The press needs to curb its 'gotcha gaffe' obsession

Now that the flap over Howard Dean's bonehead comment about Confederate flags and pickup trucks has temporarily abated -- and I fear, alas, that the abatement is only temporary -- it might be a good time for the media to reconsider their seasonal obsession with what I've come to think of as the "gotcha gaffe."

Every time someone in public life -- usually but not necessarily a politician -- says something stupid or ill-considered, especially in the course of a campaign, the media jump on him as if they'd just caught Adolf Hitler goose-stepping out of Berchtesgaden, snarling, "Let's kill all the Jews and eat them for dinner tonight."

The offending words are published and broadcast over and over until they achieve a life of their own, defining for all time the person who uttered them.

Was Dean wrong to say he wanted to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks"? Of course. Confederate flags are as much a symbol of racism as the swastika is of anti-Semitism, and no politician should -- or could -- be elected if he incorporated either symbol in his campaign appeal.

But before this remark, had anyone suggested that Dean is a racist? No. He was certainly not seen as especially sensitive and sympathetic to minorities in the way that, say, Bill Clinton is, and as the former governor of a small New England state with a small black population, he was vulnerable to what the New York Times called "a stereotype, true or not, promoted by his opponents that [he] ... is no friend of minorities."

But that stereotype is a far cry from the "closet racist" label that affixed itself to Sen. Trent Lott and led to his forced resignation as Senate majority leader last year after he said the country would have been better off if Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist candidate, had been elected president in 1948.

After all, Lott was a Southern Republican who had opposed the creation of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, voted against the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and "embraced Confederate President Jefferson Davis as some sort of soul mate," as my Times colleague Faye Fiore once wrote. Lott's record on civil rights dated back to his college days, when he helped lead the fight to keep blacks out of his fraternity.

Dean just screwed up. He used the wrong words to make the right point -- that he (and other Democrats) have to regain the support of white, Southern working folks if they want to return to power in Washington.

Other Democrats, sensing a chance to bloody a rival who had come from nowhere to the head of the pack, laced into Dean as if he were the reincarnation of George Wallace or Orville Faubus. Or Strom Thurmond.

"They were looking for something like that," says S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "A front-running Yankee governor evoking a highly controversial symbol ... when there's a sense that he's sort of self-righteous and isn't careful about choosing his words and is stubborn about not admitting his mistakes, well, he leaves himself open to something like that happening."

The media, always eager for a good let's-you-and-him-fight, trumpeted the ensuing brouhaha with their now-characteristic wall-to-wall coverage.

Dean is not, of course, the first politician to stumble into gaffe gulch.

Remember George Romney saying in 1967 that while touring Southeast Asia, he'd been "brainwashed" by U.S. generals into supporting the war in Vietnam? As Larry Sabato subsequently wrote in his 1991 book "Feeding Frenzy," Romney's comment triggered "blistering press and partisan attacks ... [and his] candidacy never recovered."

Remember President Ford saying, during a 1976 presidential debate, "There is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe"? The media "pounced on this ... and wrote of little else for days afterward," Sabato says, "so much so that a public initially convinced that Ford had won the debate soon turned overwhelmingly against him."

When Sabato and I spoke the other day, he told me he's still convinced "that literally cost Ford a four-year term in the White House."

Quayle misstep

Sometimes the gaffe is not even a word or a phrase but a single letter, as when Dan Quayle, in 1992, told a student writing on a blackboard at a sixth-grade spelling bee to add an "e" to the end of "potato." Although Quayle read the incorrect spelling from a flash card prepared by a teacher, the incident helped seal the public's impression that Quayle's IQ rivaled that of a rutabaga -- or as the sixth-grade student himself put it, "the rumors about the vice president are true ... he's an idiot."

And sometimes, the gaffe is not even verbal -- as when Ed Muskie, standing in a snowstorm in front of the offices of the Manchester, N.H., Union Leader in 1972, grew enraged over the incessant attacks against him and his wife by the paper's publisher, William Loeb. News stories at the time said Muskie spoke with "tears streaming down his face," and while subsequent comments by Muskie and his aides suggested that the "tears" may well have been melting snow, it didn't matter. Media coverage of his momentary lack of composure and surrender to emotion severely damaged his candidacy, contributing to a poorer-than-expected showing in the New Hampshire primary and, ultimately, the collapse of his candidacy.

In each of these cases, a public figure -- a public servant -- slipped in public and, with the media frantically shoving him along the banana peel of public opinion, he paid a harsh and everlasting price.

The banana peel is more treacherous now than ever before. With sources for news proliferating and the audience for news fragmenting, competition is fierce to be the first, the edgiest, the most dramatic -- though not necessarily the most accurate or the most responsible. The gaping 24/7 news hole -- the omnivorous beast -- must be fed, constantly, a juicy tidbit at a time, if necessary.

Meanwhile, the Internet and electronic databases ensure that any foolish or insensitive remark is instantly accessible everywhere, reverberating incessantly and recorded permanently in the media echo chamber.

The simple fact that Sabato's book has been reissued twice -- in 1999 and again in 2000 -- is testament to the burgeoning "feeding frenzy" he's studied and documented, first as a professor and now as director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"These gaffes are tailor-made for today's news coverage, which tends to be shorter, more pointed and more entertainment-oriented," Sabato says. "They require no subtlety, little thought or analysis, and they can be blown into a big headline for days. Perfect. Perfect."

Sabato is not suggesting that the media should ignore a politician's missteps. Nor am I. We both think the media should just exercise some discipline, some self-control, and not treat such gaffes as the defining moment of the offender's life, crowding out both his previous accomplishments and other, more significant campaign news.

Given that presidential candidates are now on stage and under the media microscope for two years, an occasional gaffe is almost inevitable. Knowing that, some good, potential candidates decline to even enter the arena, figuring, in effect, we're all human, we all screw up, who needs that kind of scrutiny?

Even worse, the gotcha gaffe media mentality leeches color and character out of the candidates and their campaigns. It's a major factor in the growing, bland-leading-the-bland quality of those who do run, and win. I mean, how do you think we wound up with stick-to-the-script robots like James "Wake Me When It's Over" Hahn in City Hall and "Color Me Gray" Davis in the governor's mansion?

It would be nice if the media could learn to allow some margin for error, for simple human error, that isn't immediately transmogrified into Original Sin.

David Shaw can be reached at

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