Monday, October 29, 2012

Who Asked Your Opinion?

Chris Kluwe is a punter for the Minnesota Vikings. He also happens to be one of the most unexpectedly popular players in the NFL, though it has nothing to do with his punting. It just so happens that he turns out to be possibly the most articulate man in the league, and has gained recognition for his writing, particularly concerning GLBT rights. It goes to show that, while credentials are always important, if you have talent, it doesn't really matter what your credentials are. You have talent and that's all there is to it.

This isn't really about that. Not quite. Not entirely.

What this is about is the specificity of credentials. The thing is, Kluwe's chief credential is 'NFL punter'. But with that credential, you know exactly what position he's arguing from. It would happen that his most appropriate credential is 'Internet message board veteran', which is where Kluwe says he gained his experience in crafting his arguments.

This does happen sometimes, that someone's most appropriate credential is not the one that is presented to you. More likely, you are likely to see the person's master status: their most recognizable credit. That's going to be either whatever they're most famous for doing, or whatever they've done most recently. Lisa Ling has for a long time been most famous for her time co-hosting The View. In her time since leaving The View, Ling has been a host of National Geographic Explorer and the OWN documentary series Our America, and this coming midseason will be hosting a CBS reality show called The Job. Chiefly, serious journalism of difficult topics. But look in any article about her, and the credential given to her was, for an entire decade, right up until her recent pregnancy announcement seemed to finally put Our America at the forefront, most likely to be 'former co-host of The View'.

Though the View byline still hasn't gone away completely.

Obviously, it's better that you get the most relevant credentials. But no matter what is specifically said, it's key that it is that it is in fact specific. You have some concrete information about them, and that's important. From that, you can start- start, not necessarily finish- to figure out how much weight you give their arguments.

Now in this case, Kluwe's credentials are those of a football player. (And World of Warcraft player, and part-time musician, and the accumulation of his other various life experiences. Let's not discount those.) Otherwise, outside of his personal fields of expertise, they're what we'll call 'irrelevant'. Irrelevant experience is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means he probably has about as much experience and expertise on a given subject at hand as you do. Which, well, welcome to the Internet, where anyone has the right to speak about anything. That's the beauty of all this. We can find guys like Kluwe. This needs to be made clear. Yes, celebrities often have irrelevant credentials, and some of them are quite unintelligent, just like any other occupation, but also like any other occupation, some of them can think circles around you. You don't want to automatically go 'Shut up and act/sing/punt/etc.' A good example here would be Danica McKellar, who you may recall from The Wonder Years. Danica has not only written three books on math, but also coauthored a math proof at UCLA, the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem. (PDF) Related to this would be the writers' room of Futurama, where Ken Keeler created a math proof of his own just to make a plot point work. (The equation, of course, wound up on-air.) You don't go around making math proofs without something going on upstairs.

Irrelevant credentials, it should be noted, are distinct from 'bad' credentials. Bad credentials are the types that actively reduce your credibility, moreso than if your credentials were merely irrelevant. These would be your birthers, your truthers, your lobbyists, your super PACS (assuming someone knows you're with a super PAC), and basically anything that will make most reasonable people think you're stupid, crazy or paid off to the point of corruption.

But good, bad, or irrelevant, specific credentials are specific credentials. There's some measure of honesty there. What you need to really watch out for, what we've been building up to here, is when the credentials start getting vague. When a credential gets vague, start thinking of the least impressive thing that could qualify for that credential, because there's a very real chance that's exactly what you're dealing with. The most common vague credential you tend to see, especially around election time, is "strategist". There are a few occasional known quantities who get the strategist label- Paul Begala, James Carville, the like. But it gets muddy in a hurry.

Maybe you get lucky and get a "strategist" like Ana Navarro, whose actual credentials were being national Hispanic chair or co-chair to John McCain in 2008 and Jon Huntsman in 2012. That's pretty decent (and is specifically mentioned in the link). Maybe you get unlucky and get a "strategist" like Hilary Rosen. In the link, Rosen is labeled as a "Democratic strategist" with no further specifics. It only takes a quick visit to Wikipedia to find her actual credentials: a former lobbyist for the RIAA and a consultant for BP during the Deepwater Horizon spill, the latter of which caused her to get fired from writing for the Huffington Post once they found out. She frequently can be found lobbying the White House.

Those aren't just irrelevant credentials. Those are bad credentials. This is not a person you ought to be listening to. Not only does she lobby for decidedly un-Democrat-like causes, she is bad enough at arguing for the Democrats that Barack Obama himself had to put out a fire she lit back in April.

You'll also see similar problems emerge when you get credits like the maddeningly nonspecific "citizen", "concerned citizen", "taxpayer", or, worst of all, "American", all of which serve the dual purpose of saying nothing while demanding that they mean everything. Odds are, if these are the credentials, they are self-given, often at town-hall meetings and letters to the editor, and hide the fact that the person speaking has as much expertise as you and I do in order to angrily insist that their opinion be the single most important thing in the country, something that everyone needs to drop everything to hear.

And there's no limit to the ways campaign ads can exploit this. When you see a random person get in front of a camera and start talking about a candidate, there is no way you, on your own, are going to be able to tell who this person is, and you're probably not going to question it offhand. Which opens the door for paid actors and campaign workers to pose as random voters. And attacks that the other guy is using paid actors, attacks which the attacker had better hope to God are accurate because they will hear about it if those turn out to be actual voters.

It doesn't just happen in politics, though. You also see it in the entertainment industry. Credentials here are a little more important; the viewers at home are less likely to snipe at what's being called a 'celebrity' if they think there are actual celebrities around, or at least, people who they can accept as viable celebrities that maybe they just haven't heard of. Panel-based game shows are notorious for puffing up the "celebrities" on the panel to maximum effect in order to avoid any problems here. Sometimes you'll get the person's latest or current project. Sometimes you'll just get the person's name- sometimes the celebrity truly needs no introduction; sometimes they have no billing for good reason. And sometimes you'll get vagueness.

Let's take Hollywood Squares as an example. Here's a sample intro from 1999.

This particular panel tops out at Rita Rudner, Bobcat Goldthwait and, of course, Whoopi Goldberg, which were all perfectly acceptable as celebrities in 1999, but let's single out Bruce Vilanch, one of that era's regular panelists. The billing given is "writer/comedian". Odds are you know of no other specific credentials for Vilanch aside from his tenure on Hollywood Squares. What was he writing? Hollywood Squares, that's what. He was head writer- meaning he was most responsible for all those joke answers the panel gave. (It's credit #554, under all the episodes he was in.) He does have some beef to his resume- he's been writing for the Oscars since 1989, and has been head writer since 2000- but it needs to be noted that his time on Hollywood Squares started in 1999, before he became head writer. (He's also written for a lot of other award shows; that makes up the bulk of his credits.)

Vagueness was taken to the extreme, though, in the 2006 GSN remake of I've Got A Secret. Here's the premiere episode, and once again, have a listen to the credentials.

Billy Beane got 'former major leaguer', although really, any baseball fan nowadays knows exactly who Billy Beane is: the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, the man behind Moneyball, and one of the gods of sabermetrics. We'll skip the two in the middle, who have legitimate-but-weak credentials, and go to the end for Jermaine Taylor, who got the bizarre credential "our cup of tea". That's about as vague as it gets, while still somehow trying to make it look like he's someone worth tuning in to see. Why the heck did he get "our cup of tea" (and other similarly flighty phrases over the show's run) as a credential?

Because I've Got A Secret was Jermaine Taylor's first IMDB credit of any kind. GSN literally took a nonfamous person who a deeper search will reveal was bumming around the lower reaches of comedy and off-Broadway theater acting and writing, a person more suited to being a contestant or an audience member, and put him on the celebrity panel, after making him audition for it. And after I've Got A Secret wrapped, he got only two more credits since, one for an appearance on something called 'YourLA', and a panelist appearance on '100 Greatest Songs of the 00s'. That's it. Those are his IMDB credits.

Things do sometimes work out when credentials are lacking. Sometimes you stumble upon someone legitimately entertaining, such as when you're doing casting for reality shows, which need you to go find nonfamous people to fill out the rosters. We're not talking about the designated troublemaker or the producer's pet. Someone that legitimately breaks out. One good example here would be Ariel Tweto, who was cast on the first season of Wipeout. Here's Ariel running the first stage, the Qualifier.

That little performance (she eventually came in a very respectable 3rd out of the 24-person field that day) was considered so adorable that she quickly became a favorite. And it just so happened that up in Unalakleet, Alaska, her family ran a bush-pilot airline, Era Alaska. Cue three-season Discovery Channel reality show Flying Wild Alaska, starring the Tweto family and with Ariel front and center handling 'do not try this at home' duties, and regular stops to chat with Craig Ferguson.

(By the way: to address a point in the Wipeout commentary, Tweto was not doing a seal hop. It was a reasonable approximation considering, but it wasn't a seal hop. A seal hop is laying down face-first, holding your body up on your knuckles and toes, and bouncing across the ground like that. It is exhausting as hell.)

I'm not necessarily saying don't put these people on TV, don't listen to them. The likes of Kluwe and McKellar and Tweto are too much of a testament to the fact that sometimes you just never know where quality is going to come from. But let's be honest about where we consider quality to be coming from. We can let things go from there.

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