Gaffe Rigged Campaigns

Some days the media can’t but help but eat its own tail. Today we have some journalistic commentary considering why there is so much coverage of campaign gaffes.

Michael Calderone and Sam Stein reporting for The Huffington Post on the “media obsession” with campaign gaffes, argue that incessant coverage has encouraged candidates to conduct boring and scripted campaigns. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have commentary on why there is so much navel gazing into the political gaffe reporting.

Personally, as a political news junkie, I slurp down these gaffes and revel when the rival of my favored candidate blunders. And who doesn’t enjoy a good send up on Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show? The candidates and their campaign mangers of course.

Steve Schmidt, formerly John McCain’s chief campaign strategist, explains how the media’s taste for political gaffes affects campaigns:

“The accessibility that John McCain was famous for over the course of an eight-year period went from being a huge asset in 2000 to enormous liability in 2008,” Schmidt recalled. “The conclusion everyone came to was that it was absolutely impossible to deliver a message to the American people when you handed a microphone over to the audience – with 1 out of 3 questioners who were crazy – or, two, being surrounded by a bunch of very young reporters on the campaign plane who … were interested in asking a question to elicit the most embarrassing answer.”

Calderone and Stein suggest that campaign reporters are motivated to cover gaffes because they reveal the inner truth of a candidate, but it turns out that if these gaffes are inner truths, not many people are moved by them.

Brendan Nyhan, my friend, co-author, and a scholar of political scandals, has argued that campaign gaffes matter simply don’t matter to voters using evidence from political science research on negative ads. Nyhan citing a tweet from political scientist Jonathan Ladd encourages us to take a more holistic view of the gaffe within the campaign:

[T]he relevant question is whether ads (or speeches or commentary) that exploit gaffes are more persuasive than the material Republicans would otherwise have used. How much will it matter if a Romney ad quotes the “doing fine” statement or, say, criticizes the stimulus or healthcare reform instead?

Nyhan concludes:

[T]he biggest reason that gaffes are perpetually hyped by the media in the absence of evidence that they matter to voters–is that, despite all the cutbacks in journalism, too many reporters are chasing too few stories at this point in the presidential campaign.

I don’t think he’s quite right though. It’s not just a supply-side problem. It’s a demand-side problem too. The problem arises since most voters aren’t news junkies like me – and political news is produced for people like me and not all voters. Sure, everyone likes a horserace, but some of us like to live at the proverbial track. James Hamilton has argued that the news media operations try to capture marginal viewers, listeners, and readers. For much of the duration of the campaign, the marginal viewer might very well be someone like me. CNN is trying to keep me from flipping to MLB Network.

News organizations aren’t aiming at people who merely want to figure out who to vote for in November. They couldn’t pay their bills that way. Given the polarization of U.S. politics today, figuring out who to vote for doesn’t take all that long. Regular voters just don’t need to follow that much of the news to sort things out before they’re handed a ballot.

Not me. I’ll watch. I’ll watch a supercut of gaffes. I’ll watch video of a blunder and then the bloviating pundits arguing about what it all means for the better part of an hour afterwards. But most people aren’t like me. They don’t follow the RSS feeds of multiple newspapers. They don’t follow pundits on Twitter. They don’t wake up to cable news, they’re off watching the olympics or maybe having fun clicking cows on Facebook.

Both journalism and democracy are safe. Journalists aren’t wasting their time covering gaffes, they’re serving their best customers – customers like me. And gaffe coverage isn’t breaking our democracy because most voters aren’t affected by it. Maybe you think it would be great if the press covered the minutiae of campaign platforms, but I’d wager that even fewer people would tune in for policy proposals than horserace campaign coverage. Ezra Klein is just one man – a television host he might make, but an entire TV audience he does not.

Meanwhile, I’ll be on Twitter – guilt-free – enjoying the flow of campaign snark between my fellow political news junkies.


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