A few weeks ago, I had the chance to interview the President of the United States. Among other things, I asked him if he thought the media exaggerates the threat posed by terrorism relative to other national security problems. He largely agreed with my premise, which I thought was interesting, but he also said something rather banal — violent terrorist attacks are both scary and morally wrong:
It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.
That became the most controversial line in the entire transcript. The shooting at the Kosher market, after all, wasn't random — a point Obama had actually made before, the idea was to go to a Kosher market to kill some Jews. Then White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki got asked about it at their respective Tuesday afternoon briefings. For whatever reason, both Psaki and Earnest offered very awkward replies that made it A Bigger Gaffe. By the early evening, Psaki walked it all back and it appears that Randomgate is now behind us.
We have always been clear that the attack on the kosher grocery store was an anti-semitic attack that took the lives of innocent people.— Jen Psaki (@statedeptspox) February 10, 2015
This is the problem with gaffe-coverage: it's sound and fury, signifying nothing and leaving nothing behind. Worse, it distracts from more consequential, but complicated, debates.
In Vox's interview, Obama contended that terrorism is "absolutely" over-hyped compared to a threat like climate change or epidemic disease. This is something Obama said, as far as I can tell, because he thinks it's true.
Similarly, Obama argued that "redistribution" is now, and always has been, a good in and of itself. He seemed to endorse all-payer rate setting, or something close to it, which would take the United States' health-care system nearer to single payer than Obamacare ever considered. He called for a constitutional amendment to overhaul campaign finance. He suggested we should take some of the money we're currently spending on the military and move it to foreign aid, and that doing so would actually help us achieve our national security goals.
These are all incredibly controversial opinions. The question of who is right and who is wrong on them has huge stakes for national policy. They would be good things to debate! But instead we got Randomgate.
Gaffe politics goes both ways
Gaffe politics has no particular partisan valence. Back in 2011, a heckler suggested to Mitt Romney that taxes on "corporations" could pay for spending.
Romney responded that "corporations are people" — i.e., that ultimately higher corporate tax rates are paid by the owners, workers, and consumers of the firms that are taxed. This is a point whose truth is essentially indisputable, but once it was lodged by Romney's enemies as an official gaffe coverage of it became ubiquitous. Romney's incredibly under-described actual tax policy agenda got much less coverage.
The psychological and economic roots of these gaffe-storms aren't difficult to understand.
On the one hand, the ravages of the partisan mind make them seem all too real. I got many emails and tweets from Obama detractors who were genuinely troubled by the president's determination to cover up the existence of anti-semitism in Europe, while not troubled enough to bother looking up any of his administration's statements on the matter. Several attributed anti-Jewish bias not just to Obama but to me (I am Jewish). And none of them were putting on a show for partisan gain. They were just trapped in the miasma.
On the other hand, in an internet world of limited time but unlimited newshole the "gaffe" story offers easy content. Parsing the Romney tax agenda requires some knowledge of complicated issues and time spent with relevant experts. Noting that corporations are not, in fact, members of the species Homo sapiens, by contrast, is easy.
Last, though much about the media landscape has changed, the old-time division between "news" and "opinion" continues to saddle much mainstream political coverage with a perverse bias toward tactics and process. According to traditional journalistic strictures, that a politician gaffed is a fact (see, everyone is talking about the gaffe!) while the fact that a politician's agenda might be bad for the world is opinion (his party says his agenda would be awesome!).
This is why we can't have interesting politicians
Long-term, the problem here isn't just news consumers find themselves listening to bullshit gaffe stories. It's that politicians learn the same lessons over and over again: unscripted moments are dangerous and generally to be avoided. Don't give interviews and don't stray from talking points.
The media will bemoan lack of access and robotic, scripted answers. But it will also punish deviations from the script. And it will do so in the most trivial ways. No minds were changed during Randomgate, and nobody learned anything. A couple of spokespeople had a bad afternoon. Some websites (including this one) got some extra pageviews. And every politician learned to be that much more boring in the future.