Over-the-Top Coverage of Cain’s Gaffe in Florida

His ignorance of ‘wet-foot, dry-foot’ may have said something about Cain. But the way it was covered said as much about the media

FLORIDA — Eleven seconds. That’s how long the exchange lasted between Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain and Miami Herald political reporter Marc Caputo during a campaign swing through South Florida last week.

During a multi-city visit that took Cain to a senior center in Sweetwater, Miami’s Little Havana, Coral Springs, West Palm Beach and Palm Beach, the most newsworthy moment, judging by the resulting press coverage, occurred in those 11 seconds.

While in Sweetwater walking toward the senior center, Caputo, his video camera aimed at Cain, said to the candidate, “I want to ask you about, do you mind, about Cuba, about your Cuba policy, what you think about the wet-foot, dry-foot policy?”

Cain, looking and sounding puzzled, answered, “The wet-foot, dry-foot policy?”

A Cain aide immediately stepped in and most of the remaining two minutes of video feature the back and forth between the aide, who plaintively says there is just no time for Cain to be interviewed, and a somewhat insistent Caputo. (Note: Caputo is a former colleague of mine; we worked together at The Palm Beach Post).

As Cain left the Sweetwater meeting, WPLG political reporter Michael Putney took a crack at the question, asking Cain, “What do you think about the wet-foot, dry-foot policy that says that Cubans who arrive on U.S. shores can stay and those who are interdicted at sea have to be returned to Cuba?” Putney got a “gotta run” from the candidate (see Putney’s full exchange at the end of the video above).

And, with that, the ledes to many a Cain’s Day in Florida stories wrote themselves: grab that familiar (and, not unfounded) Herman Cain is a foreign policy know-nothing story template, plug in fresh anecdote, and, file!

As, for example, this account from the Los Angeles Times:

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain again failed to demonstrate command of a foreign policy topic Wednesday as he courted Cuban conservatives in southern Florida.

Asked by Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo what he thinks of the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy that allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay, Cain was stumped.

Or this from CNN’s Political Ticker blog:

While campaigning in Miami on Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who’s taken heat over his knowledge of foreign policy, dodged questions on issues related to Cuba.

Asked by a reporter if he supported the “wet-foot, dry-foot policy,” which allows Cuban immigrants to stay in the United States once they get in, Cain responded: “Wet-foot, dry-foot policy?”

Cain contributed another tidbit to the media feast later that day while standing in front of a crowd at the Versailles Cafe, in Little Havana. After trying some Cuban-style coffee and a croqueta, Cain asked, “How do you say delicious in Cuban?”

Wrote New York magazine:

At this point, it’s barely even noteworthy that Herman Cain has absolutely no familiarity with or understanding of anything related to foreign policy. Nevertheless, in the interest of Informing the Public (of Hilarious Things), here is what happened yesterday in South Florida: Cain suggested that “Cuban” is a language, appeared to have no idea what the “wet foot, dry foot” policy is…

And from Politico:

We posted a video from Fox News yesterday showing Herman Cain asking how to say something in “Cuban,” as though that were a language.

The Miami Herald has an even more uncomfortable video from Cain’s trip to Florida, in which the candidate seemed flummoxed by—and his staff tried to block reporters from asking—elementary questions about Cuba policy.

Stumped again. On an “elementary” foreign policy issue. So elementary a policy issue, apparently, that none of the above-linked press accounts felt the need to provide a decent explanation of it. Or to talk to voters affected by the policy—or even just voters planning to participate in the GOP primary—and to gauge how they felt about Cain’s response.

But there were other ways to treat the encounter. Here, in part, is what Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm wrote following Cain’s Florida visit:

Perhaps Cain, before coming to Miami, ought to have taken a few moments to prep himself on the local political weirdness. It’s just not something an uninformed outsider can finesse. … Still, flubbing on wet-foot, dry-foot shouldn’t count as a major political faux pas, another of Herman’s Cain’s Rick Perry moments. (Not like Cain saying, 47 years after China built a nuclear bomb, that he was worried China would “develop nuclear capability.”)

Other candidates have similarly struggled with the inscrutable intricacies of Miami politics.

Grimm is right. And while the Florida media did a good job of capturing the entirety of Cain’s Florida trip, media outside the state often took the easy way out: grabbing the tidbit about speaking “Cuban” and/or the “wet-foot, dry-foot” exchanges, both of which served to confirm the (again, not unfounded) media narrative that Candidate Cain does not have a good grasp of things foreign policy. That became the story —We’ve confirmed our hunch, again! Our work here is done. The episode may have revealed something about Cain, but the way it was covered revealed as much about the media. In the process, voters’ voices went missing.

In fact, the campaign media missed an opportunity to explore and explain a unique immigration policy that is aimed at a single country, an issue that remains important to a significant bloc of Florida voters. Outside of the immigrant population of South Florida few people would know, understand, or care about the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy. Haitians in South Florida and Cubans are the most affected. A Cuban who touches soil on the Florida coast is automatically allowed to stay in the United States. Should that same Cuban not make it to shore but be stopped at sea, that person is returned to Cuba. Haitians do not have a “dry-foot” option. When a Haitian arrives here, he risks deportation.

One final note about how the coverage reflected the media’s parochial concerns and professional imperatives. The footage of Cain’s ducking of the “wet-foot, dry-foot” question came out during a morning campaign stop—perfectly timed to provide the storyline for the day. How many of the journalists who seized on it came back to pick up a later interview with WPLG’s Putney aboard the campaign bus, when Cain finally had an answer?

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Brian E. Crowley is editor of Crowley Political Report. A political journalist for more than two decades, Crowley is an analyst for WPTV NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach and is a principal of ImMEDIAcy Public Relations.