Campaign coverage often gets bogged down in trivia—inconsequential polling data, the latest "off message" comment by an associate, and so on.
But then there are the "gaffes," when politicians say something that we're told means a lot more than it might seem. Barack Obama's 2008 comment about small-town voters clinging to their guns and religion was one. In 2000, Al Gore was a Media Gaffe Machine: Love Canal, internet inventing, etc. Most of them didn't check out, but that's not what matters. Gaffes are elevated when reporters think they reinforce something about a politician.
In 2000, NPR's Cokie Roberts said it best when she explained why certain stories matter more to journalists: "The story line is Bush isn't smart enough and Gore isn't straight enough." Thus, anything that could feed that story line got more attention.
The 2012 campaign season is just getting started (ugh), but it's not too early for media to spot a Very Important Gaffe. Barack Obama, in fact, delivered one on Friday when he said this:
The truth of the matter is that, as I said, we've created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we're seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government—oftentimes, cuts initiated by governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government and who don't have the same kind of flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in.
This is mostly accurate, and made perfect sense in a conversation about private sector employment and public sector jobs. But obviously saying any part of the economy is "doing fine" is bound to attract criticism. The Romney campaign pounced, and the comment became an official "gaffe." From the Boston Globe came the all-encompassing headline, "President Obama's 'Private Sector' Gaffe a Possible Window to Soul Like Other Recent Gaffes." Later in the day Obama tried to send out a second, clarifying message, and surrogates were dispatched to try and clean things up. The comment was still part of the conversation when the Sunday shows rolled around.
The point is gaffes don't just "happen." A political rival takes note, sure; but a gaffe is a gaffe when reporters say so. This one, according to Washington Post reporter Dan Balz, was "a major gaffe."
In a sense that's true—because journalists decided it was. But some reporters prefer to believe they're observers of—and not active participants in—a political campaign.
The media attention to this event started to attract some criticism—which inspired Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza to write a piece (6/11/12) titled "Why Obama's 'Private Sector' Gaffe isn't Going Away." Cillizza opened by stating his "unpopular opinion: Political gaffes matter."
Well, that settles it.
As Cillizza sees it, Obama's defenders are saying, among other things, that this was a "single out-of-context statement." He responds this is "true, but "missing the point." As he explains, we live in a media world
where even the smallest comment can be amplified into a national headline in minutes. Is there anyone paying even passing attention to politics who hasn't seen the Obama clip five times at this point—which, by the way, is less than 96 hours after he said it? Answer: no.
To hear Cillizza tell it, this is a big deal because Obama's political rival thinks so. "You can be sure that the Romney campaign isn't finished making political hay from Obama's gaffe." And that hay-making "can be amplified."
The question is: Who amplifies all this hay? Cillizza writes somewhat passively about a media system that can make a headline in minutes, but someone decides it's headline-worthy. In many cases, it's the very same people who decide that a White House's drone kill list is of little importance. But elite media choose which gaffes are gaffes. (Also: George W. Bush told reporters on two different occasions that the Iraq War happened in part because Saddam Hussein was not allowing weapons inspectors into the country–even though Hussein had let weapons inspectors back in and their inspections were major news every day in the weeks before the war. This was not a "gaffe" of any sort.)
Instead of honestly acknowledging the media's role in defining gaffes, Cillizza actually downplays what journalism can do with this aside:
(Yes, any claims that Romney makes in ads will—and should—be factchecked by the media. But if you think that media fact-checks sway people more than scores of TV ads, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.)
So journalists are the powerless figures in the corner, churning out their inconsequential fact checks. For Cillizza, this particular gaffe fuels a narrative:
The problem for Obama is that his remark plays directly into the story that Republicans are trying to tell about him—that he is a big-government liberal who thinks the answer to all problems is expanding the federal bureaucracy and who lacks even a basic understanding of how the private sector works.
This narrative doesn't much resemble Obama's tenure, which has seen declines in the public sector workforce, the rejection of a public option in the healthcare law, and so on. It is, nonetheless, the story that Republicans are telling. If only there were someone around to do a factcheck.