The World… So Far: Who Will Get the Last Gaffe?

Political Spin
Political Spin
Political Spin

Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd said that Chris Christie made an “honest gaffe” by stating that on the morning after the first debate, the game (the upcoming presidential election) would be completely changed. I wondered if the term “honest gaffe” was an oxymoron. In my research, I found that there are indeed many different types of gaffes, and the one Chuck was referring to is known as “The Kinsley Gaffe,” or when a politician accidentally tells the truth. The question, “What is truth, really?” comes to my mind. I think in this case “truth” is the truth as the candidate believes it to be. Let’s examine some famous gaffes and the different categories of gaffes.

The “Hot Mike Gaffe” is when a candidate says something when they don’t know that they are being overheard or recorded. I think Romney’s 47% video falls in this category as we know he would never choose that wording if he knew he was being recorded. I think President Obama’s “clinging to their guns and their religion” comment also comes under this category. In both cases, these men were telling the truth as they saw it.

I’m going to introduce my own category of gaffe: the media-created gaffe. The best example of that is the infamous Dean Scream. Here is part of the text of the “I Have a Scream” speech: “Not only are we going to New Hampshire, Tom Harkin, we’re going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we’re going to California and Texas and New York … And we’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Yeah!!!” The gaffe here is that he screamed “Yeah!” with lots of passion, and the media remixed it to make him look like a real idiot. It destroyed his candidacy.

Another example of this type of gaffe was the Michael Dukakis photo op in the tank with the huge helmet. The media focused on that image a lot and then it was used in campaign ads against him to make him look weak on defense. Some analysts say that that image tanked his campaign!

Next up: the “Glaring Factual Error Gaffe.” Obama’s 57 states comment falls under this category. Also, Joe Biden told Katie Couric in 2008: “When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the princes of greed. He said, ‘Look, here’s what happened.'” President Franklin Roosevelt was the first American President to appear on television, but it was in 1939 at the World’s Fair, which was ten years after the stock market crashed. John McCain was likewise not immune from gaffes; it was, he said, “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.” It was Shiite extremists, not al-Qaeda.

Another category of gaffe I created is: “the George W. Bush Gaffe.” In the election of 2004 he said at a debate: “I hear there’s rumors on the Internets that we’re going to have a draft.” This really doesn’t fit into any other category! He is one of a kind! During a debate in 2000 he said, “If affirmative action means what I just described, what I’m for, then I’m for it.” There are literally hundreds of Bushisms listed on the Internets!

The “Pseudo Gaffe Gaffe” is one taken out of context. One that comes to mind is President Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” speech: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” The Obama campaign says “you didn’t build that” referred to the roads and bridges, not a person’s business. They said it was taken out of context… but you should be the one to decide!

Another recent example of this was when Mitt Romney said: “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, you know, I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me,” Romney went on to say. The other side used just the quote, “I like being able to fire people.”

The “Kinsley Gaffe” was created by Michael Kinsley of Politico. Michael Lind of represents this Romney quote as a classic Kinsley Gaffe: “He wants another stimulus; he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.” Is it? Here is a real Romney Kinsley Gaffe: Mr. Romney told NBC News he saw “a few things that were disconcerting” about London’s preparations. “The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, supposed strike of immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging,” he said. In this case, Romney’s truth was not politically correct.

I’m sure there are other categories of gaffes, as you can see that in some cases the candidate is just tired, while in some they are speaking their mind in front of what they think is a private audience and in others the media create their own snark around what a candidate does seriously.

So what? Who cares? Actually, this is a very important aspect of how the news media manipulates what they cover and gives more importance to the gaffes than they do to their published plans and other more substantive issues. I think the coverage of these gaffes can actually destroy a campaign, (i.e. the Dean Scream). That, in my opinion, is a big problem.

What can be done about it? Nothing. The average voter needs to be aware of this manipulation and must learn to discriminate as to what news is really important and what is not. Michael Calderone of HuffPost says it well: “Whether at home or abroad, presidential candidates’ so-called gaffes — and the media’s preoccupation with each inartfully phrased or impolitic remark — have defined the 2012 election. Gaffes get tweeted, blogged, and reported. Cable pundits declare them game-changers. And rival campaigns amplify them through any means possible. When that’s done, the story becomes whether the campaign gaffed in cleaning up its gaffe.”

Who is going to get the last gaffe in this election? The answer depends on which news outlets you are following. Gaffes are like “fact checkers” and poll results: all are elevated by the news media to heights that they should not reach. Remember that most of these are media-created stories and are manipulated to support any point of view desired by the news organizations.

As I try to close this article, Hannity is showing a video from The Daily Caller from 2007 in which Obama is speaking in front of a group of African-American clerics. He gives a shout-out to Jeremiah Wright. I’m waiting to hear the gaffes! Waiting… he is saying that the victims of Hurricane Katrina were treated differently than the victims of 9-11 and Hurricane Andrew, implying it was because of their color. He was saying that the federal aid was delayed getting to the victims of Katrina and it was not in the latter two incidents. Tucker Carlson is a guest and saying that the message of the speech was that the federal government at that time didn’t like the victims of Katrina because they were Black. This is how Fox News is spinning the video.

What category does this fit in? Several media outlets covered the speech, so he knew he was being recorded; he believed what he was saying, so was it a gaffe? I want to make two points: a) Fox News is not the only outlet to do this type of thing, all of them do it with glee, and b) this example shows how desperate these news organizations are to chase the gaffes and milk them for more than they should be worth. Now Rachel Maddow on MSNBC is slamming Fox News’ coverage of this video and is showing the same clips. She said that The Drudge Report presented it as a scandal and quotes words like: The Anger and The Accent. She is giving Fox News’ gaffe story even more exposure. At the same time, Arnold Schwarzenegger on CNN tells Piers Morgan, “That’s the way it is in politics.”

As my Grandma Jennie would say, “Take it with a grain of salt!”

About Cynthia Zeiden

Cynthia Zeiden is the National Program Chair and a National Trustee on the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Trustee Board. In her work for the NATAS San Francisco/Nor Cal Chapter, she produces media seminars, webcasts them and archives them into a professional development library. Her company, Zeiden Media, develops, produces, distributes and markets video content internationally. She was the Program Manager at KCSM-TV in San Mateo, CA and Director of Broadcast Operations at WYCC-TV in Chicago, both PBS stations. Cynthia is a three-time Chicago/Midwest Emmy®-nominated producer. She has a Master’s degree in Broadcast Management from The University of Tennessee.



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