Politics and Poe: A scary proposition

Have you ever heard of “Poe’s law”?

You won’t find it in some dusty old legal tome from 15th century England. Nor does it relate to the famous Baltimore poet, Edgar Allan Poe. It is a modern creation, but was not passed by any legislature.

Writer Edgar Allan Poe. (AP Photo/File)

Rather, it is an adage of the internet. In sum, it holds that, without an explicit indication, it is impossible to publish parody on the internet and not have someone believe it is real.

The law applies with particular force to politics. “New Maine News” — a parody site — captured some of my politically aligned friends in its satire snare. What was the story? “Embarrassed Portland Press Herald Accidentally Posts Draft Endorsement of Sara Gideon.”

It is literally “fake news.” But I’ll make a prediction: the Portland Press Herald will endorse Gideon in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. And then they will do the same in the general election against Sen. Susan Collins.

Part of the reason “Poe’s law” applies is because people like to hear information that conforms to their expectations. However, when parody stories turn into the actual news, does that mean the media is a joke?

Not quite.

People have opinions. That isn’t a terribly gripping observation. When you get a group of like-minded people together — say, in an organization — they create a culture that often shapes and reinforces those shared opinions. If new people join that group, there is pressure to conform to the way others think.

So it is with the news media. In 2013, only 7% of American reporters identified as Republican, down from 18% in 2002. Democratic identification saw a drop as well, from 36% to 28%. Democrats had a 2-to-1 advantage, increasing to 4-to-1.

Employment trends back this up. Seventy-two percent of newspaper and online publishing jobs are clustered in counties won by Hillary Clinton. While it is not intentional or malicious, media bias is a real thing by virtue of sheer demographics.

There are exceptions to the leftward skew. Fox News comes to mind, as does the Wall Street Journal. It is fairly accepted that each approaches their coverage from a certain political perspective. They have counterpart organizations in MSNBC and the New York Times, often acknowledged as their opposite. Each outlet conforms to — or deviates from — generally acceptable journalistic standards, but you know what to expect.

The same is playing out in Maine. Years ago, the Maine Heritage Policy Center began “The Maine Wire” to offer news coverage while acknowledging their market-oriented perspective. Since then, Maine’s well-funded, well-organized left has launched the “Maine Beacon” as a platform for the farther reaches of the political spectrum. Adding another wrinkle, a grassroots organization of right-leaning Mainers have recently launched “Inform ME” as a printed periodical available in many stores throughout the state.

However, while there is some very real benefit in acknowledging one’s viewpoint, it must be done in a forthright manner. Some of the avowedly opinionated outlets do not even attempt to offer an objective take while acknowledging their philosophical slant.  That leads to a dangerous place. It leads back to Poe’s law.

It is easy to accept information that conforms to views you already hold, and easier still to discount that which challenges your perspective. If you are relying on information outlets that refuse to acknowledge — at the very least — the rationale of the opposite side, you will never be able to truly defend your own view. And if you “eat the onion” by buying into parody, the foundations of your opinion will rest on flimsy ground.

When it comes to a well-informed citizenry exercising the high calling of self-government, that is a much scarier proposition than anything than Mr. Poe of Baltimore ever came up with.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.