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Two incidents of unintended consequences this week compel us to revisit just how wrong things can go in the herd journalism that has spread faster than mad cow disease along the 2008 presidential campaign trail.
While both occurred during the week of the Michigan Republican presidential primary, neither really had anything to do with that event. One was about yet another mindless stampede of the media herd covering the Democratic presidential candidates campaigning in Nevada and South Carolina. (And we'll get to that one later.)
The other was an unprecedented incident that did occur in Michigan, yet involved two herds unconnected to politics: A herd of automotive journalists covering the Detroit Auto Show and a herd of steers. (Note to Wincing Editors: This is not an automotive pun; we are talking about real livestock.)
Apparently Chrysler, being third among the Big Three, must do special things to command attention from the automotive journalistic herd. So Chrysler introduced its new Dodge Ram pickup truck on January 13 by escorting the journalistic herd outside to witness a herd of 120 cattle ambling down the street along with shiny new Ram pickup trucks. The emcee of this grand press event was Chrysler's new co-president Jim Press (Note to Disbelieving Editors: Neither Charles Dickens nor I made that up; it's his name).
Press had just moved to Chrysler from Toyota, where his past successes never prepared him for what was about to occur: In contrast to media herds, cattle herds are composed of individuals that know their own minds and occasionally act on their own instincts; this was such an occasion. As Chrysler's Press extolled the Dodge Ram and automotive reporters took notes, some long-horned steers began taking mates. Steers mounted and performed. "Pay attention to the trucks!" Press told the press, not quite able to suppress his own mirth. (Skeptics might wonder whether the automotive journalists were making their usual notations about over-steer and under-steer. Purists, who might have wondered why Chrysler thought it appropriate to use steers instead of sheep to unveil their new Ram finally got their answer: Chrysler must have been thinking verb not noun.)
A few cigarettes later, the auto media herd got back to the job of telling us the news we need to know. But they need to also act on their instincts, which require that they go beyond their own craft's bumper-strip labels — especially the "hybrid" label. Despite what the car ads say, not all hybrids are equal. Car journalists all know that but often forget to write it for new readers.
For example, General Motors, which has belatedly joined the hybrid revolution, is coming out with a 2008 hybrid Chevrolet Malibu. Car reviewers justifiably praised the new Malibu for style, fit, finish and performance equal to Toyota's Camry and Honda's Accord. But don't be fooled — the hybrid Malibu is an underperformer. It will deliver just 2 miles per gallon better than the non-hybrid Malibu (22 MPG in cities instead of 20; 32 MPG on highways instead of 30). This weak-hybrid Malibu is not the equal of the full-hybrid Camry (33 MPG city; 34 MPG highway). Car writers should never use "hybrid" — without inserting "mild-" or "full-" to properly inform car buyers.
Meanwhile, back on the campaign trail, the political media herd let itself be stampeded into blowing out of proportion a spat between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that is about as real as the pain pro wrestlers inflict upon each other. Worse yet, the media treated it as a major racial dispute when all thinking people know it was not. Clinton had tried to give a campaign trail tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., but spoke before synchronizing the gears of her brain and mouth. It came out: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act …It took a president to get it done."
Advocates of Obama charged that she'd diminished a civil rights icon to glorify a white president. Now, this column has criticized Hillary and Bill Clinton and has praised Obama for comprehensive global policy, leadership and candor. But here Clinton was wronged. Obama knew Clinton admired King for devoting his life to pressuring policy-makers to do what was right. Yet Obama allowed his advocates to fuel the story for days, hoping to lure black voters from his opponent. And the herd needed no prodding _ black and white guests were booked, black and white questions were recycled, black and white tensions were exploited.
It has been a memorable but hardly admirable week of Herds Gone Wild.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)