plastic steak markers (D-MN)
we've all heard by now that fox news mislabeled troubled congressman mark foley as a Democrat on more than one occasion. beneath mr. foley's picture, the graphic identified him as MARK FOLEY (D-FL).
conan o'brien's staff quickly unearthed some heretofore unnoticed video misidentifications of the disgraced richard nixon (D-WASH. D.C.), li'l kim jong il (D-NORTH KOREA), faded pop superstar michael jackson (D-CALIFORNIA), and chainsaw villain leatherface (D-TEXAS). i wish i could link to the clip. when it popped up on george stephanopoulos' sunday morning show last week, i laughed so hard i dropped a curl bar on my foot.
having spent a little time in newsrooms, i wouldn't dismiss the possibility that it was all an honest mistake. or two. heck, i wouldn't be at all surprised if ted turner and cnn mislabeled gary hart as a republican during the whole monkey business period. intentional or unintentional, however, i'd never dismiss the consequences of such labels. the visual representation of mr. foley as a democrat matters because people attend to these cues.
i know this to be the case based on first-hand experience. back in my pancake house days, i was stunned by the awesome power of little plastic steak markers. once i had learned the ropes, i always preferred to work the wheel rather than the broiler -- eggs were my true medium and i enjoyed the status and responsibility of coordinating orders and interacting with the servers. plus, it was way hot back by the broiler.
ANYWAY, as wheelman (in that gender-segregated kitchen), i would request, say, a medium-rare new york strip steak. when it emerged from the broiler as medium or medium-well, it was absolutely critical that said steak left the kitchen with a pink medium rare marker inserted at a jaunty angle. our patron would cut into the steak, see that it had forever lost its pinkish hue, and consider returning it to the kitchen. to do so, however, he would first have to overcome the dissonance induced by our plastic visual aid, which was itself pink. more importantly, this pink marker announced to the world in prominent raised lettering that this hunk o' meat was, in fact, a medium rare hunk o' meat. as a passive customer myself, i know that i'd never call into question the accuracy of the plastic steak marker.* and i was in the business!
i never did any controlled experiments, though randomly assigning steak markers would make for an interesting perceptual study. instead, i observed the absolute freakin' chaos that resulted one weekend when the kitchen ran out of steak markers. i had the misfortune of pulling consecutive five-to-three shifts with a broiler man who ... let's just say that he did not consistently abide by the rules of a drug-free workplace. deprived of his visual aids, confusion reigned in the kitchen, mutiny overtook the dining room, and a rift disrupted the love covenant between servers and wheelman.
it was a complete and total disaster, but midway through that saturday bar rush i knew what we had to do: throw off our plastic crutches of deception and just cook the steaks as the customers ordered them. yes, the disaster ultimately led to greater accountability, more satisfied diners, and a tighter bond between servers and wheelman.
so here's to you, media watchdogs. we can handle a little spin with our news, but we must never permit journalists to stick the wrong plastic steak marker in our public figures.
*at least not in a pancake house. if i paid $60 for the steak, i might send it back.