Binders full of Big Bird: The risk & benefits of reporting on memes

On the evening of Oct. 16, in the second presidential debate of 2012, Mitt Romney mentioned that as governor of Massachusetts, he had requested “binders full of women” to help recruit top female candidates to his cabinet. One minute later, 23-year-old social media manager Veronica De Souza registered and began furiously Photoshopping.

Soon, images of Christina Aguilera, Sandra Fluke and Dora the Explorer were all trapped within three-rings and posted on the site. Thirty minutes out, the blog had amassed 3,000 followers. The next day, @BarackObama released a binder-themed campaign ad attacking Romney’s policies on women’s rights. The National Republican Congressional Committee countered with its own submission, daring President Obama to fit his lengthy health care bill into a binder.

Forty-eight hours after the birth of the meme, De Souza sat in front of CNN’s cameras with Soledad O’Brien and former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty to discuss her role in the electoral news cycle. “I really didn’t make this for any political reason,” she told them. “I just thought it was funny.”

De Souza may have done it for the lulz, but election-themed GIFs, hashtags, and Lolcat-style image macros now constitute serious news pegs on the campaign trail. As journalists chase down Google searches and trending hashtags, the trajectory of U.S. election coverage is unmoored from campaign headquarters and D.C. bureaus and placed into the hands of the loudest crowds and their swiftest microbloggers.

“The modern reporter, especially the embed, is constantly checking his smartphone, as is the aide,” Slate political reporter Dave Weigel told me in an instant message. “It's hard not to be influenced.”

Memes through history

Political journalists have long riffed on sound bites and candid photos to skewer candidates’ positions and personas. After the first televised debate in 1960, commentators (and lazy pollsters) pushed the narrative that John F. Kennedy’s easy screen presence gave him the edge over a gruff, stubbly Richard Nixon; eight years later, Esquire manipulated a stock photograph of Tricky Dick to show a fleet of makeup artists applying powder, lipstick, mascara, and hairspray to his head.

These days, political parodies spawn and expire at a much more accelerated clip. Magazines are printed far too slowly to set the tone. Weigel sees the seeds of the political meme’s rise in the 2000 catchphrase “Sore-Loserman” -- a parody of the Gore-Lieberman ticket’s refusal to concede in the drawn-out 2000 election that spread from car bumpers to political forums. Lefties countered with their own parody, “Bush-Cheated.”

In the 2004 Bush-Kerry debates, Weigel watched the mockery of Bush’s claim, “You forgot Poland,” spread even further, gaining traction with no “nudging” from either political campaign. The 2008 election brought mainstream attention to Mat Honan’s feel-good single-serving website “Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle,” the viral video “I Got a Crush on Obama,” and a Photoshopped image of Sarah Palin’s face on an American flag bikini body.

But this is the first presidential election where the endless riffing of the true Internet meme -- a repeating, morphing, crowdsourced play off some minute detail -- has taken hold of the campaign conversation, and directed it into some weird territory. As Brad Kim of Know Your Meme told the BBC, a meme by definition “changes in form or meaning” with each iteration, mutating further and further from the original point every time it’s shared.

From memes to messages

Some of these memes, like “Menacing Josh Romney” or “Eastwooding,” have remained in the realm of Internet inside joke. But others have evolved from crowdsourced meme to top-level campaign message, often stripping quotes of their wider context along the way. Take “You didn’t build that”: A selectively edited phrase from an Obama rally that portrayed the president as anti-business. “Local reporters and national reporters thought [the phrase] was pretty minor, or nothing,” Weigel says. But online, “people went over the heads of the media and shared it amongst themselves.” Later, the Romney campaign “belatedly grabbed it after it was field-tested,” Weigel says. Obama’s gaffe birthed the Republican National Convention’s catchphrase “We Built It.” The media ended up covering four of Obama’s words for months.

Leveraging memes is a tricky move for presidential candidates -- leaning too hard into Internet culture can make their campaigns seem frivolous, or else out of touch. At the Republican National Convention, speakers like Mia Love employed the “We Built It” refrain in contexts that made no sense. By the time the Obama campaign converted the Big Bird meme into a political ad, the joke was already a week old. (It could be worse: The National Republican Congressional Committee was three years late to the Kanye West VMAs interception meme).

No matter how the tactic hits, political reporters and commentators are covering every wrinkle, chasing a wild trajectory of phrases that would have previously gone unnoticed. Some of these memes don’t even begin as substantive critiques before they take off. I asked De Souza, via Tumblr, why the phrase “binders full of women” energized her in that minute after it left Romney’s mouth. Isn’t seeking out and hiring female candidates a good thing? “I would say he hired those women to fill a quota,” De Souza replied. “Politicians are all about status (especially if they’re running for president) so a cabinet full of women looks good for him.”

I’d argue that a cabinet full of women looks good because it is good. But in the narrow context of the 2012 election, “binders full of women” is a phrase worth mocking for one reason: Mitt Romney said it. The progressive women who fueled the binder meme already view Romney as a candidate with a robotic demeanor and a poor record on women’s rights. Hearing him mimic the language of affirmative action feels wrong to them, even if it’s right.

The meme devolved from there. Romney's critics have since used "binders" to mount vaguely related personal attacks against the candidate, including the suggestion that he’s a horndog. (Of the feminist critiques leveled against Romney, a history of sexual harassment is not one). Other entries are even less substantive. What relevance does the pop song "Call Me Maybe" or a years-old upskirt photo of Britney Spears to this meme? At a certain point, the feeling fueling the meme gave way to Trapper Keeper free-association. Not only does the meme make no sense as a political critique at this point -- it isn’t funny anymore, either.

I blame journalists like myself for beating the binders to death. Even when we’re not consciously gunning for SEO dominance, the way we report today -- glued to Twitter, absorbing and articulating snap judgments simultaneously -- makes it increasingly likely that we’ll sweat the small stuff. In The New Republic, Maria Konnikova offers a few studies on the brains of online multi-taskers that shine a light on how minute details can grow into lasting news pegs. Viewers who juggle multiple platforms during the debates-- tweeters, Facebookers, Tumblr creators, live-bloggers, and journalists -- are more likely to be distracted by “irrelevant stimuli” in the content they watch. The greatest multi-taskers “paid partial attention to a lot and complete attention to less.” During the debates, they can “notice the seemingly superficial stuff” but miss the gist.

Internet jokes are aimed at committed voters

The people obsessively live-tweeting these minute details are unlikely to be impartial spectators. The Internet’s “Dual viewers” -- the 7 million Americans simultaneously watching and commenting on the debates -- have largely made up their minds. In September, Ezra Klein reported that 43 percent of decided voters said they were following the election “very closely”; only 12 percent of undecided voters said the same. Undecided voters are those least likely to tune into election news, debates, ads, and memes.

“Most of the time, these things that go viral are spreading among people whose opinions are granite-set,” Weigel says. “You're not seeing jokes that will make it into the campaign shorthand of the swing voter.”

So covering Internet memes can mean we’re serving up inane coverage to highly polarized groups of people. This is not necessarily a new concept in political reporting -- a 24-hour news cycle online and on cable has expanded to reach the die-hard political junkies, not the blissfully unaware. But journalists on the meme beat don’t just amplify the nonsense -- they also challenge and enrich the conversation.

When David S. Bernstein, the Boston Phoenix’s political reporter, heard Romney say “binders,” he used his years of experience reporting on Romney’s record in Massachusetts to drop some facts and context into the developing meme. Bernstein revealed that Romney’s “binders” actually originated with a bipartisan women’s group working to diversify political gigs in Massachusetts. Romney hadn’t requested them at all. The narrative around the binders began to pivot with the facts. (Maybe assembling binders of top-shelf female candidates isn’t so bad after all; only Romney is bad). Other commentators chimed in to add additional context. Almost a week after it was published, Bernstein’s “Mind the Binder” was still one of the the most-read stories on the Phoenix’s website. Like De Souza, Bernstein also appeared on CNN to discuss his work.

“I have to do my work thinking that it can change minds,” Bernstein told me over the phone when I asked him if dissecting memes like this can reach the undecided set. “I don’t really think that it does.”

Bernstein watched his piece blow up thanks to social sharing from mammoth liberal voices like Arianna Huffington and Markos Mouslitsas -- people who already “think Romney is a horrible person.” But Bernstein’s work helped make the liberal critique against Romney more informed, and forced progressives to talk about women in political office, which was not otherwise on the agenda in an election season with four male candidates flanking the stage. Thanks to some quick and dirty Photoshopping, a niche issue became big news -- even to those people who aren’t obsessively checking Tumblr (or even know what it is).

Messages, memes and meaning

The campaigns can capitalize on memes to cut through the traditional news cycle, no fact-checking necessary. But journalists are faster than flacks. By following and researching and translating memes, they can key into the issues and values relevant to at least some segments American voters -- including those, like women, whose issues are sometimes neglected. If they push the meme far enough, it can even translate to cable TV segments and op-ed sections around the country, where undecided voters are more likely to take a look. My own piece on binders got play in opinion sections in Dallas, Miami and Long Island.

But co-opting the meme also tends to undermine its initial purpose: the lulz. Memes like Romney’s binders or Clint Eastwood’s chair are a form of catharsis for political news creators and consumers, a break from the endless election cycle we all must endure every four years. Reporting out the meme takes the fun out of it; explaining a joke is never funny.

Last night, Romney set off the foreign policy debate bracing for gaffes, joking that the debate would be a platform for the candidates to “say funny things not on purpose." When the night brought few gaffes to riff on, viewers and reporters hungry for a new viral meme fixated on a deliberate joke instead: Obama’s use of the phrase “horses and bayonets” to burn Romney’s outdated military policies. The obligatory Twitter hashtag, Photoshop Tumblr, and Reuters wrap-up quickly surfaced.

It didn’t feel right. This was a catchphrase crafted in campaign HQ, not some 23-year-old’s apartment. The message-makers can pre-manufacture memes, and reporters can herald the “latest debate catchphrase.” But without even a few minutes to live on its own, free of media scrutiny, even President Obama riding a unicorn isn’t very much fun.


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