Focusing on the Fiorina gaffe wastes everyone's time

Have you heard the one about how Carly Fiorina doesn’t think Sarah Palin is qualified to run Hewlett-Packard? Or any large and complex company? And how she thinks precisely zero percent of the candidate collective asking to become Chief Executive of the United States is qualified to run a corporation?

Yeah. So have we. Here’s the story: Fiorina, guesting on St. Louis’s KTRS Radio, was asked about Palin: “Do you think she has the experience to run a major company, like Hewlett Packard?”

“No, I don’t,” Fiorina responded. “But you know what? That’s not what she’s running for.”

Yowza. (Candor: 10; Talking Points: 0.) Later yesterday, Fiorina was interviewed by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who gave the Surrogate Who Stumbled a chance to redeem herself. Fiorina’s explanation of her prior commentary?

“Well, I don’t think John McCain could run a major corporation.”

“I don’t think Barack Obama could run a major corporation. I don’t think Joe Biden could. But it is not the same as being the president or vice president of the United States. It is a fallacy to suggest that the country is like a company, so of course, to run a business, you have to have a lifetime of experience in business, but that’s not what Sarah Palin, John McCain, Barack Obama or Joe Biden are doing.”

So. None of the candidates, per Running-a-Company Expert Carly Fiorina, is qualified to run a major corporation! Isn’t that funny? Not ha-ha funny, so much, but ironic-funny? CNN thought so! So did The Washington Post! And USA Today! And the New York Daily News! And The Huffington Post! And Fox News! (Though that last outlet, rather than using the typical “Fiorina: Candidates unqualified to lead firm” headline, came up with its own unique take on the story: “Fiorina: Obama Camp ‘Deceitful’ in Clipping My Quote.”)

Per the transcript database TVEyes, Fiorina (and, one presumes, her gaffe) was the subject of television banter a whopping fifty-one times yesterday.

Which, look. The not-qualified-to-run-a-corporation thing was—both times—a dumb thing to say. (Particularly because one could point out that Fiorina, given her dubious record at the helm of Hewlett-Packard, isn’t, perhaps, the best person to be judging others’ CEO Fitness.) Though Fiorina may have had a point about the particular differences between the business of running the country and the business of, you know, business, that point was out of place, being uttered, as it was, while Fiorina was on borrowed time from the McCain campaign. Surrogates, political beasts that they are, aren’t given air time to wax philosophical, or to be, for that matter, nuanced. They’re there to manufacture sound bites and spin. Sad, but true.

Politicians and the press who write about them, for their part, love nearly nothing more than surrogates going off-message…and, more generally, the counterintuitive verve of a candidate getting flack from someone on his or her own team. (See, “Rove, Karl”—and, even more recently, “Forester de Rothschild, Lynn.”)

But that doesn’t mean the press should spend time reporting and analyzing those gaffes for public consumption; irony is rarely its own justification. Even though, in laying both sides of the metaphorical aisle with the they’re-not-qualified line of logic, Fiorina was basically wrapping her own gaffe in a brown paper package (insult-toward-the-left and insult-toward-the-right, rolled into one!), tying it up with string (conflict! juicy, dramatic conflict!), and laying it at the door of the media. The fact that the packaging is pretty doesn’t mean that the press should accept the gift. Because, Delightful Little Irony notwithstanding, what, exactly, is the point of time spent talking about the Fiorina gaffe? What value does it add to our campaign conversation? In short: none. And…none. We’re not, in the end, spending time discussing the gaffe; we’re wasting it. Reporters’ time—and voters’.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.