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In politics, the gaffe goes viral

Political gaffes have now entered a supercharged ecosystem of cable, bloggers and digitally enabled mainstream media outlets. Indeed nothing is more viral than a screw-up.
/ Source: The New York Times

In 1990, I was covering politics in Minnesota and was down double digits in the polls in the waning weeks of the Senate race. I watched in amazement as Mr. Wellstone’s campaign staff continued to fight tooth and nail for every vote, something I wrote off to a civic reflex that I didn’t possess.

But Mr. Wellstone’s campaign manager, Patrick Forciea, told me that there was more than just blind loyalty at work.

“If you stay close enough, long enough, there’s a good chance something will break in the media,” he said. “We are going to get as close as we can, wait for a lightning storm and then head out to the golf course and wave a 9-iron around.”

The week before the election, supporters of Rudy Boschwitz, then the incumbent, sent out a letter asserting that while both candidates were Jewish, Mr. Wellstone “has no connection with the Jewish community” and his “children were brought up as non-Jews.”

Cue the lightning. Mr. Wellstone won by a slim margin.

I thought of that election watching Senator fight on long after other people, including many in the news media, thought she was finished. The strategy seems to be to hold up Senator just short of the finish line — it’s not over till the fat lady votes — and Mr. Obama, a rookie to national politics, would make a mistake and a bored, crabby national press corps would pounce.

Based on the debate that ran on ABC last week, it just might work. And while it’s tempting to blame ABC, Charles Gibson and for the focus on lapel pins, “bitter” remarks and faint ties to the Weather Underground — and we will blame them soon — the news media’s values haven’t really changed. The nature of campaigns has.

Game-changing slip of the tongue
Gaffes like the kind Mr. Wellstone’s campaign once hoped for now enter a supercharged ecosystem of cable, bloggers and digitally enabled mainstream media outlets. A slip of the tongue — or a clear view into a candidate’s soul, depending on your politics — can be game-changing because there are so many other people covering the game in so many ways. And nothing is more viral than a screw-up.

Witness the uproar after Mr. Obama’s remarks about “bitter” voters finding succor in God, guns and great big fences. Mr. Obama was speaking at a small fund-raiser in San Francisco to a group of supporters in an event everyone assumed was off the record.

Well, not everybody. As it turned out, the media member who threw Mr. Obama under the bus was never really on it. Mayhill Fowler, a blogger for Off the Bus, the joint effort between the Huffington Post and Jay Rosen, a journalism professor (and Obama supporter), reported out his remarks from the fund-raiser.

After she reluctantly posted a remark that she knew would feed her candidate into a digital wood-chipper, rapid-fire linking was followed by umbrage-filled analytics. Thus, another cable news controversy was born.

Think things haven’t changed much? Recall ’s profile of another candidate, , in Talk magazine in 1999. In it, Mr. Bush gave a profane, intemperate interview in which he said, “I’m not interested in process,” and mocked , a convicted murderer who sought mercy from him as governor of Texas before she was executed in 1998. “Please don’t kill me,” he whimpered in mimicking her.

The interview made a big splash, then produced no ripples, in part because there was no digital pickup — no blogs, no audio clips, no YouTube. The old campaign model was akin to the high school yearbook — the best picture and pithiest quote.

Now it is all all the time, with real-time annotation of every intemperate utterance and regrettable hookup. If the press corps remains addicted to the parlor game of gotcha, it’s going to be grim.

In hot pursuit of misdemeanor errors
That brings us to Wednesday’s debate. The candidates seemed bewildered — Mr. Obama more so than Mrs. Clinton — but the moderators looked smug and self-satisfied, all decked out in safari helmets and hunting their version of big game: the gaffe. Partisans on both sides who complain about bias are missing the point. The dirty secret about covering electoral politics: the media wins only by knockout. If you can’t change the game, the thinking goes, then why play at all?

After more than 20 debates, many of them about real, actual issues, it’s hard to argue that the Democratic primary has been lacking in substance. But the long stretch on the run-up to Pennsylvania had left both Mr. Gibson and Mr. Stephanopoulos searching for traction — and a little personal brand building — by taking down Mr. Obama.

“Senator Obama is the front-runner,” Mr. Stephanopoulos told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, as if that explained everything. “Our thinking was, electability was the No. 1 issue.”

The No. 1 issue? More than Pennsylvania’s and the nation’s economy in a tailspin, a five-year war grinding on and a growing crisis in the world’s ability to feed itself? If any two people on the stage at the ABC at Constitution Hall last Wednesday were out-of-touch elitists, it was the people asking the questions, not the people answering them.

Given that the average income of the poorest fifth of Pennsylvania families decreased by $1,281, from $20,241 to $18,960, according to the Keystone Research Center, while many of their sons and daughters are serving multiple National Guard stints to fight a war that won’t end, guns and butter would seem to have been on the menu. Instead, it was debunked sniper fire and the taint of radical chic.

For many viewers, including me, it was a disgusting spectacle, a tableau that etched not the bankruptcy of politics but of the people covering it. It might have had ratings value — 10.7 million people tuned in to ABC’s broadcast, making it the highest-rated debate of the season. But the question remains: will the pursuit of misdemeanor errors in a time full of them lead to a real mistake when it comes to what actually matters?

This article, In politics, the gaffe goes viral, originally appeared at The New York Times.