Memo to all political reporters: the quiet pre-veep-pick last days of spring would be an ideal time to pepper the Obama and Romney campaigns with questions about how much profit their consultants are making from their eight-digit monthly media buys. Campaign donors (who are also readers and TV viewers) deserve to know what portion of their money is going to elect a president, and what portion will end up in 2013 paying for beach houses for ad-makers and strategists.
(Now for a complicated full-disclosure paragraph: Fineman and I worked together at Newsweek in the 1980s, when we collectively decided that Alan Cranston would be the 1984 Democratic nominee because he had won the all-important Wisconsin Straw Poll. And as part of the 2011 alliance with AOL, Arianna Huffington and The Huffington Post shut down the website Political Daily, where I was a senior correspondent).
Guidelines for the Gaffe Patrol
Brendan Nyhan this week at CJR offered the political scientist’s argument that candidate misstatements (even Jerry Ford’s bumbling claim in 1976 that Poland was not a Communist country) do not change votes or move the polls. Nyhan went on to suggest that rather emphasizing coverage of these outbreaks of foot-in-mouth disease, editors should direct their resources to more substantive arenas.
That is all laudable—and, yes, I see a unicorn grazing on the sidewalk outside my apartment building. But, in perhaps more practical terms, here is a small suggestion for campaign reporters who fail in their praiseworthy efforts to sell their editors on a four-part series comparing the agricultural policies of Obama and Romney.
If you are forced to cover the fallout from a gaffe based on a maladroit choice of words, make sure that you provide, high up in every article and blog post, the full context for the candidate’s comments. Also indicate whether, as is often the case, those comments have been ripped out of context by political rivals or turned on their head by artful omissions. Too often the initial articles highlight the circumstances behind the verbal glitch, but then this needed background gets dropped for brevity as the press corps goes into full feeding frenzy. In my view, it is the constant, context-less repetition that—regardless of what political scientists say—convinces some voters that Jerry Ford did not understand geopolitical realities, John Kerry was a weathervane, and Barack Obama has no grasp of the private sector.