Outside a barn along a flat-country highway in southern Delaware, hamburgers grilled over charcoal flames. A pile of watermelons – the prized crop of a local farm – sat nearby, for sale. Inside, men and women gathered on the concrete floor ready to bid on NRA belt buckles, pictures of Ronald Reagan and homemade pies.
Everything was as it usually is at the annual Sussex County GOP picnic auction on a Sunday in September. Everything except for the television cameras from far away – Philadelphia, Washington, France, Japan.
They crowded around the building entrance, and when Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell arrived, they shoved each other and their microphones forward, shouting questions. Whether she still practiced witchcraft, whether she only visited a blood-stained alter once during high school, whether she cancelled appearances on two Sunday talk shows to avoid humiliation. By the time one well-meaning reporter asked the political novice with the utmost sincerity if “dabbling in witchcraft” would “hurt her in November,” it was hard not to find the whole thing comical, rather than political.
How did this happen?
Well, two nights earlier, a left wing comedian announced on his late night cable show that he had a video from 11 years ago of O’Donnell saying some very strange things on a Fox program called “Politically Incorrect.” He presented it with a warning for the tea party favorite.
“Christine, if you’re watching, I created you,” said Bill Maher, host of “Real Time.” “You need to come on this show. If you don’t come on this show, I’m going to show a clip every week. I’m the only one that has them. I have hoarded them.”
It didn’t even take until midnight for the Internet to prove Maher wrong about hoarding them. Or show how a single 40 second clip could upend an entire election and derail reasoned political discourse.
Within an hour, someone uploaded the “Real Time” segment to YouTube. At 1:31 a.m., a liberal website, Think Progress, linked to the video in a blog post titled "Christine O'Donnell in Oct. 1999: 'I dabbled into witchcraft.'" It described the major-party Senate candidate as “an unemployed, anti-masturbation activist” and “best known for her regular and bizarre punditry.”
By the next morning, The Huffington Post, a liberal Internet news site, picked up the story, posting the video with a short blurb. These links and others were shared on who knows how many tweets and Facebook status updates. People started commenting on the YouTube video by the dozens. One quipped, “Palling around with witches,” as opposed to terrorists, of course. Another opined, “At least she's not a marxist like (Chris) Coons,” referring a college column in which O’Donnell’s Democrat opponent called himself a “bearded Marxist“.
So now you can see what all the fuss was about outside a barn in southern Delaware. It was O’Donnell’s first public appearance since the “dabbled into witchcraft” video made worldwide news.
“I'm disappointed that she is not appearing on any of the Sunday news shows,” observed a commenter on Wonkette, a blog founded entirely on snarky, hilarious insincerity. “I was looking forward to her head spinning around as she throws up pea soup on Chris Wallace.”
Just as the intersection of politics and the Internet introduced the nation to Tina Fey and her Sarah Palin impersonation in 2008, a phenomenon like O’Donnell could only exist in the digital age.
A little more than 1 million viewers tune into premium channel HBO for a typical episode of “Real Time,” or about 1 or 2 million fewer people than the typical audience for one of America’s favorite Friday night cable shows, “WWE Smackdown,” according to Nielsen Media Research.
But the number of people watching an original broadcast suggests little relevance in today’s climate.
“The vast majority of people did not watch the Tina Fey impersonation or the witchcraft video the first time it was broadcast,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Experts are quick to point out the existence of political satire dating back to print cartoons of the colonial area, but it’s easy to see how “snark” – a more biting, dismissive cousin of sarcasm – has become more pervasive than ever. With so much information bombarding us at all times, we need shortcuts to make it digestible, to boil it down into a more manageable, entertaining package, Thompson said.
Internet users have, virtually, unlimited outlets to consume, create and share commentary, and stories lending themselves to such abject irreverence. Their humorous or cruel or ironic words spread to millions of eyes without any help from major newspapers or television networks.
“In that way, we’re all pundits,” said Danna Young, an assistant professor UD who has studied political humor and satire. “I don’t have to even have an original thought. I can just say, ‘Right on, dude.’”
Delaware is the second smallest state by area and the 6th smallest by population. It has one major newspaper and no television station of its own. The tiny First State’s flash into the spotlight eventually led to a “Daily Show” spoof, featuring University of Delaware assistant professor Jason Mycoff as the straight-laced academic describing the state’s political climate.
“I did it because I thought it would be fun,” Mycoff explained. “It’s true you don’t want to be seen as the buffoon they are targeting. But as long as you’re not the buffoon, it’s not ’60 Minutes.’ It’s not a serious interview.”
As for whether he gets his news from Jon Stewart, “I actually read,” Mycoff joked.
In another age, the O’Donnell video might have sparked a few days of coffee shop conversation, Thompson said, and then everyone would have moved on, perhaps to more substantive issues.
But especially for people outside of Delaware, paying only peripheral attention to the Senate election as a sideshow, witchcraft became the central issue of the election. The O’Donnell video followed a rather predictable arc, Young said.
It starts with a funny video relatively few people see initially. It’s uploaded to the Internet, posted on blogs and shared on social media. It gets traction as more people watch it and offer biting assessments in comments sections. It’s remixed and parodied and shared some more. Sometimes, the mainstream press hops on board, providing an overview of the digital sensation. The cycle seems to near completion when Jon Stewart offers a scathing, satirical assessment of the whole topic. Then, the citizens of the Internet offer more pithy and sarcastic comments until the story runs out of steam or something funnier comes along.
“All these people have the opportunity to become political actors just by forwarding something or posting it,” Young said.
But what if the smarmy attitude – as popular as it is – spills over into mediums for straight-laced reporting? Will newspapers and networks be tempted to engage in it too?
Growing more and more partisan and commentary-laden, cable networks especially have decided that answer is yes, Young said.
“In a diverse media landscape that features everything from opera to jersey shore, a lot of networks have adopted a more entertainment approach,” she said. “And that means heightened drama and building tension, and it also means more of this snarky, mean-spirited attitude.”
But the answer in traditional print media hasn’t been so clear. In his recently released book “The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News,” veteran journalist and former Penn State University professor Gene Foreman includes a case study of a political reporter maintaining a blog. The reporter’s posts throughout the day took on a harsh, witty tone. Meanwhile, his newspaper reports maintained a straight, no-frills approach.
Journalists venturing into snark run the risk of appearing less than objective and damaging their credibility, a problematic situation when the same reporters must write straight news stories for the next day’s paper, Foreman said.
“They want to match the citizen blogs, some of which are very popular,” said Foreman, a former managing editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. “But the citizen blog doesn’t have the same responsibility as a journalist at a mainstream newspaper.”
Foreman said he appreciates the value of blog and understands the need for reporters to be lively and relevant. But too much dripping sarcasm lowers discourse, and it’s up to professional journalists to hold themselves to a higher standard, he said. Foreman is less amenable to the new age of commenting – on blogs, on message boards, on news stories.
“Comments have debased our society,” Foreman said. “It just exposes a mean side of people.”
As for journalism’s use of snark, it remains to be seen how reporters of the future – citizens, profession or otherwise – will handle their online decorum. For all we know, the whole might seem quaint years from now.
“I imagine journalism as a profession is going to have to wrestle with how to make that distinction,” Young said. “Do you treat a private citizen with kid gloves or do you treat them differently because they’re a citizen journalist?”
Whether anyone likes it or not, situations that invite snark will get attention, generate page views and grab headlines. O’Donnell went on to essentially embrace the situation, creating her famous “I’m you” campaign ad, in which she states, “I’m not a witch.” Rather than diffuse the situation, it fed the snark machine. Witchcraft became impossible to ignore.
Lost in the chaos of that barn in southern Delaware, one reporter in fray could be heard arguing with one of O’Donnell’s aides over why he asked so many questions, so insistently, about witchcraft.
For better or worse, as the reporter put it, “A United States Senate candidate saying she dabbled in witchcraft is a story.”
It’s just the way the story is told that’s changed.