Back when newspapers dominated the media world, the headline spot was saved for the most newsworthy event of the previous day. Along with the evolution of the 24-hour news cycle, headlines adapted to the technology age and now change constantly.
Even if quality is maintained, the sheer quantity of news reports has nearly ended the age of iconic reporters. The vast amount of knowledge available has diluted the set of manageable information on politics and candidate positions. This inundation of facts and quotes and stories and polls is where gaffes draw their strength.
Sound bytes are easy to remember amidst the overwhelming content available. Stripped of context, a single gaffe can make or break a campaign. Any explanation is irrelevant to political pundits or the general public. For politicians, the incessant coverage and dissection of their every word makes any speech, interview, or off-the-cuff comment a serious matter.
Some argue that rhetorical gaffes are glimpses of a politician’s true beliefs. On the flip side, a gaffe could easily be a genuine slip of the tongue. Regardless, in this day and age, gaffes matter. Just ask John McCain, whose comment that “the fundamentals of the [American] economy are strong” on the eve of the worst recession since the Great Depression cost him dearly in the 2008 presidential election.
As the 2012 campaign gets underway, both Obama and Romney have made speaking gaffes prime for political scrutiny and analysis. With Obama’s reputation of rhetorical genius and Romney’s put-together image, their gaffes receive more prominent attention than slip-up prone sound byte machines like Joe Biden.
In the latest round of unfortunate quotes, Obama has been portrayed as out of touch for declaring, “the private sector is doing fine” at a press conference. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has been painted the enemy of public servants as he insinuated less government means no need for “more fireman, more policeman, more teachers.”
The Obama camp surely wishes the President’s answer was a better fit for sound byte media; Romney’s speechwriters certainly learned a lesson about framing the issue of smaller government. The takeaway is that no matter the context or intended meaning, gaffes play a prominent role in a public figure’s image and voter opinion.
Campaign ads rely on gaffes for content and the media is just waiting for the next speaking misstep. Being on constant guard is difficult and detrimental to the substance of political conversation, but is the price we must pay for the speed and availability our current news system offers.