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Bolden and Obama
NASA administrator Charles Bolden claimed that in discussions with President Obama like the one pictured here, the president asked him to make outreach to Muslim nations a priority. (credit: Pete Souza/White House)

The real message of a controversial statement


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NASA has entered a particularly critical period in its effort to reshape its human spaceflight program. Last week the Senate Commerce Committee approved a NASA authorization bill that tried to find a middle ground between the administration and supporters of Constellation, one that includes many elements of the White House proposal, including commercial crew, but also funds development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle. A subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to take up a NASA funding bill this week, and may use that authorization blueprint for its plans, perhaps with changes of its own. All this action should be generating a lot of media attention and discussion, as the decisions being made in Congress now may very well affect the space agency for years to come.

Unfortunately, NASA has been getting media attention, but for something completely different. A puzzling comment by NASA administrator Charles Bolden in an interview with a Middle Eastern television network has instead garnered far more attention in the media, from the blogosphere to talk radio and cable news networks. While NASA and the administration eventually made it clear that Bolden had misspoken, the reaction to his statement continues to this day, more than two weeks later. That reaction says more about NASA and the media than Bolden’s own words.

But was Bolden really suggesting that it was NASA’s “foremost” priority to make the Islamic world “feel good” about its past scientific contributions?

For those who have spent the last two weeks ignoring the media in favor of summertime leisure pursuits, a quick review: during a visit to the Middle East last month, Bolden sat down for an interview with the controversial news network Al Jazeera. At the beginning of the interview Bolden was bluntly asked why he was visiting the region. Bolden described how, in a meeting with President Obama prior to becoming administrator, “he charged me with three things. One was that he wanted me to re-inspire children to want to get into science and math; that he wanted me to expand our international relationships; and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with predominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.”

It was that last item that triggered reactions ranging from befuddlement to outrage. It was one thing to suggest that NASA had a role in international relations and even in outreach to various parts of the globe. But was he really suggesting that it was NASA’s “foremost” priority to make the Islamic world “feel good” about its past scientific contributions?

In an earlier, less networked era, that statement—indeed, the whole interview—might have gone completely unnoticed back in the US. But thanks to the Internet and in particular sites like YouTube, where the network posted the full 20-minute interview at the beginning of July, comments intended for local consumption can easily have a global audience. And that’s exactly what happened here.

The video appeared on NASA Watch almost immediately after the network uploaded it to YouTube, but it wasn’t until the holiday weekend, when it was noticed by primarily right-wing blogs, cable news shows, and talk radio programs, did it get much traction. Maybe the space community shrugged its shoulders, knowing that NASA’s mission is clearly more than education, international relations, and making Muslim nations “feel good”. Maybe they realized that Bolden at times can be less than completely clear when responding to questions. Or maybe it was just the holiday weekend.

But Bolden’s statements did catch fire primarily among conservative commentators, who expressed varying degrees of outrage about Bolden’s comments. However, they typically did little else, like digging into the issue to see if NASA’s actions, beyond the administrator’s comments, matched their rhetoric. If they had, they might have found that such outreach—and controversy—wasn’t new: in a February speech Bolden talked about reaching out to “non-traditional” partners, including “dominantly Muslim countries”, although not as the agency’s “foremost” mission. (And lest one think that such outreach is limited to the current administration, recall that a quarter-century ago a Saudi prince flew as a payload specialist on a shuttle flight.) Moreover, NASA’s budget proposals and other actions provide scant evidence that the agency is reorienting to make outreach to Muslim nations a major priority, let alone its “foremost” one.

In this increasingly diversified media landscape, there are plenty of people with hair triggers ready to pounce at the least little offense to their worldview, particularly when such events confirm their own biases.

NASA and the White House were slow to respond to Bolden’s statement and its strong reaction. While spokespeople for both the agency and the administration made statements trying to clarify the administrator’s comments, the controversy continued to fester in the media. Last week presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about the comments during a press briefing. “That was not his task, and that’s not the task of NASA,” Gibbs said. “So did he just misspeak?” the reporter followed up. “I think so,” Gibbs responded, adding that while the president had not spoken to Bolden about those statements, he was “sure” others in the White House had.

A NASA spokesman also confirmed last week that Bolden had misspoke. “NASA’s core mission remains one of space exploration, science and aeronautics,” Michael Cabbage told SPACE.com. “Administrator Bolden regrets that a statement he made during a recent interview mischaracterized that core mission.”

As the controversy dies down, what lessons can be learned? One is that, in this increasingly diversified media landscape, there are plenty of people with hair triggers ready to pounce on their keyboards, microphones, and cameras at the least little offense to their worldview, particularly when such events confirm their own biases. It’s often a case of shooting first (and often) and asking questions later (or never). Sometimes in that rush to publish the facts can be lost in the shuffle. In one example, the conservative web site The Daily Caller, discussing the administration’s reaction to the controversy, made repeated references to NASA administrator “Charles Bolton”. (The site later corrected the spelling of Bolden’s name, although the error is still visible in the URL for the article.) In another commentary on the same site, a columnist claims that, “Sadly, the president has reduced spending for NASA, while boosting spending for almost everything else in the federal government.” In fact, NASA’s topline budget has gone up under the current administration.

These reactions, particularly online, can be amplified by the comments people leave on articles and blog posts. “I basically like ‘comments,’ though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity,” quipped Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten in a recent essay. “It’s as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots.” (And for those who complain about the quality of comments here or in its sibling blog, Space Politics, keep in mind that comments on mainstream media sites can be far, far worse.)

Since neither partisanship nor the continuous media cycle appears likely to go away anytime soon, NASA is going to need to react better to it: faster, more effective responses and, preferably, a better choice of words to begin with.

While it’s been primarily conservative media that have been critical of Bolden’s comments, the left can be just as harsh at times. In 2007 then-administrator Michael Griffin, in an NPR interview, said that while he agreed that global warming exists, he wasn’t sure it was an urgent problem, questioning whether the current climate “is the optimal climate”. That generated a firestorm of controversy from the liberal end of the media spectrum, and a few days later Griffin admitted that his statement was, at best, impolitic.

NASA, though, isn’t an innocent victim of bloodthirsty bloggers and commentators. The agency waited for several days, long after the issue had gained traction, before it to criticism of Bolden’s statements, a response did little to slow the negative reaction. Yes, there was a three-day weekend in the middle of that, but that doesn’t stop the flow of news nor the response to it: the blogosphere operates continuously and 24-hour news channels have, well, 24 hours of programming a day to fill.

There is a deeper lesson from this, though, that goes beyond media management. In the big picture, the debate about Bolden’s comments was less about NASA than about the current administration, and the perceptions (or misperceptions) about its policies and relationships with the Muslim world, very much a hot-button issue. NASA, from that perspective, was little more than a pawn in the continuous debate between supporters and opponents of the administration, ready to be cast aside when it’s time to move on to the next perceived indignity or outrage. That should be a sobering lesson for those in the space community who seek a higher profile—and bigger budgets—for the space agency.

NASA, which normally enjoys a significant degree of bipartisan support, might be better served by having a lower profile and staying on the sidelines of heated subjects not directly in the agency’s purview. In a recent Wall Street Journal article about gaffes by celebrities, politicians, and other high-profile people, syndicated radio host Michael Smerconish lamented, “We’re far too thin-skinned, starting federal investigations every time someone says something stupid.” He blames these overreactions on “political partisanship and a 24/7 media looking for ‘gotcha’ moments.” Since neither partisanship nor the continuous media cycle appears likely to go away anytime soon, NASA is going to need to react better to it: faster, more effective responses and, preferably, a better choice of words to begin with.


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