Fear of Media “Gotcha”
by Robert Weissberg
Issue 213– October 10, 2012
Rep. Todd Akin, thanks to his gaffe about “legitimate rape” has just joined the club of politicians who’ve had their careers shortened, or at least disrupted thanks to some ill-advised misstatement. He has lots of distinguished company. Remember George Romney’s (father of Mitt) claim during the run up to the 1968 Republican presidential primary that during his 1965 visit to Vietnam “…I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam” (this explained his about-face regarding the US staying in Vietnam). Conceivably, Romney might have been the next president if he instead said, “After carefully evaluating all information, including extensive talks with US military and diplomatic officials, I have concluded that our continued presence in Vietnam cannot be rationally justified.” A single word—brainwashing—ended his public career.
Then there was Gerald Ford’s 1976 aside during TV debate about Poland not being under Soviet domination while Jimmy Carter admitted in a Playboy interview that he lusted in his heart. And a bit before the Akin incident there were the alleged Mitt Romney gaffes regarding iffy security at the London Olympics and the role of culture in explaining Palestinian economic backwardness. Meanwhile Vice-President Joe Biden seems to be running for the president of the Gaffes-Are-Us club.
For some these slips of the tongue are nothing more than just inadvertent errors in choice of words that illustrations the pitfalls of today’s stressful, physically exhausting campaigns. Others take a less benign view—gaffes are Freudian slips, an unintentional but accurate window into a candidate’s hidden “controversial” views, i.e., Akin is just an old-fashioned misogynist who believes that there is such a thing as “legitimate” rape or that Romney is, as the Palestinians allege, a closet racist.
Unfortunately, this focus on each gaffe misses a larger story about the transformation of US elections. In a nutshell, obsessing over gaffes reflects a shift in power from political parties to the mass media, a change of the utmost importance that has been imperceptibly growing since the early 1960s. As we shall see, this shift hardly improves democratic elections.
Let’s return to an era when political parties, not the mass media, dominated elections. Here party leaders called the shots at brokered national convention and the nominee’s ability to avoid gaffes mattered little. Electability was critical and while rhetorical skills mattered, these were seldom decisive. The reason was simple: prior to radio and TV, even the most energetic candidate would speak directly to only a tiny portion of the electorate. A national campaign was overwhelmingly conducted by party workers, plus other candidates and the media campaign was a print campaign.
Equally important, those who selected the nominee typically enjoyed some direct or indirect personal contact with the perspective nominee. That’s why personal endorsements were critical—they assured others. Under these conditions, it was inconceivable that a penchant for gaffes counted for much. Indeed, given the local nature of campaigns, even presidential ones, a serious gaffe would seldom escape to the larger public.
The rise of a powerful mass media changes everything. Yes, political parties still exist, but barely so and this includes fund-raising. Favorable media coverage is now vital and so newspaper editors and TV executives occupy the “political boss” positions. Foremost in this power is allocating attention to both candidates and issues. Individuals totally unknown to the public who lack any accountability other than helping the bottom line, decide what is “important.” Everything is judged whether it will sell more newspapers or boost Nielson rations. News is a business and a Martian who knew Earth only from TV news would assume most earthlings were young, perky blond women. The recent CNN top brass firings illustrate this point—viewership is all that counts, and rest assured, if some idle gossip about the British Royal Family makes the numbers, it will dominate all else.
Discovering and then dwelling on gaffes is perfect for today’s news media. For one, it is incredibly cheap. No need to send a camera crew to exotic locations to fill some airtime. Instead just find something that sounds odd and then round up the in-house talking heads like David Gergen or Juan Williams to pontificate on the gaffe du jour. Moreover, no need to examine whether the blunderer is telling the truth or saying something worth hearing. Too much work. Just “interpret” gaffes in horse race terms—does Akin help or hurt Romney, does the gaffe alienate women voters? Cheap fluff but wonderful for the station’s bottom line.
But of all the advantages that come from pursuing gaffes, the most useful is that they permit the media to attack candidates under the guise of just reporting facts. After all, who would vote for somebody who says “stupid” things? What makes this especially enticing is one, the media itself decides when to report a gaffe, two, it can decide when the gaffe has been “successfully” reversed and three, gaffes can be invented to those “trained” in gaffe discovery. Exposing gaffes are potent weapons given how responding to an alleged misstatement can drain campaign funds and occupy precious time better spent on winning the election.
To illustrate the media’s power of absolution compare Akin’s ordeal with the treatment given to Joe Biden’s claim that Washington DC schools test scores were dreadful compared to Iowa’s since DC enrolled more minorities. Biden’ message was potentially inflammatory—white kids in Iowa are smarter than black kids in DC because of their race. Fortunately for him, however, he was granted a quick dispensation and allowed to walk it back: “differences merely reflect DC’s poverty” and he was now liberated. No embarrassing questions about race and IQ.
Poor Akin, however. His endless clarifications only made it worse and at least CNN would not relent with this ersatz “news.” By day’s end Akin’s few ill-chosen words escalated into endless yammering about the GOP’s war on women, how the Republican Party had been captured by right wing nuts and how the Romney/Ryan ticket would now have to deal with Akin if he refused to exit the race.
But if there is no gaffe available, they can be invented. Recall how Newt Gingrich was deemed “racist” when in a TV debate he mentioned burgeoning reliance on food stamps. Though he did not mention race, certain African American self-designated experts “knew” that “food stamps” was a code word for blacks on welfare and Newt was thus a certified racist.
Gaffe mongering is pernicious. Avoiding these “gotcha” moments encourages savvy candidates to always react to everything with safe clichés or memorized speeches. Obama even used two Teleprompters when addressing children. No wonder so many Americans tire of the campaign—it has all the spontaneity of a sit-com with canned laughter. But ultimately more consequential, the fear of the Akin-like gotcha compels candidates to avoid anything that could lead to an easily misinterpreted remark. Hot bottom issues that deserve a public airing are now rationally removed from the agenda or a sanitized into banalities. Better to be boring than spend days explaining to CNN or Fox that what you said was not what you meant, and that what you meant was not what you said, and that you sincerely apologize to all those who failed to interpret correctly what you didn’t say, or didn’t mean, and all of this will be avoided in the future so that those offended….. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Robert Weissberg holds a Ph.D. in Political Science, has authored 11 books, and has taught at Cornell University and the University of Illinois-Urbana; he still occasionally teaches a graduate seminar on elections at New York University. A rare academic, Robert had owned and operated a clothing store for fourteen years. This first appeared in Conservative Action Alerts.