NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Don’t feed the trolls: Why we asked Andrew Garber and his colleagues to ignore Tim Eyman’s repugnant attack on Jay Inslee

Yes­ter­day, at a press con­fer­ence on the Capi­tol Cam­pus in Olympia,  State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Judy Clib­born (D‑41st Dis­trict) and House Democ­rats unveiled a “Con­nect­ing Wash­ing­ton” trans­porta­tion pack­age that pro­pos­es to invest $10 bil­lion in Wash­ing­ton’s high­ways, streets, fer­ries, and local tran­sit agen­cies.

Some of the mon­ey would go to road main­te­nance, some would be ded­i­cat­ed to widen­ing high­ways, some would go towards stormwa­ter cleanup, and so forth. The gas tax would be increased to fund many of the pro­posed projects.

A few hours after the pro­pos­al was unveiled, Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee issued a state­ment say­ing he wel­comed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to begin work­ing with the Leg­is­la­ture on a trans­porta­tion pack­age to meet Wash­ing­ton’s needs.

I thank Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Clib­born for her lead­er­ship on this and am glad to begin a robust con­ver­sa­tion about how to move for­ward in build­ing a trans­porta­tion sys­tem for the 21st cen­tu­ry. This is an issue vital to the envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nom­ic health of Wash­ing­ton State.

Many groups have worked hard to get us to this point. We clear­ly need to address the grow­ing main­te­nance and preser­va­tion needs in our cur­rent infra­struc­ture, the big-tick­et needs to improve freight mobil­i­ty across our state, and the unmet needs for sus­tain­able trans­porta­tion options such as pedes­tri­an and bicy­cle improve­ments.

We can’t afford to not take action and this is a job I expect the Leg­is­la­ture to accom­plish. I’ll be work­ing with leg­is­la­tors on both sides of the aisle to craft a pack­age that they can send to my desk for approval.

We fig­ured after yes­ter­day’s events that it would only be a mat­ter of hours before Tim Eyman respond­ed in the form of a hyper­bol­ic rant. And, sure enough, just after 10 AM this morn­ing, a nasty­gram from Eyman showed up which includ­ed this bit:

Can­di­date Inslee repeat­ed­ly promised to veto any tax increase. He said no way to high­er trans­porta­tion tax­es in 2013.  Inslee said he’d grow jobs to gen­er­ate more tax rev­enue. What a lying whore he turned out to be. In recent weeks, he’s made it clear he’ll sign any tax increase the Leg­is­la­ture uni­lat­er­al­ly impos­es. Is there any doubt that Inslee would have lost by a land­slide if he’d been hon­est about his tax-hik­ing plans dur­ing the cam­paign?

We respond­ed to Eyman’s email this after­noon with a media advi­so­ry, ask­ing reporters and edi­tors not to reward Eyman’s ugly, stinky, and dis­gust­ing behav­ior by giv­ing the Muk­il­teo ini­tia­tive prof­i­teer head­lines and on-air men­tions.

As I not­ed in the advi­so­ry:

Our assess­ment of this mes­sage is that Eyman is being delib­er­ate­ly provoca­tive in order to get his name and view­point into blog posts and sto­ries on the trans­porta­tion pack­age.

He may already be plan­ning to “apol­o­gize” in a few days’ time for his inflam­ma­to­ry com­ments, so he can gar­ner even more media atten­tion.

We urge you not to take the bait. This isn’t news. Let the only response to this despi­ca­ble com­men­tary be from his oppo­si­tion. Eyman deserves to be called out for his inap­pro­pri­ate and dis­parag­ing remarks, but he does not deserve more head­lines and on-air men­tions by the tra­di­tion­al press. He has already shown he has noth­ing to con­tribute to a sane dis­cus­sion about the val­ue of pub­lic ser­vices in our state.

Andrew Gar­ber, who cov­ers the state leg­isla­tive beat for The Seat­tle Times, inter­pret­ed this request as a call for the media to “cen­sor itself” (his words, not mine). He decid­ed to write about both Eyman’s rant and our response in a post titled “Eyman oppo­nent urges media to cen­sor itself”. (The post title has since been changed, pre­sum­ably by an edi­tor, or at the request of an edi­tor).

Gar­ber began his post as fol­lows:

Andrew Vil­leneuve of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, urged the media today to cen­sor itself and not write about a Tim Eyman email that referred to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov. Jay Inslee as a “lying whore.”

Eyman has made a liv­ing spon­sor­ing ini­tia­tives, includ­ing a mea­sure repeat­ed­ly approved by vot­ers that requires a two-thirds vote of the Leg­is­la­ture, or vot­er approval, to increase tax­es. Vil­leneuve has long opposed Eyman ini­tia­tives.

I debat­ed whether to blog about Eyman’s email and Villeneuve’s plea tipped the bal­ance.

Gar­ber’s admis­sion that he was debat­ing whether or not to blog about Eyman’s email — appar­ent­ly pri­or to his receipt of the note I wrote — says a lot about how much influ­ence Eyman has over Wash­ing­ton’s press corps. Gar­ber and his col­leagues (both at The Times and at oth­er pub­li­ca­tions) sim­ply can’t seem to resist pass­ing up oppor­tu­ni­ties to write about Eyman or men­tion his hijinks on-air.

Gar­ber asserts that Eyman “fre­quent­ly sends me emails and rarely sees them print­ed.” He’s miss­ing the point. There are a lot of peo­ple active in Wash­ing­ton pol­i­tics — pro­gres­sives, con­ser­v­a­tives, lib­er­tar­i­ans — work­ing on all sorts of inter­est­ing caus­es. None of them get the spe­cial treat­ment that Tim Eyman does.

Eyman is such a pro­lif­ic sender of bom­bas­tic mid-morn­ing mis­sives that Gar­ber can say he only quotes Eyman occa­sion­al­ly on the Times’ Pol­i­tics North­west blog (or in print), and that’s still fair­ly often com­pared to oth­er activists or pub­lic rela­tions folks com­pet­ing for Gar­ber’s atten­tion.

Here’s some data that illus­trates what I’m talk­ing about.

I entered dozens of well-known Wash­ing­ton polit­i­cal names as search queries into the Seat­tle Times’ archival search engine (1984-present).

Here’s a sam­ple of what I came up with:

Results for “Kir­by Wilbur” (cur­rent State Repub­li­can chair, long­time Repub­li­can activist and talk show host): 305
Results for “Brad Owen” (Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor since 1997): 464
Results for “Bri­an Son­ntag” (just retired State Audi­tor; served in the posi­tion for sev­er­al decades): 604
Results for “Mike Krei­dler” (Insur­ance Com­mis­sion­er since 2001): 829
Results for “Lisa Brown” (up until a few weeks ago, the Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader since 2005, and a sen­a­tor before that): 988
Results for “Dwight Pelz” (cur­rent State Demo­c­ra­t­ic chair, long­time Demo­c­ra­t­ic activist and coun­ty coun­cilmem­ber): 1,023
Results for “Frank Chopp” (the dynam­ic, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Speak­er of the state House for over a decade): 1,128
Results for “Dow Con­stan­tine” (cur­rent King Coun­ty Exec­u­tive and for­mer King Coun­ty Coun­cilmem­ber): 1,260
Results for “Sam Reed” (Repub­li­can Sec­re­tary of State until a few weeks ago, has served dur­ing most of Eyman’s time in pol­i­tics): 1,430
Results for “Tim Eyman”: 2,211

There are, of course, some elect­ed lead­ers who outscore Eyman (some by just a few hun­dred hits). But they all fall into these cat­e­gories:

  • U.S. Sen­a­tors and U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives (Pat­ty Mur­ray, Maria Cantwell, Jim McDer­mott, Norm Dicks);
  • Gov­er­nors (Jay Inslee, Chris Gre­goire, Gary Locke, Mike Lowry);
  • The last two Repub­li­can final­ists for gov­er­nor (Dino Rossi and Rob McKen­na, who were elect­ed offi­cials pri­or to run­ning for gov­er­nor);
  • May­ors of Seat­tle or past King Coun­ty Exec­u­tives (Greg Nick­els, Paul Schell, Mike McGinn, Ron Sims, etc.)

To beat Eyman in the Times archival search, you either have to have been elect­ed gov­er­nor, Seat­tle may­or, King Coun­ty Exec­u­tive, elect­ed to Con­gress, or run for gov­er­nor as an elect­ed Repub­li­can and lost.

That’s a pret­ty high hur­dle to have to over­come. It’s a small club.

Read­ers, if you find any oth­er Wash­ing­ton elect­ed leader or activist who gen­er­ates more than 2,211 (and count­ing!) results in a Times archival search, let me know.

The point is, the Seat­tle Times and its writ­ers have giv­en Tim Eyman a lot of ink and pix­els over the years. They haven’t just cov­ered his ini­tia­tives; they’ve cov­ered him as if he were an elect­ed leader, even though the peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton have nev­er elect­ed him to any office or entrust­ed him with offi­cial respon­si­bil­i­ties.

True, Eyman is a pro­lif­ic spon­sor of ini­tia­tives. But his ini­tia­tive fac­to­ry is pow­ered by mon­ey from his wealthy bene­fac­tors, not grass­roots activism. And most of his schemes have either been struck down by the courts, defeat­ed by vot­ers, or failed to qual­i­fy from the bal­lot, as we’ve doc­u­ment­ed in our Fail­ure Chart.

Despite all of his fail­ures, Eyman remains very vis­i­ble and rel­e­vant. And it’s because he’s a crea­ture of the media. When Eyman talks, reporters lis­ten.

Andrew Gar­ber may not quote from Tim Eyman’s mis­sives every day, but he and his col­leagues at the Times are still read­ing what Eyman is send­ing. And on days when Gar­ber isn’t writ­ing about Eyman, oth­er reporters often are.

The aver­age flack has to work pret­ty hard to receive a frac­tion of the cov­er­age for his or her cause that Eyman receives.

But then, Eyman is awful­ly good at media manip­u­la­tion. He does­n’t mind dress­ing up (or down) to attract cam­eras. He seem­ing­ly feels no com­pul­sion in repeat­ed­ly lying or dis­tort­ing data to make it con­form to his talk­ing points. He does­n’t care if his invec­tive both­ers peo­ple. His over­rid­ing objec­tive is to get his mes­sage out, and he knows how to get reporters to pick up on what he’s say­ing and doing. He knows how to drum up pub­lic­i­ty with almost no effort.

And that brings me back to today’s media advi­so­ry.

At the time I began writ­ing the mes­sage that Gar­ber received, the Spokesman-Review had already picked up on Eyman’s “lying whore” com­ment, and it seemed like­ly that oth­er media out­lets might fol­low suit.

I decid­ed to chal­lenge the press corps not to write about Eyman’s com­ment, and see what would hap­pen. I fig­ured that if any oth­er reporters were going to fol­low suit, they were prob­a­bly already inclined to do so, and I want­ed to point out that Eyman’s anti-Inslee invec­tive was a gam­bit to gen­er­ate press. It’s part of his schtick. It is pre­pared and pack­aged express­ly for a media cul­ture that val­ues sen­sa­tion­al­ism over sub­stance. And it’s intend­ed to low­er the lev­el of our polit­i­cal dis­course.

In the blo­gos­phere, pol­lut­ed dis­course is a real prob­lem. That’s why many blog­gers (us at NPI includ­ed) have adopt­ed a sim­ple rule for deal­ing with spam­mers, cranks, and trou­ble­mak­ers like Eyman: Don’t feed the trolls.

Trolls, for those who have not heard the term, are peo­ple who attempt to hijack com­ment threads by post­ing inflam­ma­to­ry or off-top­ic com­ments, usu­al­ly hop­ing to ignite a flame war. Trolls thrive on atten­tion. They crave it. They need it.

That’s why blog­gers and forum mod­er­a­tors who wish to fos­ter mean­ing­ful dia­logue ask their read­ers to abide by com­ment­ing guide­lines writ­ten to encour­age thought­ful dis­cus­sion and dri­ve away both­er­some trolls.

The George Mason Uni­ver­si­ty Cen­ter for Cli­mate Change Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, in part­ner­ship with sev­er­al oth­er insti­tu­tions, con­duct­ed a study not too long ago about the effects that trolls have on pub­lic under­stand­ing of sci­ence. The study found that respon­dents who were exposed to unciv­il com­ment threads tend­ed to dou­ble-down on their pre­ex­ist­ing beliefs.

In oth­er words, trolls are tox­ic to sound dis­course. Ram­pant trolling great­ly dimin­ish­es the val­ue of a com­ment thread.

Our state’s polit­i­cal dis­course could be thought (metaphor­i­cal­ly) of as a giant forum, with a zil­lion com­ment threads.

The mod­er­a­tors of the forum are the reporters, edi­tors, and pro­duc­ers who col­lec­tive­ly com­prise the state’s press corps and serve as gate­keep­ers.

Eyman is the state’s best known troll, and he spends a great deal of his time lurk­ing in the threads as well as con­stant­ly pes­ter­ing the mod­er­a­tors, many of whom are over­worked and under­paid, and increas­ing­ly few­er in num­ber.

Some of them dis­like his pol­i­tics and oth­ers find him annoy­ing. But they have a very hard time ignor­ing him. And so, they pro­mote his direct mes­sages out of their inbox­es and plas­ter his vit­ri­ol up where lots of peo­ple can read it and gawk at it.

The First Amend­ment guar­an­tees all Amer­i­cans the right to free speech and free­dom of the press. As an Amer­i­can news­pa­per, the Seat­tle Times and its jour­nal­ists enjoy the free­dom to write about what­ev­er they wish to cov­er. They also have the free­dom to decide what they will not cov­er.

And they exer­cise that free­dom on a dai­ly basis.

On many occa­sions, Times reporters and edi­tors have asked their read­ers to abide by their stan­dards, and avoid offend­ing the sen­si­bil­i­ties of oth­ers.

For instance, on Sep­tem­ber 27th, 2012, on the very blog Andrew Gar­ber post­ed to this after­noon (Pol­i­tics North­west) the Seat­tle Times’ Sonia Patel invit­ed read­ers to par­tic­i­pate in a video con­test on YouTube. She request­ed, how­ev­er, that videos com­ply with some fair­ly straight­for­ward rules:

And speak­ing of rules: Make a film with any polit­i­cal theme you like, as long as it’s suit­able for a fam­i­ly-news­pa­per audi­ence (in oth­er words, no sex, vio­lence or bad lan­guage, please.) It must be 3o sec­onds to one minute in length). Upload your video to YouTube, then go here to sub­mit your video.

Read­ers have also been asked to ensure that entries in the Seat­tle Times’ annu­al Peeps con­test are “suit­able for a fam­i­ly news­pa­per”.

I find it iron­ic that a reporter work­ing for a news­pa­per that reg­u­lar­ly requests that its read­ers self-cen­sor sub­mis­sions would inter­pret my request to ignore our state’s best known polit­i­cal troll for a change as a call for the media to cen­sor itself.

The objec­tion­able lan­guage that Eyman used today isn’t what prompt­ed me to write that media advi­so­ry; it’s what I’ve come to expect from Eyman. No, the rea­son for the advi­so­ry was to remind the media that Eyman knows how to dis­tract them and push their but­tons, and they should be aware that his attack on Inslee is a ploy for press which they ought to ignore, since doing oth­er­wise only encour­ages Eyman to con­tin­ue pol­lut­ing our state’s polit­i­cal dis­course.

And it is pol­lut­ed enough already.

Our state faces grave prob­lems and we need to be talk­ing about how to solve them — not let­ting the likes of Eyman drag our dia­logue into the gut­ter. Our state’s remain­ing polit­i­cal jour­nal­ists have an impor­tant role to play in ensur­ing that our dis­course is healthy and not pol­lut­ed by spam­mers, cranks, and trolls.

There’s a legit­i­mate debate to be had over the plan that House Trans­porta­tion Chair Judy Clib­born unveiled yes­ter­day. Eyman has con­tributed noth­ing to that debate. He said some­thing nasty about Jay Inslee, and he not only got a blog post out of Andrew Gar­ber (who attrib­ut­es his deci­sion to write said post to me), but a sto­ry for the print edi­tion of the Feb­ru­ary 22nd Seat­tle Times as well.

Tomor­row is the cut-off date for pol­i­cy bills to advance out of com­mit­tee. You’d think Gar­ber would have more impor­tant things to write about than Tim Eyman’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Jay Inslee as a lying whore. But no. And so it goes.

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