Tall Poppy Syndrome: How to Create a Controversy from Nothing

This morning I read an article in a small, subscription-only news outlet.

It was an article clearly written with one purpose in mind: Create a controversy around Chris Hadfield’s time in space, and attach his success to a deep-seated distrust of government and social media.

Obviously, being so closely involved in Dad’s success in space (having helped him set up twitter, and working closely with him every day to help spread his message of science, achievement, and personal dedication to the world at large), I was quite inflamed when I read the article.

Once I calmed down a bit, however, I realized that the only way to really comment on it was to provide the facts. So, with no further ado, here is my response:

1. His opening sentence, “Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s seemingly spontaneous performances in space were the product of a three year marketing campaign complete with CBC collaboration and occasional tweets ghost written by government employees” has already framed the way this article intends to manipulate  the facts. It asserts three major points – Chris Hadfield wasn’t spontaneous, he didn’t plan his own tweets and apparently didn’t even write them. (None of which is true, of course.)

As is announced later, the “ghost writing” of note was actually a single coworker asking him to tweet a handful of times (out of his 5,000) to promote events that were quite evidently set up before his time in space (openly noted by Hadfield in his tweets). She did not (nor did the CSA) have access to his twitter account, and in no way demanded that he keep her wording. He did not ask her to write the tweets, nor did she ask that he tweet those specific words. It was, from the beginning to the end, entirely up to him. That isn’t ghost writing. Calling it as such is a way the author manipulates the headline for maximum shock value.

One of these events, the unveiling of Canada’s new 5 dollar bill, required the launching of the bill to space, signing of documents with the treasury, and a slew of other planning issues that clearly required a hand beyond Dad’s. Of course, it is not mentioned in the opening article that this is what he means when he says that it was stage managed. Nor should anyone be surprised that an unreleased 5 dollar bill didn’t magically find its way to the space station. One tweet out of 5000 does not make his effort simply a preplanned part of a “three-year marketing campaign”.

Exactly how the CBC collaborated was, of course, also not outlined in the opening lines. It keeps the allusion that they were there to help his campaign, perhaps promote his tweets. However, upon further inspection that allusion is clearly false. His connection to the CBC was singing I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing?) with Ed Robertson and a choir here on Earth. It was broadcast over the CBC, which meant a direct connection between them and the CSA to make sure it was all set up for him on Station. Nobody would watch his song and think that it happened spontaneously, as they shouldn’t. The opening wording of the article, though, makes their “collaboration” appear deceptive. Considering nearly a million kids simultaneously sang with him around the planet, it would be equally correct for the article to say that Hadfield’s tweets were “in collaboration with 5 year olds and their mothers”.

2. “Hadfield could not be reached for comment.

A more accurate way of stating it would be “I didn’t try very hard to reach Hadfield for comment”. At no point was anyone in our family knowingly asked for comment. However, from the article’s perspective it is easier to just say he couldn’t be reached for comment, because that insinuates Dad has something to hide.

3. “Chris writes all his tweets himself… Yet records indicate numerous instances in which Kapiniari acted as Hadfield’s ghostwriter.

The article tries to make a point that Hadfield didn’t write all his tweets by himself, because Anna Kapiniari asked him to tweet three (or so) out of his five thousand tweets to help the Space Agency and he chose to use her words. In the words of the author, this is “ghost writing”. Although Hadfield decided it was something worth tweeting, determined her wording suited what he wanted to say, and then tweeted it by himself, it is an obvious stretch to then say that he wasn’t writing the tweets himself. Especially since the author knows full-well that the email asking him to tweet did so requesting, not telling, him to tweet.

By taking the few instances the author provided where he tweeted what the CSA had asked for and calling them “ghost-written”, he is insinuating that the 5000 tweets done by Hadfield were not done spontaneously. Even if the CSA had total control over his twitter (not the case), tweeted exactly what they wanted (not the case), and had zero input from Hadfield (not the case), it would have made for a total of around .1% of all his tweets. Arguing that “his tweets were ghostwritten” based on a faulty explanation of .1% of his tweets shows the way the article manipulates the facts towards the overly-dramatic.

The most amusing of these three, from my perspective, is the tweet about the Habs that the author is trying to sell as deceptive ghost writing. What the author likely knows from reading the CSA emails, but you don’t from his not adding it to his article, is that the CSA is based in Montreal, and most of its employees are huge Habs fans. Anna requested that Dad, being an open-minded Leafs fan, tweet “Heureux de voir le hockey @NHL de retour au Canada …#GoHabs!” as a politeness to CSA employees. Calling that “ghost writing”, is quite simply laughable. What the author removed from their months of discussions says far more than what he left in.

4. Records show federal employees for years “actively planning and carrying out a series of actions to fully leverage social media and partnerships.

This quote is stated in reference to the CSA’s social media accounts, not Hadfield’s. The author is using this phrase to make it appear as though it is in reference to Commander Hadfield’s account, which it is not. Since I was the one who convinced him to set up his account on twitter, set up all his other accounts (Facebook, Google+, etc), coaching him through the process from day one until present day, I can say unequivocally that what the author is alluding to here was, and is, not the case. To point, Dad’s accounts on various social networks predate those of the CSA (such as tumblr), and were transparently set up and run by myself, not a CSA employee.

5. Publicists spent months arranging stunts for Hadfield.

Using the wording “stunts” and “publicists” is just a way of making Hadfield’s interaction in space sound somehow undesirable, and ignores the quality and impact of the work that was done. A more accurate way of phrasing it would be “communications staff at the CSA helped to plan schools events, enable science demonstrations and to edit videos Hadfield taped on Station, as well as following up on activities he was taking part in”. The vast majority of the “stunts” referred to were spontaneous and evolved as interest grew – including school talks and educational videos. A great example comes from the article: William Shatner, who the author notes had “little enthusiasm” for talking to Hadfield on Station, in fact talked to Hadfield through his own, unplanned means (twitter), and as a direct result desired to further chat with him via phone (which for logistical reasons the CSA had to help to set up). The author of the article likely knows this, of course, because he has access to the emails that state it.

To state it simply: It is deceptive to say that Hadfield’s tweets and interaction was “ghost-written”, packaged or manipulated in the way the author is attempting to make it appear. That which was planned, such as the I.S.S. song, Canadian 5 dollar bill, and puck drop for the Maple Leafs, was done so without any secret intent. At no point was it in any way unclear that there were people on the ground helping him to execute those events.

If Hadfield had done all the planning and execution of those events by himself, in space, it wouldn’t have stopped this type of article. It would have just changed the headline to “Hadfield wastes time in space doing CSA ground-crew’s job”.

Because that’s just it. You can’t stop negative articles, no matter the reality of what you’ve done. Drama gets page views, even if it goes against the facts. This type of journalism shouldn’t be supported.

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