Going Meta

Since I wrote a couple of pieces about the story of Mitt Romney possibly being a high-school bully, I've gotten some unsurprising responses. The first, perhaps predictable one, is from conservatives complaining that Barack Obama was never "vetted," and the fact that we've learned about Romney's youthful "hijinks" just shows the media's double-standard. Needless to say, this is just absurd; there were hundreds of articles written in 2008 (and since) about Obama's family and his youth, not to mention the fact that he wrote a pretty frank book about it himself before he ever ran for office. The second complaint—less silly, but related—is that this is all a distraction, and we ought to be talking about real issues.

I've already said most of what I have to say about what kind of meaning we should ascribe to the bullying story, assuming it's true. But even if I disagree with the conservatives who are saying that The Washington Post should never even have pursued the story or that it shows the media's liberal bias, it's perfectly fine to have a meta-discussion about whether we should be talking about the issue. This came to the fore in dramatic fashion (or dramatic-for-cable-news fashion, anyway) when MSNBC host Tamron Hall had a confrontation on the air with conservative columnist Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner. Here's the clip:

Frankly, I think Hall was being completely unfair to Carney there, going off on him in that way simply because she didn't like the way he answered her question. I'm sympathetic to Carney in part because this is a technique I've used many times when speaking on television or radio, particularly when confronted with a hostile interrogator. By saying "Why should we be talking about this?"—or going "meta-meta," as Carney said—you can seize control of the discussion and bring it to the ground you want to talk about, instead of the ground they want to talk about. If they say, "No, I refuse to have that conversation!" then they look defensive. Which is why hosts really don't like it when you reframe the topic of discussion in this way, and they really, really, don't like it when you question the coverage on their own network. And in this case, as it often is, "Why are we talking about this?" is a perfectly legitimate question. There's no reason why Tamron Hall shouldn't have been able to answer it. If you can't give a good reason why we ought to be talking about something, then maybe we shouldn't.

That isn't to say I believe we shouldn't talk about the bullying story. I don't think it's worth laboring over it for months, but it was certainly worth a couple of days of discussion. If I had been Hall, I would have said, "We're talking about it because Mitt Romney wants to be president of the United States, and we're going to find out everything we can about him before November. That includes his policy proposals and record as a governor, and it also includes the experiences that shaped him over the course of his life." Not too complicated.

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