NEW HAMPSHIRE — Yesterday, Etch-a-Sketch became the media’s favorite metaphor for Mitt Romney’s ideological flexibility. But the iconic children’s toy is an equally good representation of the media’s tendency to draw the picture it wants of our political candidates.

The kerfuffle began when Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom invoked the popular toy during an interview with John Fugelsang on CNN:

FUGELSANG: Good morning, sir. It’s fair to say that John McCain was considerably a more moderate candidate than the ones that Governor Romney faces now. Is there a concern that the pressure from Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?

FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.

The clip, which at first glance seemed to confirm the worst stereotypes (and conservatives’ worst fears) about Romney and included a compelling visual metaphor, was immediately seized on by the press, the Obama campaign, and Romney’s rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, launching what The Washington Post‘s Election 2012 blog called a “day-long media firestorm.” Here in New Hampshire, The Boston Globe ran print and online stories and its website carried several other wire stories mentioning the controversy. (The New Hampshire Union Leader also ran a Reuters wire story in today’s print edition, though commendably the Nashua Telegraph and Concord Monitor did not.)

Amid the avalanche of coverage, the more careful reporters and pundits acknowledged the ambiguity of Fehrnstrom’s statement, which did not specify, as The Washington Post‘s Felicia Sonmez put it, “whether he was referring to the dynamics of the campaign or rather to Romney’s positions on the issues.” (Fehrnstrom later tried to clarify that he was referring to the dynamics of the campaign changing in the general election.) Politico’s Alexander Burns, for instance, pointed out that “Fehrnstrom’s language wasn’t quite so precise and it was unclear whether the Etch A Sketch was supposed to represent the 2012 political landscape or the candidate for which he works.”

Similarly, TPM’s Benjy Sarlin and Evan McMorris-Santoro wrote that “[t]he ‘Etch-A-Sketch’ line is at least somewhat ambiguous. Fehrnstrom has said in previous interviews that the general election is a ‘reset button,’ referring more to the notion that Romney will be able to confront the president without having to fend off a bunch of damaging attacks from his rivals at all times.” The American Prospect‘s Paul Waldman was more direct: “Does anyone really believe that a top Romney aide was saying that Romney was going to change his positions for the general election? Of course not. From a strategic point of view, a wiping of the slate between the primary and general election campaigns is not only what most presidential campaigns want, it’s what most of them actually do.”

To erase this ambiguity, though, other reporters and pundits constructed paraphrases of Fehrnstrom that directly echoed the dominant narrative about Romney. For instance, the AP’s David Espo described Fehrnstrom’s statement as “an astonishing admission Wednesday by one of Romney’s top aides” that his “primary-season policy positions may be no more lasting than squiggles on a child’s Etch A Sketch drawing toy.” Similarly, TPM’s Josh Marshall claimed that Romney’s “top aide said voters’ minds were like an Etch-a-Sketch: Mitt could reposition back to the center in time for the general election with little damage from the primaries. In other words, you just repaint the picture. No one remembers.” The process by which the Fehrnstrom clip was quickly massaged into a more damaging paraphrase echoes the similar process that took place with Romney’s quote “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” as well as previous statements by Al Gore about his role in supporting the development of the Internet and John Kerry’s positions on a bill appropriating funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.