The Out-of-Context Quote as Gaffe

A closer look at coverage of "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me'"

NEW HAMPSHIRE — Michael Kinsley famously wrote that “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” But in the 24/7 media age, another type of gaffe has emerged. In this case, the target is a defensible statement that can be taken out of context to advance some narrative about the politician.

Classic examples include Al Gore’s statement that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet” while serving in Congress, which was twisted into the false paraphrase “invented the Internet”; John Kerry’s statement “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan] before I voted against it,” which was rewritten as “I voted for it before I voted against it”; and Mitt Romney’s “Corporations are people, my friend,” an accurate description of who bears the ultimate costs of corporate taxes that was falsely described as a declaration that corporations have the same rights as individuals. In each case, the press appears to believe that these statements reveal the true essence of the politician in question and as such are exempt from normal standards of accuracy.

The latest example of the genre is Romney’s statement last Monday that “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” which came during a discussion of individuals shopping for their own health insurance. The furor over the quote did not prevent Romney from winning the New Hampshire primary. But before moving on, it’s worth looking more closely at how the controversy was covered since it raises broader concerns about the way the media handles these sorts of gaffes.

Here is the full statement in question:

I want people to be able to own insurance if they wish to, and to buy it for themselves and perhaps keep it for the rest of their life, and to choose among different policies offered from companies across the nation. I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy.

It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me.

While his phrasing may have been insensitive, the context provided above makes Romney’s meaning clear. As liberal commentators and the non-partisan fact-checkers at PolitiFact concluded, Romney was referring to his ability to shop for services, not fire employees from a business. However, the statement was still interpreted by Romney’s opponents as a gaffe and treated as such by reporters because it could be truncated as “I like being able to fire people,” a phrase that could be linked to concerns some people have about Romney’s record as CEO of Bain Capital.

It’s not surprising that several of Romney’s opponents jumped on the statement and took it out of context, with Jon Huntsman saying “Gov. Romney enjoys firing people” and Rick Perry making a ringtone. But it’s more disappointing—though equally predictable—that the media frequently hyped the truncated quote before, or instead of, providing the full context of the remark.

For instance, the Boston Globe, which is widely read in southern New Hampshire, published a process story about the controversy that served to amplify the distortion. Under the savvy but incomplete headline “Romney comment on firing may give opponents ammo,” the Globe’s Matt Viser lede highlighted the spin before providing any context on the quote:

Mitt Romney, who has been under assault from his political rivals for his business background, came here today to tout his early “entry level” job trying to work his way up through consulting firms. But it was a comment he made in the final minutes-“I like being able to fire people”-that is sure to provide further ammunition for his opponents to cast him as a wealthy, out-of-touch executive.

Romney made the comment while touting a health care approach that would allow people to purchase their own insurance, which Romney said would give the companies an incentive to keep their customers happy and healthy.

“It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them,” Romney said. “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, you know, I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.”

We saw reporters focusing on the spin at the national level as well. A Jonathan Easley article at The Hill even treated the controversy as a “he said,” “she said” dispute:

On Monday, Romney’s rivals seized on a partial quotation in which Romney said he likes to “fire people,” painting the GOP front-runner as out-of-touch with voters in tough economic times. While Romney insisted that the remark was “taken out of context” and he was criticizing the lack of choice within the president’s healthcare insurance plan, [Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.)] argued Tuesday on Fox & Friends that the verbal slip was part of a larger trend.

By Monday morning, New York Times reporter Michael D. Shear was already presenting the truncated quote completely out of context: “Just six days ago, Mr. Huntsman assailed Mr. Romney for saying he enjoyed ‘firing people.’” Amazingly, even Saturday Night Live provided more context in a segment mocking Romney, which at least clarified that the GOP frontrunner was talking about health insurance:

When Saturday Night Liveis setting the bar for responsible journalism, we have a problem. News-starved political reporters have lost sight of the fact that their first responsibility is to lay out the facts for readers, not to summarize the spin.

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