Nate Silver has a fascinating post up today at 538.com, based on his gleanings from the news aggregator Memeorandum, analyzing the spread of the AIG bonus story.
It all started with a Washington Post article posted online last Saturday night, and, after a very brief lull, it steadily emerged as a mega-story:
On Sunday, the story gained significant steam throughout the liberal blogosphere. By 3 PM, according to Memeorandum, 20 independent (e.g. not related to a major media outlet) blogs had picked up some variant of the AIG story, of which 16 (by my count) have a definitive liberal orientation. There was then an additional round of attention later in the day, this time mostly coming from the mainstream media, after AIG’s counterparty list was released, and as the papers began to release content online from their Monday editions.
AIG-related affairs continued to dominate the discussion on Monday after Barack Obama said he wanted to block the bonuses and amidst speculation about the political fallout. Over the course of the day, the discussion tended to shift from liberal blogs to mainstream media channels.
Then yesterday (Tuesday), the story got bigger rather than smaller, becoming the subject of about twice as much discussion as it had been 24 hours earlier. Noteworthy about yesterday is that conservative blogs, which had been slow on the trigger initially, finally started to cover the story en masse, perhaps sensing the potential for embarrassment to the Administration.
This pattern isn’t that surprising when you think about it for a bit. The “liberal blogosphere” is divided between people who strongly oppose financial industry bailouts, and those who don’t, or who at least have some sympathy for the reasons for them. Both camps have every reason to get angry about the AIG bonuses, so both gave the story attention. MSM coverage followed news hooks (though by now, of course, it’s migrated on to coverage of the public reaction as a news item in itself). And while fairly big majorities of conservative bloggers claim to deplore financial industry bailouts, they don’t generally like to “demagogue” about high corporate pay (after all, it’s the low-income mortgage-holders who are really to blame, right?), so they ignored the story until it became about an apparent mistep by Obama and Geithner.
But what Nate’s talking about is significant: the stories that tend to build and build and become mega-stories feeding on themselves are those which attract heated commentary from different directions. When the story quickly morphs from one of corporate greed to one of “liberal” incompetence, it becomes a pinata that gets whacked hither and yon.
If you think of the AIG bonus story in terms of the amount of time that is necessary for a blogger to read and digest a news item, and then a news reporter to read a blog post, it actually developed pretty slowly. But from the perspective of a White House trying to deal with the substance of a very complex issue while monitoring and influencing the reaction, it must have seemed viral. And there’s only so much you can do via “damage control” once the story is whizzing around. It’s all the more reason to realize that careful strategic analysis of the negative news almost certain to emerge from a complex mess like the AIG meltdown and bailout is a very wise investment of time, if only to limit the number of people who leap on a breaking story from all sides of the political spectrum.