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August 20, 2008

Hype Busting at Mother Jones Goes Bust

Has Obama compared his campaign to the great movements in progressive history, like civil rights? Mother Jones says he has. What were the editors thinking? And why aren't they linking?

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, 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? 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 headline: 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.

It would be absurd, if anyone had argued that. Buchanan is clowning, and Mother Jones is helping him. 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 empireónobody gave them a chanceóbut 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 generationómy grandfather fighting in Patton’s Army, my grandmother staying at home with a baby and still working on a Bomber assembly lineóhow 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.

Which comes closest to your view?

1.) Sure enough, Obama in this except “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 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. (“ďMother Jones invites you to question if the Politics 2.0 revolution really lives up to its hype.Ē) Is the concept really so hard for the editors 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 wasn’t being careful. 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.

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links...

Meanwhile, Digby says of the forum:

I think the most interesting thing about the answers is the degree to which just about everyone sounds ambivalent or confused. It’s a very odd array of answers from people who are immersed in politics and history and who should be able to rattle off a compelling rationale for the candidate without any problem, even if they disagree with the notion that it’s a movement on par with civil rights or the labor movement. I think all of the people queried want Obama to win, but virtually none of them seem to be sure what he’s going to do.

But Paul Rosenberg of Open Left disagrees with Digby on a few points.

The editor of Mother Jones replies and the magazine adjusts its feature online, adding the text of the speech 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.”

CJR’s Campaign Desk: Obama feature falls flat. Jane Kim on the sound of it: “No, they say (almost) in unison, Obamania isnít a truly progressive movement. In fact, itís not even really a movementólet me tell you what a movement is. Still, letís not forget that itís historic; I definitely didnít say that it wasnít historic.

Maybe it’s the question’s fault, Jane. Political man, he’s prone to exaggerate, right? So how good a question did our premier progressive political magazine ask of their 24 people: did political man exaggerate when he said…? But for instant production of a hype-busting atmosphere, a lame question like that actually works.

Kennedy points to this 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.

I asked Mayhill Fowler of OffTheBus, who has heard in person quite a few Obama speeches, if he was making the comparison Mother Jones accuses him of making. She wrote back:

Yes, because what’s the point of having the rights if you don’t come to the public square to exercise them? That’s what the Obama Campaign is about—bringing us all, regardless of party, together to effect in the body politic. In that sense, the Obama Campaign is the coda to the Civil Rights Movement. First and most obviously, African-Americans are exercising their right to vote and may be the deciding factor in this election. Secondly, the Obama Campaign is running on two tracks right now: winning the office and laying the groundwork for governing. That’s the 50-state strategy—getting citizens involved in the political process now so that a year and years later they will be pressuring their congressional representatives to step up to the plate on whatever difficult legislative choices Obama programs will entail.

So Obama sees himself as a successor to King, and before King to Lincoln. Many of his speeches are infused with his sense of this personal destiny. Obama is body to a movement, as MLK was. And right now that movement is centered in the campaign. (It will be interesting to see how a transition from campaign to governance works out.)

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 20, 2008 12:44 AM