Saturday, May 10, 2008

Gaffes and Journalism

In alphabetical order, here are what I regard as the leading Presidential candidates' leading gaffes (although I don't have a measure for saying what counts as the gaffiest):

Clinton: "Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again."
McCain (singing): "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran."
Obama: "it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion . . . ."

I want to begin by acknowledging that there is at least some prima facie reason to pay attention to these sorts of statements---and to these three in particular. Each one suggests that the rap on the candidate is right: Clinton is consciously trying to sell herself as the white Democrat, thus deliberately damaging a coalition at the heart of the Democratic Party; McCain is a hothead who will get us into yet another war; Obama is an egghead who doesn't connect with socially conservative working-class Americans. A gaffe of this sort is thus a kind of Freudian slip. It reveals the candidate's true identity, what he or she really thinks when not staying precisely on message.

To mention two unsuccessful candidacies of the recent and less-recent past, Joe Biden's description of Barack Obama as "clean" and "articulate" betrayed a measure of racism that he will probably never be able to get past, and Jesse Jackson's reference to New York City as "Hymietown" betrayed a measure of anti-Semitism that has limited his mainstream appeal ever since. It is legitimate to report on gaffes for what they reveal about a candidate's character and what that candidate really thinks.

But it's one thing to pay some attention to gaffes. It's quite another to make them a major focus of campaign coverage, as the media have done in this election cycle. I'll bet more people can identify the candidates' gaffes than their proposals on the Iraq war.

It is commonplace to complain about horserace rather than issues-based coverage of political campaigns. Here I want to suggest---and invite discussion on the hypothesis that---the cause of excessive attention to gaffes is the same as the cause of horse-race coverage: In a long campaign, gaffes and primary results are events that can be covered as news, whereas policy positions are not.

That explanation, however, lets professional journalists off the hook too easily. It may be understandable for the evening news to lead with a gaffe story or a horse-race story, but when a journalist has an opportunity to interview a candidate or a campaign spokesperson, the journalist has an opportunity to make policy into news. By asking a candidate how he or she plans to pay for some new spending program, for example, and then asking tough follow-up questions, a good journalist can elicit actual new statements about policy. Of course, to do this effectively requires the journalists to know something about the underlying policy issues, which is a lot harder than asking candidate Y whether he or she was offended by what candidate X said about candidate Z's latest gaffe.

Posted by Mike Dorf

21 comments:

Jeff said...

But you're missing a crucial distinction here: McCain's "gaffe" was actually a joke, while the other two statements were not. If you're able to joke about one of your weaknesses, that suggests that you are at least conscious of the criticism of your position.

McCain's "bomb Iran" song might be interpreted as a statement that "hey, I know people are criticizing me as overly aggressive on foreign policy, so I might as well have a little fun with it." It's not like McCain was actually saying that we should go bomb Iran.

By contrast, Hillary and Obama's statements betray no such self-consciousness. Obama really appears to have, at the time, been insensitive to the fact that many Americans are religious/gun-toting for reasons other than economic hardship. Also, the statements really were statements of the candidates' true beliefs, in a way that McCain's was not. Hillary was really arguing that people should vote for her because she was white, she wasn't just making fun of such an argument.

Sobek said...

As Jeff said, "Bomb Iran" was a joke. Not originally or especially funny, but we're not electing a stand-up comedian in chief.

McCain has had more important gaffes, like attacking the NC Republican Party's criticism of an ad that McCain hadn't even seen. Or saying "I'll build their goddamn fence" (especially because he obviously is a lying sack of feces who has no intention of building our goddamn fence). A Gaffe that attacks your own base is, I submit, "gaffier" than one that alienates voters who would never consider him in the first place.

With that in mind, I would also submit that Obama's "I can't disown my racist preacher," followed a few months later with "I hereby disown my racist preacher" is gaffier that his "cling to" comment. That's because, as has been demonstrated on this blog, much of Obama's base believes Obama was 100% correct in his cling comments. The undecideds probably didn't pay much attention to the statement. But to the extent the undecideds get it in their heads that Obama hangs out with radical stuck-in-the-60s race-warriors and unrepentant terrorists (and polls have shown that people have gotten that very idea in their heads), it hurts him with moderates, and to the extent Obama waffles on supporting Wright, his racist cracker grandmother, and the entire black community, he looks like a pandering, typical politician.

That's a gaffe.

egarber said...

IMO, the gaffe that better exposes McCain's pro-war spirit is the butchering of the Sunni / Shia dynamic -- when he on multiple occasions glossed over the defining characteristic of the region (saying Iran and Al Qaeda were working together).

As for Sobek's implication that Obama gaffed with Wright -- defending him then denouncing him -- I really don't see it that way.

In the first pass, Obama explained his long-time relationship with him generally; later on, he was more stern, because Wright's latest actions were making things worse, both for the larger debate about race and the church. In every day life, people can simply grow further apart because of circumstances, actions and evolving attitudes. That widening doesn't constitute a "gaffe", I don't think -- though it's certainly not comfortable.

Sobek said...

New Obama gaffe today. Susan Rice, foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama, says the right wingers are distorting Obama's statements by suggesting he would personally meet with Iran, North Korea, et al. without precondition.

Of course, she says this after the nomination is essentially sewn up, when it's time to tack toward the center, and hope no one can remember as far back as last July, when at a CNN debate he said unequivocally that he would meet with a laundry list of rogue regimes (Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea), without precondition.

As to Eric's point, "In the first pass, Obama explained his long-time relationship with him generally..."

His specific words were "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother..." And yet he disowned him a few short months later. And I think you have it precisely right when you say "because Wright's latest actions were making things worse," but for Obama's campaign, when the candidate saw his numbers shrinking.

"In every day life, people can simply grow further apart because of circumstances, actions and evolving attitudes."

Which of Wright's attitidues has evolved in the past twenty years? He hated America when Obama first met him, and he hates America now. (As, coincidentlly, does his wife.)

Or are you suggesting that Obama's views have changed?

I've made no secret of the fact that I despise John McCain. When Obama was still unknown, I seriously considered voting for him out of spite for my party. But I've come to see Obama for what he is, as have others. He has grievously wounded himself through his continued, long-term association with Wright, and the nakedly political manner of denouncing the man only after realizing the extent of his liability. And there are others who have seen the same thing.

egarber said...

Which of Wright's attitidues has evolved in the past twenty years? He hated America when Obama first met him, and he hates America now. (As, coincidentlly, does his wife.)

Or are you suggesting that Obama's views have changed?


I never quite know what the Right means when it says somebody "hates America". All I know is that the claim usually shows itself when somebody criticizes our country's actions in some potentially offensive way. And rather than deal with the merits of the criticism itself, I guess it's easier to just roll everything up and label that person an "America hater".

As I've said before, it's laughable (imo) to think Michelle hates America. As to Rev Wright, couldn't it instead be that he feels disdain for the *people* who have run the country (vs. the framework itself)? Has he ever said that he hates the constitution or the ideas that form the foundation of the country? It seems to me you'd need answers to these questions to really know; otherwise, this whole "America hating" thing just comes across to me like a vapid Sean Hannity attempt to wrap oneself in the flag.

On the attitude question, I meant their attitudes toward each other, btw.

You may be right that it will hurt Obama. However, it's also true (I think) that many folks think he has handled it basically well -- i.e.,the episode will *help* him because voters saw him manage a crisis, looking more presidential afterward (whereas before that skill set was an unknown). If they are to be believed, several polls reflect this very sentiment.

Nathan said...

Was Hillary really trying to identify herself as the "white" candidate in a racist way? Is it her fault that she has always maintained strong support by a certain contingent of the democratic party that happens to be white? Basically, she's damned no matter what she does to highlight the fact that Barack Obama has over 90% of black voters voting for him, which apparently isn't racist, while she has over 60% of white voters voting for her, which apparently is racist. I really does raise a serious electability question when swing states are more in line with Hillary. I don't mean to imply that Barack cannot win, as many of those voters will still probably vote democrat. But it is a question nonetheless. And you have to assume the race would have played out very differently had Florida and Michigan actually been states that mattered in the primary coverage, as Hillary victories in those states early on would have dramatically changed the perceived momentum of the race.

Sobek said...

"I never quite know what the Right means when it says somebody 'hates America'."

Saying you've never been proud of it your entire adult life, until your husband had the potential of winning the Democratic nomination, is a dead giveaway.

"All I know is that the claim usually shows itself when somebody criticizes our country's actions in some potentially offensive way."

Constructive criticism is great. Constant harping with a totally blind eye to the positives of this country, not so much. Ike Turner-style proclaimed love for a country doesn't really fool people.

"As to Rev Wright, couldn't it instead be that he feels disdain for the *people* who have run the country (vs. the framework itself)?"

The trick is to substantiate the theory. All the evidence I've seen -- such as dancing around in an ecstatic frenzy after 9/11 -- suggests the opposite. After all, 9/11 was an attack on America, not on the people who run it.

"...otherwise, this whole 'America hating' thing just comes across to me like a vapid Sean Hannity attempt to wrap oneself in the flag."

I'm not criticizing Wright for not loving the country as much as I do (i.e. wrapping myself in a flag); I'm pointing out that a man who thinks the most absolute evil of the majority of this country cannot reasonably be said to like it.

egarber said...

Saying you've never been proud of it your entire adult life, until your husband had the potential of winning the Democratic nomination, is a dead giveaway.

Of course, she clarified what she meant, saying basically that for the first time, she has faith in America's politics -- considering her past cynicism about it. Lots of people are cynical about politics, btw. And I have no problems understanding that black folks would be MORE cynical.

It's interesting to me that people who keep harping on this won't give the Obamas any credit at all when they say their stories are proof of their pride in America. Do you see anything in their public service and career-building that makes you think they're bitter about the American idea?

And in any case, with Michelle I think it was really just a clumsy way of speaking. Not every "gaffe" is about the exposure of some deeply held belief a person is desperate to hide. Given everything else she has done in her life, does this one thing constitute enough evidence to make such broadsides against her? I know politics is brutal; I'm asking here against a standard of reason and objectivity.

I agree that Wright is a more complex character, though I don't think he hates America. He was a marine after all, and his criticism is of our actions, seen through his biblical prism.

Sobek said...

"Of course, she clarified what she meant..."

Not everyone takes her clarification very seriously. Especially in light of her suicide watch: http://michelleobamasuicidewatch.blogspot.com/

"...basically that for the first time, she has faith in America's politics..."

And why not? If my salary more than doubled the year my spouse got elected to the Senate, my faith in the government would become unshakeable.

"Do you see anything in their public service and career-building that makes you think they're bitter about the American idea?"

Yeah, naked corruption in the form of a million dollar kickback to Michelle's hospital. On my dime.

"Given everything else she has done in her life, does this one thing constitute enough evidence to make such broadsides against her?"

Follow the link I posted above.

If I spend 90% of my time telling me wife about her failings and the ways she needs to improve, eventually the other 10% of the time when I actually focus on her positive traits will start to sound pretty hollow. Michelle Obama is to America as Ike Turner was to Tina. I didn't mean to hit you, baby. It's just that I love you so damn much...

As for Wright, I don't think he's even remotely complex. Neither does James Cone -- Wright says he does not disagree in any way with the founder of black liberation theology. Nothing complex about that at all.

Sobek said...

Michelle Obama hates America:

"Obama begins with a broad assessment of life in America in 2008, and life is not good: we’re a divided country, we’re a country that is 'just downright mean,' we are 'guided by fear,' we’re a nation of cynics, sloths, and complacents."

She can speak for herself, thanks. And keep in mind that she's not talking about a few corrupt politicians who mismanage the country, she's talking about Americans, the folks who actually make this a country.

Sobek said...

More goodies. From a campaign speech in North Carolina on May 2 (my source is National Review at http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=OWI1ZGE5NDY4ZjY0YzZhZjE0NGY0Zjg4Yjc3NmVjZTI=):

"What happens in that nation is that people do become isolated, they do live in a level of division, because see when you’re that busy struggling all the time, which most people that you know and I know are, see you don’t have time to get to know your neighbors, you don’t have time to reach out and have conversations to share stories, in fact you feel very alone in your struggle because you feel somehow it must be your fault that you’re struggling that hard, everybody else must be doing ok, I must be doing something wrong, so you hide…What happens in that kind of nation is that people are afraid. Because when your world’s not right no matter how hard you work, then you become afraid of everyone and everything, because you don’t know whose fault it is, why you can’t get a handle on life, why you can’t secure a better future for your kids."

Sheesh, I hope for her sake she's never carped on Bush for "fear-mongering." And note that not a single word in there is directed at the government: you and I, individual citizens, are paranoid, poverty-stricken, irrational, isolated misanthropists. Never mind, she just loves us enough to tell us how it is, right?

egarber said...

Sobek, on your latest examples, the only thing I can say is: big deal.

On any given day, I might hear the following statements from friends, pundits, authors, or radio talk show hosts:

1. American culture is corrupt -- people don't care about the family.

2. Americans are too lazy to work.

3. America is losing its soul because it is abandoning Christ.

4. Americans aren't friendly -- in my day you trusted your neighbors.

5. Americans are stupid. They vote before they think.

6. American business is failing.

7. Americans are allowing and encouraging gay people to poison our culture.

8. Americans are fat slobs -- they have no dietary discipline.

This is just a two-minute first pass.

So anybody I hear saying these things hates America? After all, these are people who are "not talking about a few corrupt politicians who mismanage the country, (they're) talking about Americans, the folks who actually make this a country."

That's a mighty wide net.

Sobek said...

"So anybody I hear saying these things hates America?"

Anyone who says it constantly, over and over again, who adds that she has never been proud of this country until her salary suspiciously doubled, to the virtual exclusion of positive things to say ... yes.

Anyone whose close associates scream "God damn America" and dance with glee after America is attacked and her citizens murdered, yes. Or who regrets he didn't plant enough bombs at military recruitment facilities. Or who conducts in-person meetings with Hamas. Yes.

You can dice Michelle's words into isolation, so that each individual one looks innocuous, but the disturbing part is the emerging pattern. Sean Hannity (who I haven't listened to in years, but I can't imagine he's changed his extremely formulaic show recently) criticizes politicians and policies he dislikes, but it's clear from the tenor of his overall statements that he loves this country.

The same cannot be said of Michelle, who apparently was not proud when the Berlin wall came down, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Or when Americans toppled the Taliban. Or invented the internet, or developed pharmaceuticals. Or when America sends about $15 million overseas each year to fight AIDS. Or $350 million in 2005 for tsunami relief.

Like Michelle and the radio pundits you purport to paraphrase, I'm aware that our country has problems. But I don't concentrate all my energy on berating Americans about those problems.

Again, Michelle Obama is today's Ike Turner of politics. Near-constant abuse is not absolved by the occasional "I love you, baby."

egarber said...

Sean Hannity (who I haven't listened to in years, but I can't imagine he's changed his extremely formulaic show recently) criticizes politicians and policies he dislikes, but it's clear from the tenor of his overall statements that he loves this country.

"tenor of his overall statements"? That's a mighty fuzzy standard. In fact, I'd say it's meaningless.

Sobek said...

I can't exactly quote the guy, but remember a comment or two ago when you mentioned wrapping oneself in a flag? That's Sean Hannity. Look at the cover of his book, for crying out loud:

http://www.celebratelove.com/gifs/hannity.jpg

Dude probably craps commemorative statuettes of liberty.

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