Media 101: A lesson on how public opinion is shaped


Do you remember CAPIT?

CAPIT was a Fayette County local organization whose initials stood for Citizens Against Perpetually Increasing Taxes. Nice little catchy name.

CAPIT was run by a political science college professor named Roger Marietta, who would later go on to be elected mayor of Fayetteville, in 1988. He now lives in Albany, Ga., where he is mayor pro tem.

Roger was an activist, perhaps in the same stripe as Steve Brown, former Peachtree City mayor and now county commissioner. He knew how to stir things up.

Now one has to realize that the media like to see things stirred up. They encourage it. It gives them something to write about. They love to see readers take the bait and get interested, if not passionate.

And so it was that around 1987, in CAPIT’s heyday, the local paper announced that a CAPIT meeting would be held at the county commission office. Interested in the community’s affairs, and a bit curious and adventurous, I decided to attend.

Many of us who attend meetings like this out of curiosity wish to blend in, inconspicuously, with the crowd. The problem comes when there is, in fact, no crowd. Then you stand out, people introduce themselves to you, and you have to introduce yourself back, with all your hopes of anonymity blown up to smithereens.

Moreover the people who are present mistake you for a real believer in their cause, when you were in fact just looking to be informed, and perhaps entertained a little.

So I attended the CAPIT meeting announced in our local paper.

We had an interesting meeting, where I was permitted, and even encouraged, to present my views. Hey, there were only five of us in there, so it was easy to be informal. (That’s right, five.)

Early in my career, I joined the Toastmasters International organization so I would be properly trained to speak in public. All those oratorical skills that were honed over the years were totally unneeded for a meeting that turned into what amounted to a conversation. A conversation in which I initially had no intention to participate.

For all intents and purposes, like it or not, I was a CAPIT member that night. There were no dues, no elaborate commitment rituals, no roll calls (because there were no rolls). I was there, and it was good enough.

Not being a complete moron, I am myself not terribly enthusiastic about promoting taxes. Supporting CAPIT’s general objectives is for me not too much of a leap.

It didn’t take long before our conversation turned into the desirability of preparing a press release that would inform the world about our objectives and accomplishments.

So we prepared a press release, although I think Roger did most of it, that announced CAPIT’s position on various local issues that tie in with taxes. In public life, everything is related to taxes anyway, so it’s not hard to do that.

Then CAPIT (Roger or one of his friends) sent the press release to all the Fayette local papers, and every one of them had an article about it, with big headlines.

The newspapers never bothered to check about the attendance at the CAPIT meeting, or how many members it had.

Why do I bring this up now?

I was just reading in local newspapers about how the Senoia Tea Party is supporting a vote by Coweta County voters to continue their 18-year-old SPLOST for another six years.

These Tea Party guys (and gals) are supposed to be against taxes. So for people easily bothered by the idea of taxes this becomes a bit newsworthy, like a man bites dog story.

But the real question here, in the back of the mind of a former CAPIT conscript like me, is how many people there are in that so-called Senoia Tea Party, and what their vote was. Was it 5-0?

It is hard to believe that the media fall for this. But if the public does, one has a perfect explanation for why taxes go up while just about everyone pretends to be a citizen against perpetually increasing taxes.

[Claude Y. Paquin, a Fayette County resident, is a retired actuary and lawyer whose intellectual curiosity extends to what is euphemistically called political science.]