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