The Washington Post’s October 8 video of an 11-year-old episode showing Donald Trump speaking disparagingly about women with actor Billy Bush not only rocked the nation, but put Trump on the defensive at Sunday’s crucial second presidential debate.
Moderator Anderson Cooper turned to the video in the evening’s very first question. He dismissed Trump’s apology and characterization of it as “locker room banter,” and suggested instead that Trump disrespects women and may even have committed sexual assault. Moderator Martha Raddatz said “In just 48 hours, [the video’s] become the single most talked about story of the entire 2016 election.” Although both moderators knew about Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual assaults his wife helped cover up, they failed to bring up the point.
What the Post’s already renowned video represents is one of progressive journalism’s most valued advocacy tools: the “October Surprise.” In an “October Surprise,” a socially aware media outlet runs a negative story on an opposing candidate late in the campaign season to break the candidate’s balance and benefit his socially oriented opponent. An advocacy media outlet fabricates an issue, and the fabrication is alright because through it the outlet can say that it has made the community better by helping to elect the right people.
It’s a Phrase For a Reason
Other examples of “October Surprises” include a New York Times story in 2000 about a 25-year-old drunk driving charge against George W. Bush and, in 2003 during the California gubernatorial race, a Los Angeles Times’ rehash of old sexual harassment charges against Arnold Schwarzenegger. In September 2004 CBS News ran its now-infamous hoax alleging George Bush had shirked duty in Vietnam, and less than two weeks before election day, on October 25, The New York Times ran a story headlined “Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq.”
This 2,607-word article contended that nearly 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives were missing from one of Iraq’s former military installations. Although the explosives disappeared after the 2003 invasion, readers were left to surmise that the disappearance had been recent. In 2008, “Unease Sits Heavily in a Group of Black Voters,” which ran in October 29’s New York Times, wondered whether black voters could be assured their votes would be counted.
The paradigm behind “October Surprise” derives from the concept of “benign fabrication.” Noted sociologist Irving Goffman first theorized about this in his 1974 book, “Frame Analysis.” A “benign fabrication” is a fiction that, according to Goffman, is “engineered in the interest of the person contained by [it], or, if not quite in his interest and for his benefit, then at least not done against his interest.”
“Benign fabrications” are benign, the socially aware advocate believes, because they are perpetrated with the interests of the target audience in mind—with “interests” defined as he and his cohorts as an enlightened intelligentsia class define them.
Selective Care About Vulgarities Against Women
The article that invites readers to view the Post’s video, “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation about Women in 2005,” says Trump “bragged in vulgar terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women during a 2005 conversation caught on a hot microphone, saying that ‘when you’re a star, they let you do it.’” It quotes from the tape at length, and reports on the criticism of Trump by a long line of Republicans and other Trump allies. “Trump has been criticized in this campaign for derogatory and lewd comments about women,” the article also says, “including some made on TV and live radio.”
Coming on the verge of the second debate, the video knocked Trump off his balance Sunday night and reinforced Clinton’s narrative about him as a sexist. The accompanying Post article offers readers nothing about how the video was acquired or the timing of its release; the article plaintively notes only that the newspaper “obtained” the video.
Left unaddressed as well is why the Post never speaks out against vulgar descriptions of women when they are expressed by Hollywood personalities, Democrats, or Hillary Clinton’s husband. Also still not explained is why Trump is never given the same narrative frame in Post reportage and editorials as Bill Clinton is. The Post article brushes off Bill Clinton’s disparaging treatment of women by describing it as an issue of simple marital infidelity, and something Trump is using only for political advantage; “The tape appears at a time when Trump, the Republican presidential nominee,” it says, “has sought to make a campaign issue out of his opponent’s marriage.”
In referencing the Post’s video, Mrs. Clinton said Sunday that as a result of the video “your campaign [is] exploding” and “Republicans are leaving you.” House Speaker Paul Ryan said he was “sickened” by Trump’s comments, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte called them “totally inappropriate and offensive.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said that “no woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever,” and Mitt Romney said “such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world.” Mitch McConnell called the comments “repugnant, and unacceptable in any circumstance.”
Despite being played by the “October Surprise” ploy over and over again, Republican leaders are still only too eager to participate in it. So again politically inspired narratives and pseudo-events—artificialities whose intention is to make the United States into a more communitarian, less individual-centered place—go forward, with people who should know better treating them as though they are real.