MANUFACTURED NONSENSE, PART MCCXVII…. In the absence of real White House controversies and scandals, we apparently have to put up with routine “outrages” over manufactured nonsense. It’s getting pretty annoying.

How many times have conservatives pretended to be incensed over some meaningless flap? Remember the not-so-scandalous Department of Homeland Security report about potentially violent extremists, which prompted some conservatives to call for Janet Napolitano’s resignation? Or how about the apoplexy over President Obama encouraging kids to do well in school? Remember the comparisons to Watergate when the White House offered a congressman a job?

This week, we’re apparently stuck watching Republicans hyperventilate because the president appeared on ESPN for nine minutes to fill out an NCAA tournament bracket.

Limbaugh was agitated about this on Tuesday, followed by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus whining soon after. Fox News spent much of Wednesday obsessing over this, and it even came up during the White House press briefing yesterday, with a reporter asking — in between questions about a nuclear crisis in Japan — whether the president’s ESPN appearance was “entirely appropriate” or not.

This morning, disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, not wanting to get left out, complained that he thinks it’s “sad” for the president to “hide from his job behind NCAA picks.” I haven’t the foggiest idea what that’s even supposed to mean.

What’s especially discouraging, though, is when those who ought to know better fall for the nonsense. Take this item, for example, from NBC’s First Read.

Republicans had a field day yesterday with the president’s appearance on ESPN, laying out his NCAA bracket and then attending a DNC event for big-money fundraisers at a Washington hotel last night at a time when Japan is in a nuclear crisis and the situation in Libya remains dire….

The president is obviously engaged on the crises, taking an 11:00 pm ET phone call with prime minister of Japan and doing work behind the scenes. The White House is taking solace in the fact that “Real America” isn’t paying much attention to these snipes. But they should be aware that perception could become reality for swing voters, especially if some of this starts landing in late-night monologues; the last few days haven’t been stellar ones for those in charge of Obama’s presidential image.

I’d hoped those who help shape the conventional wisdom would say, “Why are Republicans investing so much in a pointless attack?” rather than, “Obama’s presidential image suffers when he appears on ESPN for nine minutes.”

Our discourse has to be smarter than this. Republicans may have had “a field day” pretending to care about trivia, but there’s no reason for the rest of us to pretend their manufactured outrage is legit. It’s not.

I’m all for watching the president like a hawk, and having opposition parties do what opposition parties are supposed to do — cutting the White House no slack at all. But can the political world at least make distinctions between transparently silly attacks and real news?

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.