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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.