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The Jeb Bush “retarded” controversy is everything wrong with gaffe journalism

I feel you, Jeb.
I feel you, Jeb.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Tuesday afternoon, Talking Points Memo published a post with the following title: "Jeb: A 'Multicultural' Society May Lead To 'Retarded' Assimilation." The post, based on footage provided by the liberal group American Bridge, seems to imply that there's something wrong with that: that Jeb is using the word "retarded" as a (fairly offensive) slur against minorities and/or the developmentally disabled.

But that's not what happened. Bush's use of the word was perfectly fine.

Here is the full quote, as reported by TPM, in context:

"We should not have a multicultural society," Bush said. "When you create pockets of isolation, and in some cases, the assimilation process has been retarded, it's wrong. It limits people's aspirations."

I shouldn't have to say this, but in this context the word "retarded" has nothing to do with developmental disability. Here's the definition of the verb "retard," per the Oxford Dictionaries, and example of its use in a sentence:

Delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment; his progress was retarded by his limp

Apparently, that's truer to the word's roots. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the offensive use of the word "retarded" is from American English and dates back to the word 1970. The "hold back" version dates back to the late 15th century, and has its roots in the Latin word retardare, defined as "make slow, delay, keep back, hinder."

That's what Bush is going for here. His point is that socially isolating immigrant groups "delays" the assimilation process: it limits immigrant groups' contact with the rest of America, slowing down their integration into broader American society. There are many critical things you might say about this view as a matter of policy, but none of them have anything to do with his use of the word "retarded."

Now, I guess it's possible that TPM didn't mean to imply that he was using a slur. But then it's hard to defend their use of the word "retarded" sans context in the headline. Alternatively, you could simply argue, as TNR writer Jeet Heer does, that it really was offensive:

I like Heer, but this is really a stretch. Bush said that multiculturalism "retarded assimilation;" is Heer's point that Jeb is calling the abstract concept of assimilation disabled? Or is it just that we can never use the word "retarded" because it sometimes has an insulting connotation? Neither makes a whole lot of sense, and most liberal journalists, like MSNBC's Chris Hayes, seem to agree.

The outrage cycle makes honest conversation more difficult

This isn't just about one bad TPM post. It speaks to a bigger reason why our campaign coverage is so terrible.

Journalists know that controversial statements from major politicians can be huge news — remember Mitt Romney's "47 percent" or Todd Akin's "legitimate rape?" So they have an incentive to scrutinize each and every comment they see, especially from presidential candidates, to try to see if there's something there. Opposition research groups, like American Bridge, are only too happy to provide them with raw material.

But this can go wrong quickly. Not everything that might be a gaffe is actually a gaffe. Yet the attention that real gaffes get, as well as the demand for speedy web publication, can cause media outlets to pull the trigger on questionable gaffe stories. Then the conversation shifts to whether the media outlet in question screwed up, wasting even more of everybody's time.

People are always complaining that politicians speak in sound bites and inoffensive platitudes, but this outrage cycle is a big part of the reason they do that. When your every word is picked apart by gaffe-watchers, you can't afford to speak too candidly or off the cuff.

You can see this cycle playing out in real time on Twitter with TPM's story, right now. If reporters spent less time on maybe-kinda offensive gaffes, and more time on candidates' actual policy platforms (Jeb Bush's ridiculous four percent growth promise comes to mind), we'd all be a lot better off.

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