Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Army of the Over-Informed: 2005

Jeff Greenfield wrote a novel in 1995 about (get this!) a presidential election that gets thrown to the Electoral College. It was called The People's Choice, and I think I heard him talking about it on C-Span shortly after it came out. Spanheads (myself among them) were about the only folks who read it at the time. It got a bit of Lazarusian buzz a few years later because it touched on some of the issues of the 2000 election controversies.

But there's one passage that stood out to me, and something reminded me of it the other day so I went looking for a copy at the library. In retrospect it seems to nail certain aspects of the blogger mentality (or I guess I should say "one of the archetypal blogger mentalities" -- including some of my own) on the head. Greenfield certainly was prescient in asserting the importance of the arcana of Electoral College procedures; he also was prescient in his observations about what he called "The Army of the Over-Informed" and their love for nitpicking the media to death. However, even though I think the sketch he drew is entertaining and enlightening, he may have poo-pooed The Army of the Over-Informed a bit more than he should have -- especially considering his colleague Mr. Rather's experiences with the blog-empowered AOTO-I circa 2004.

Here is a (lengthy, I know - quit bitching about reading it, because I had to type it) relevant excerpt from The People's Choice, chapter 13, pages 92-93, 0-399-13812-9. The fictional "DeRossa" is a veteran TV newsman and one of the central characters of the novel. The bolding is mine. How many blogosphere denizens does the following passage bring to mind?

All across this huge land, an invisible Army of the Over-Informed keep ceaseless watch on the press. They are everywhere. They are young men finding sanctuary in their parents' finished basements; they are old women attended by no other living thing save a house cat with scabrous breath and a regiment of cockroaches; they are assistant professors of history whose lungs have already been poisoned with the dust of a thousand monographs and ten thousand pieces of chalk. And they all have one thing in common: They know more about less than anyone else in the world. And they spend a significant portion of their waking lives waiting for the press to make a mistake.

Some among them knew the box office receipts of every movie commercially released in the United States since Birth of a Nation. And they knew that whenever a story appeared about all-time box-office-champion movies, those stories were fatally flawed; the writers never bothered to adjust for inflation, thus criminally underestimating the receipts for older blockbusters such as Gone With the Wind.

Or they could tell you how many of Babe Ruth's home runs in 1927 reached the stands not on the fly, but on one bounce, and were counted as homers under the rules of the day, thus undermining the argument that Roger Maris's sixty-one home runs during the 162-game season of 1961 was a less impressive feat than Ruth's sixty back in the 154-game season of 1927.

And what they could tell you, they did – instantly, eagerly, gleefully. In 1992, DeRossa had called Ross Perot's withdrawal from the presidential race "the greatest missed opportunity since Napoleon failed to reach Moscow." Fifteen minutes after the broadcast, six faxes were on his desk informing him that in fact*, Napoleon had taken territory within the city limits of Moscow, and had held it for several days.

DeRossa had felt the force of their numbers, and their zeal, from his first days in journalism. They wrote to tell him that his count of the presidents was wrong, since Grover Cleveland, who had won, lost, then won again, was counted twice in the official ledgers. They called to complain that the account of presidential popular votes was wrong, since he had failed to report the votes cast for the Socialist Workers' Party, the Socialist Labor Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Populist Party, the American Independent Party. They flooded his desk with telegrams when he referred to Vietnam as "the only war America ever lost," since the United States had never formally surrendered to North Vietnam. They demanded that he apologize to the memory of Harry Truman for saying that Truman had been defeated by Senator Estes Kefauver in the 1952 New Hampshire primary, since Truman had never formally entered the race. One year, DeRossa casually referred to the "first presidential broadcast debates in 1960." He was chastised by a media studies teacher for overlooking the 1948 radio debate in the Oregon Republican primary between Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey. A few months later, he had carefully amended his reference to "the first televised presidential debates," only to be reprimanded by a mass communications graduate student, who reminded him of the 1960 West Virginia primary debate between John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.

* Today, rather than private, easily ignorable communications like faxes, there would be twice that many public, semi-permanent , detailed and illustrated explanations of Napoleon's experiences in Moscow published on the Web that same day.


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