As you no doubt have heard, seen, and/or read, President Obama, in a press-conference concerning the “birther” question, referred to those who prominently keep the issue alive as “carnival barkers.” Let’s look at the metaphor and its etymology but then also ask who’s inside the carnival (we know the barker–whether s/he be Tancredo, Bachmann, Trump,or . . .) is outside the carnival.
The metaphor seems apt, even though few of us see carnival barkers or barkers of any kind anymore. It may seem apt because of the sense in which almost all politics seems to be spectacle now (thank you, Murray Edelman.)
But the occupation itself, barker, goes way back,according to the OED online:
2. fig. A noisy assailant; an auction-room or shop tout; one who ‘barks’ at a cheap shop or show: see bark v.1 2b. Chiefly U.S.
1483 Caxton tr. J. de Voragine Golden Legende 273/4 Whiche sometyme had ben a barker, bytter and blynde, ayenst the lettres.
1581 J. Bell tr. W. Haddon & J. Foxe Against Jerome Osorius 81 b, Neither Jerome Osorius nor any other braulyng barker can‥molest him.
Interesting that the term is now “chiefly U.S.” even though, of course, its origins are British.
Who’s inside? President Obama seemed to suggest that the media are because they keep reporting the story as “news.” His larger purpose in holding a press-conference (aside from appearing to be serious and adult–and presidential [the campaign has begun]) was to ask the media to cover more important issues.
The media are inside the carnival–or are the carnival itself–because they have little or no journalistic discipline; they have little or no discipline because they are in the entertainment business: mostly, news departments are no more, and even where they allegedly exist (NYTimes), look how far they get sucked into the spectacle: Judith Miller.
One fantasizes about a hard-bitten editor–male or female–shouting, “We’re not reporting that crap. Understood?!” But those days are gone. These days are dominated by the likes of Trump, who, sanctioned by his NBC employers, barks, thereby demonstrating who or what is the carnival. Sure, the barker gets all the scorn, but it’s not as if barkers don’t have bosses, who have helped to give us a new word: “birther.”