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Public Shame and the End of Media Management

George Allen's experience is a microcosm of a much bigger trend: American culture has reinstated the art of public shaming, and the era of media-management is drawing to a close.
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By now the tale of George Allen's 'macaca' comment has all but vanished from the public discourse. It has become little more than an election-year parable, a conservative spook-story. The news cycle has trundled on to bigger and better gaffes; Michael Richards said the n-word, Alec Baldwin verbally abused his kid, David Hasselhoff got drunk, Don Imus got caught. Yet, remove the names and you have the same familiar story: a prominent figure says or does something culturally inappropriate, a recording ends up on the internet, and a critical pile-on ensues. George Allen's particular brand of racism aside, his experience is a microcosm of a much bigger trend affecting politicians, celebrities and CEOs alike: American culture has reinstated the art of public shaming, and the era of media-management is drawing to a close.

Historically, public shaming has been a tool used throughout the world to enforce the social mores of a group or community. If you were, say, caught stealing in the Middle Ages, you might be pilloried so children could throw rotten vegetables at your head and learn that some behaviors are unacceptable. America's own venerated tradition of public humiliation stretches back to colonial times. British tax collectors were tarred and feathered, criminals were often physically branded, and marital infidelity earned you visible social exile (or a ubiquitous scarlet 'A' according to Nathanial Hawthorne). Even dunce caps for maladjusted children were used well into the 19th century.

But public shaming essentially disappeared in the past hundred years. After World War II, Americans aggressively placed individual values above community values. Suburbs got bigger, cities smaller, families more dispersed. Involvement in civic activities like Rotary clubs and reading groups declined precipitously after the 1970s. In short, the self-policing capacity of American community dissolved.

Additionally, the advent of mass-broadcast technology like radio and television narrowed the scope of public discourse. The technological means required to reach an audience were prohibitively expensive and thus dominated by a relatively few number of media companies all offering essentially the same product. Even as investigative TV news like Arnold Diaz's Shame On You crept in to fill the void, the narrow eye of broadcast ensured that for every sleazy landlord caught, thousands more flew happily under the radar.

But the internet has changed all that. Suddenly we are all connected, just a Facebook or MySpace view away. Anyone, anywhere with a camera and a cable modem can reach an audience of millions. It's trite to say, but the internet has made us all one big unruly community again. And from Ted Stevens' 'intertubes' to Aleksey Vayner's bid for Wall Street, we are finding that the newly visible offenses of our leaders, celebrities, politicians, executives, friends and neighbors are rife for public derision.

In the days and weeks following a high-profile shaming, op-eds and blogs mete out the conventional wisdom that public figures should behave as though they are always being watched. But this misses the larger point: if the internet has become the de facto tool for enforcing modern social mores, then hiding is useless. Given the pace of technological intrusion, everything will ultimately find its way onto the internet. Hiding from the scrutiny of a newly empowered public is difficult today, but will be impossible tomorrow. The antidote to public exposure isn't management and spin; it's complete transparency.

The idea horrifies most people, and understandably so. From sociopath executives (my own former employer was slimed in Gawker's "Worst Bosses" series) to slip-shod school administrators, many Americans behave despicably to get ahead. And a mass airing of dirty laundry could wreck havoc on this country's power structure. But ultimately, adopting an ostrich strategy is more dangerous than meeting the challenges of transparency head-on.

JetBlue recognized the need for transparency in the aftermath of their February debacle. Immediately following a company-wide service meltdown and very public coverage of passengers stranded in a grounded plane for 11 hours, JetBlue took complete responsibility. They publicly acknowledged the causes of the breakdown in plainspoken, personal apologies by their CEO (and not legalese-laden press releases) on TV and across the internet. In a brilliant turn, the company issued a "Customer Bill of Rights," which made clear exactly how they would remedy similar situations in the future. The overall effect atoned for their mistake and made competitors look irresponsible by comparison. While the move was clearly made with a firm PR plan in mind, it reflected an undeniably progressive mindset: transparency can yield extraordinary positive benefits.

The simple fact is this: there will never be less scrutiny than there is today. The return of public shaming is merely a sign of things to come. Some people will recognize this and some will retrench. And I will have no shortage of YouTube videos to stare at, agog, as our leaders and role models embarrass themselves into obsolescence.

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