made every attempt to seem as corny as possible. It was a hoax that worked without the requisite intent, a misdirection achieved by such an absence of effort at deceit that calling it half-assed overestimates the ass fraction by probably an ass factor of forty.

The un-assed deception did not stop the New York Times and half a dozen media outlets from reporting the video as authentic. They did this despite an absence of credible data linking the video to the campaign or any comment from the campaign itself. I made every effort to satirically bend the truth, while they reported for the record, and the result was an equal stamp of legitimacy for a campaign video that contains at least 45 seconds of LeBron James making killer jams.

The question is, "Why?"

I don't think it's possible to express in words both how happily absurd the video is. One reason I suspect that internet hoax videos perpetuate themselves is that reporters read summaries of them and react without watching themselves. In words, it's easy to accidentally efface something that should be obviously silly. Check it out:

You should have noticed a few things that are telltale signs that this can't be serious.

The aspect ratio of the video changes constantly.

The lyrics, the beat + the synth blast + the raw guitar all sound like a beat from 1991, anything pre-The Chronic. In fact, it sounds like an impromptu pre-game "rap" put together for The NBA on NBC in 1990, then set to dunk clips. Consider this foreshadowing.

Any time you hear "When I say ____, you say ____," you are either listening to an old record, in a time warp, listening to the incompetent or being punked. Anybody in journalism younger than 45 has no excuse for not knowing this.

The video relies almost exclusively on footage in which Greene looks flustered, confused, ashamed or overmatched, while the lyrics mention that he lives at home (with his parents), that he is unemployed and that he allegedly harassed a 19-year-old girl by showing her pornography.

There is no official campaign chyron, endorsement of the video by the candidate, listing for a campaign email address, physical address or phone number.

The video ends with a bewilderingly vain and low-tech credit sequence.

In that sequence, it claims that Alvin Greene was rapping the song. Really?

Apologies if that merely restated the obvious at you, but that's the point. If you noticed the obvious, you're already ahead of The Gray Lady.

I think most people dislike "inside baseball"-style stories about things. I want to write as little of that as possible, but I'd like to contribute what I know of the video's genesis.

First up, I don't know Cass at all, apart from Twitter exchanges. I know Friedman slightly better. I liked a comic song he wrote, and I admired his criticism of pop-culture novelty rap for white people who like to remember their preteen collectibles. I wrote up a little "check this out" piece about it. Later, after reading my takedown of World Net Daily's Molotov Mitchell and his birther rap group "Wolverines" and their dreadful song "O.T.P. - One Term President," Friedman wrote a really great diss track that I got to contribute two half-assed lines to. The level of talent and skill he brought to bear on Wolverines' complete absence of either was like using a howitzer to swat a mosquito.

Both Cass and Friedman occasionally bait paleoconservatives on Twitter, the sort of people who drop racial slurs or death threats as soon as they get angry. I suspect that Cass started the GreeneForSenate Twitter to continue tweaking these people. Greene represents a perfect storm for them. He's inarticulate and seems surprised to find himself in circumstances that he claims he set out to put himself in. The genuine confusion that journalists, bloggers and television personalities express about Greene's candidacy is matched by the confusion he appears to display about it himself.

Racists can point at his speech and his supposedly propositioning a young girl and claim he represents the "native incapacity" of blacks, as well as their "animal lusts." Wingnuts and mainstream conservatives can latch onto the fact that Greene apparently never attended any South Carolina Democratic Party functions and produced his $10,000 filing fee out of nowhere to breathe life into their ongoing baseless "ACORN Conspiracy." And Republicans from high- to low-class can just have a good laugh at how stupid the Democratic Party is.

Tweeting silly things that played off Twitter users' expectations took on sudden accidental significance when lots of journalists started following the account. At that point, the joke had to pay off. There had to be something good besides just a gag account, wandering aimlessly in the wilderness like the Greene campaign. Suddenly, the idea of Friedman doing a funny song was perfect.

Friedman's GreeneForSenate song was mischievous and lighthearted, reflecting the temperament of its author. There was no malice or know-it-all-ism there, which might have taken away from the retro fun of the song. Cass posted the video on his own Youtube account, Virgiltexas, something totally unconnected to Alvin Greene, who likely does not read Virgil, is not named Virgil and is not from Texas. He and Friedman tweeted about it like crazy on their own regular Twitter accounts, and Friedman posted links on his Facebook fan page for his rap albums, Satellite High.

This is the important thing to remember about their actions: there was zero guile there. Take all the things mentioned in the bullet points above, all the signals that something was not right with the video. Add the creators posting on their own Youtube, Facebook and Twitter pages without renaming anything or creating some kind of blind. Then take the obviously unofficial GreeneForSenate Twitter. This is deception on the level of walking into a room with a can of Coke and when someone asks, "Are you drinking my last Coke?" putting the can behind your back and saying, "No." And in spite of that, the New York Times ran with a story about the video claiming it was an official campaign product.

The video went live around 2:30 p.m. EDT on Thursday, July 22. MSNBC had a noncommittal blurb up before 4:00 p.m. The New York Times' "The Caucus" blog put up their article around 7:45 p.m. What made the last remarkable was that:
1. It was the New York Times.
2. It was by far the longest writeup of the video to that point. 
3. It was based on the same absolute vacuum of facts that confronted everyone else who wrote about it.
It was as if, in doubt, the Times felt the best bet was loquacity.

After a plausible span of time following the video's going live — about 90 minutes — I published my inane rationalization for the "iffy" parts of it. It was a doomed exercise, but I figured it could do at least two things. One, anyone Googling hard enough for information on the video could read it and possibly give the video more "legitimate" shelf-life by buying into a bunch of mentally soft and cozy bullshit. Two, I could write it like a satire of the desperate rationalizations of right-wing bloggers, who respond to any conservative misbehavior by shouting about "liberal false flags," and "journalistic espionage" (even involving sitting Republican congressmen) and generally exhibiting flouridated paranoia.

It was totally unnecessary. Many outlets seemed happy to accept a Youtube and Twitter feed as full and complete evidence. Despite MSNBC beating me to the story by five minutes (fair play to them; it's not like they knew about it for 48 hours already, as I did), my little piece stayed at the top of Google search results for a couple hours, but clearly nobody bothered, because the sorts of Google searches that would have turned that up would have started turning up heavily re-tweeted tweets pointing at the real authors of the song and video.

MSNBC reported the story but didn't jump in with both feet; it was obvious that it seemed fishy to them. Mediaite bit hard; National Review sort-of bit, and the Atlantic bit on the story, as did a handful of others. Until the next morning, the most committed was still the New York Times. By 8:30 a.m. CNN had finally covered everything. They had Friedman's name and were emailing and calling him. Wonkette ultimately wrote the most elaborate entry on the video, but it was clear that they weren't willing to vouch for it either way and instead had fun just talking about the silly stuff about it.

So why did this happen?

Some readers, especially in the Wonkette comments section, suggested that Alvin Greene is just so weird that anybody would expect anything from him. He's a mess, so one can't fully write off a lot of things emerging from his camp. But there's also a clearly sloppy element here, too. Many of the outlets that subsequently covered the video sincerely did so on the basis that the Old Gray Lady had reported on it sincerely. If it had the Times' stamp on it, then it was a video of record.

As for the Times itself, perhaps cutbacks are to blame. Perhaps reporters who should be working with real live people have been shunted to the online section to capitalize on hourly stories, monetizing the otherwise null online space that inexorably devours the newsprint audience. Maybe these people feel the twin pinches of both being out of their medium and being obliged to seriously scoop the ether.

As for the first pinch, that seems a reasonable supposition. There's really no excuse for not being able to track this kind of stuff down other than a flat admission of, "I don't know how to track this kind of stuff down." It's not something you try and fail to learn; you just learn it. The Times could probably hire some asshole who trolls Scientologists for 4Chan and have an overqualified research intern. For instance, how CNN broke the story likely involved something as simple as this:
Noting that the Youtube was posted by someone named Virgiltexas.
Googling "Virgiltexas" and noting that there was a Twitter by that name.
Noting that the Youtube video was "posted" x-number of hours ago.
Clicking on "Virgiltexas" on Twitter and scrolling back x-number of hours.
Seeing who he was tweeting with, who was retweeting him and who he was retweeting.
Noting that Virgiltexas, GreeneForSenate and Satellitehigh were all posting links to the video within minutes of each other. 
Reading those other Twitter feeds and Googling their usernames, tracking their Facebooks, real names or email addresses.
The whole search exercise could have been handled by a high schooler during a 20-minute break from masturbating.

The other pinch is harder to quantify, because it's managerial. Unless someone leaks the Times' blogging policy, we can't really know why Katharine Q. Seelye blogs the way she does. She's undoubtedly a smart person and able to make journalism words happen in a plausibly constructed order (although what she does with them is absolutely odious), otherwise she wouldn't have been hired. So we can suppose that maybe she just doesn't have the internet familiarity she needs to track down contacts for pseudonymous content, or we can suppose that she just doesn't have the time. Or, perhaps, she doesn't have the editorial leeway to deal with the ambiguous the way it should be dealt with: ambiguously.

Fearful of ceding any more ground to the TMZs or the Huffpos, maybe the Times' editorial staff pushes Seelye to crank out a new item hourly, damn the questions. It wouldn't be the first time that a lack of facts failed to obstruct her.

Consider Wonkette's note-perfect coverage and then consider hers. Instead of committing to any judgment of the video as a document, Wonkette instead committed to documenting it and calling it for both sides. Nobody expects the Times to become Wonkette, but perhaps they have unrealistic expectations about blogging. Instantaneous feedback can't be authoritative: you can't make a lumbering truth-and-record beast like the Times wheel into effective action on 25-minutes' notice. What you can do is free writers to have a different kind of judgment, where they can examine the pros and cons (or genuine bits and gaffes) of a video without having them throw any weight to the credibility of one side or another.

The strange paradox of newspaper reporting on instant phenomena in the blog format is that the act of trying to treat things objectively and weighting them as facts is probably the direst form of editorializing. Instead of allowing them to speculate and opine, the act of reporting requires establishing something as real before examining it, when the biggest question is probably whether it's real at all. 

Given the above, it's hard to fault Ms. Seelye — apart from everything else she should be faulted for. Maybe she's not internet savvy, but she might not have been trained to be so, and she might be hampered by mistaken editorial policy. Maybe she's just lazy. But the one aspect in which it's reasonable to suspect she erred is one in which almost every journalistic outlet covering this did: a passive or active degree of racial dismissiveness.

Candidate Greene is lost, mismanaged and overmatched, but those are three words that apply almost as well to Sarah Palin. She's gotten better in the last year, but after she resigned her office and began blogging on Facebook, her comments went from slightly managed to unruly and comically spastic. She told lies about DEATH PANELS and continues to blog about utter fictions today. Still, it's hard to think of the national media greenlighting pieces about the "campaign" authenticity of a third-party Sarah Palin song that openly mentions her shortcomings. It would be a stretch to imagine that happening even in August, 2008.

Look at all the bullet-point errors listed above, then think of the conditions surrounding this video: it was promoted on an unverified Twitter account and posted by a Youtube account totally unrelated to the candidate. But it was treated as legitimate. Why? It doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to picture reporters or editors deferring to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Well, he's black, and it's rap. All black people like rap, except for Alan Keyes, who can't enjoy music because he's constantly thinking about abortions.

This video should have been questioned more, and those who didn't question it should question themselves. True, most white candidates probably wouldn't release a rap; thus their doing so via a third party would be suspect. But it's doubtful that a pro-Palin hard-rock band could claim to release an official power ballad about how she accepted funds for a bridge to nowhere and made rape victims pay for their own forensic kits without most of the press corps saying, now wait a minute, and noticing that there were no official chyrons, legal boilerplate or campaign details in a video that looked like it was assembled on a home desktop.

"Alvin Greene Is on the Scene" became a hoax by accident, and it relied on the complicity of those bound by editorial mandate, critical laziness or a socially shameful laziness. Because the video was comical, there has been no handwringing about it. Those who mistook its provenance rightly issued corrections and gave the relevant facts, but they made no effort to account for how their mistakes were made. The errors are no joke, but because the video was, the misbegotten has been conflated with the mischievous. It's all a laugh so, you know, who cares?

That it was a laugh should make you care. Cass and Friedman made almost no effort to disguise their artifice. It was a gag, a romping, silly experiment whose craft came in deliberately making goofy edits and goofy 20-year-old rap beats. They made something purely fun, yet for 12 hours some of the most significant organs in journalism treated it as part of a major-party campaign for the United States Senate. Even now the only people really asking why are the same ones who just days ago were busy giggling at the unintentional comedy of a nearly transparent prank.

Nearly ten hours after CNN broke the real story of those responsible, and hours after the New York Times corrected itself, few major organs were still reporting the rap video as part of the Alvin Greene campaign. Almost twelve hours later, one in particular finally corrected itself, by citing the Times' correction. In doing so, however, it cited that Cass and Friedman were supporters of Alvin Greene, a "fact" that is not true and was not mentioned in the Times' correction. In effect, it cited a fact that didn't exist from a source that hadn't printed it. It has since corrected its correction, without mentioning that it ran an incorrect correction, and deleting all traces of its second mistake. That the organ in question is our old friend Newsweek should come as no surprise.