The hard-hitting journalism of The New York Times took us behind the scenes yesterday to show us the oppo research operation of the Obama campaign in action at the very moment when it pounced on Mitt Romney’s remark that he was "not concerned about the very poor." The writer, Helene Cooper, seemed almost as excited as Brad Woodhouse, "a high-octane party spinmaster" for the President who mans what she calls the campaign’s "flub watch." Everybody else calls these things gaffes, by the way, but for some reason Ms Cooper thinks another word is required — maybe because people are getting a little sick of the gaffe-hunt. She also includes this curious parenthesis:
(To be clear, Mr. Romney said he was not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net, one he said he would fix if needed. Rather, he said, "I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 percent to 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.")
In other words, putting the quotation in its context — and being clear — was an afterthought for her. Effectively, Mr Romney must be deemed to have meant what Mr Woodhouse and his merry band of flub-watchers say he meant — because they will take care that, insofar as they have anything to do with it, that’s what people will take him to have meant. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so jubilant over "another gift from Mr. Romney."
This is what interests The New York Times. Likewise, at the weekend The Washington Post ran an analysis piece by Paul Farhi on the front page of the Style section headed: "As Romney’s slip-ups show, gaffes nearly unavoidable on modern campaign trail." Mr Farhi, who uses the more traditional word, believes that "there’s no doubt Romney’s camp would like to take back those comments "primarily because they reinforce — fairly or not — a caricature of him as a wealthy man who is out of touch with people struggling in a tough economy." Like Ms Cooper, Mr Farhi knows what the candidate meant — and that what he meant wasn’t that he didn’t care about poor people. But he assumes that, "fairly or not," the vast mass of the unthinking electorate will misconstrue the comment and there’s nothing he or anyone else can do about that. As Adlai Stevenson is said to have pointed out, the unthinking constitute the majority.
You would think that the function of the media in a democracy would be to report what the candidates mean, so that their audience can make an informed judgment about them, and not what the stupid, the partisan or the inattentive are likely to think they have meant. But elections can turn on stupidity, partisanship and inattention and, like the Obama flub watch, the media are always on the alert for such things — especially when they help the media’s own favored candidates. It’s not just their biases at work either, for the likes of Ms Cooper and Mr Farhi are typical in assuming that their audience consists of an elite who, like themselves, observe bemusedly the sometimes comic, sometimes tragic misunderstandings of an intellectual underclass which has inexplicably been given the power, through mere force of numbers, to choose our leaders for us. To say that a remark will be misunderstood thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, if only because the chance to put the remark in its proper context and tell how it ought to be understood is missed — or buried in a parenthesis.
This kind of reporting also acts as a permission to those who are disposed to be hostile to the gaffe-commiter to treat the misunderstanding of his meaning as being a legitimate meaning. Thus Paul Farhi:
Romney’s latest statements are likely to be added to a list of similar comments, such as when he said that the $374,000 he earned in speaking fees in 2010 wasn’t "very much." Or when he said, half-jokingly, that there were times when he worried about being laid off. Or when he proposed a $10,000 bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry during one of the Republican debates. Or when he said "Corporations are people, too, my friend," in response to a heckler who had taunted him about his reluctance to raise taxes on corporations.
All the previous gaffes are thus repeated by way of explaining to the elite how the rhetorically less sophisticated than themselves will understand them — and suggesting, perhaps, that their misunderstanding reveals Mr Romney’s real meaning.
Now it’s not, it seems, scandalous that Mr Romney has no plans to do anything about the very poor. Neither does President Obama nor anyone else currently on the national political stage. The history of government attempts to lift the poor out of their poverty has not been a happy one, and the futility of any such attempt now amounts to tacit knowledge which, nevertheless, it is in rather poor taste to speak of openly. The politically correct attitude to the poor is to re-direct attention to one’s own fine feelings and compassion towards them and otherwise to ignore them. That Mr Romney has blundered, and on more than one occasion, into a form of words that suggests he may be ignoring them without this ritual expression of sympathy and concern, offers opportunities for the media to hint to their readers, watchers and listeners that somebody else is likely to find this a disqualification for office, somebody disposed to judge a candidate on his feelings rather than his policies.
In reality, of course, this somebody else is really the media themselves, who are ashamed to come right out and say so. Instead, they attribute their own superficiality to the imagined mass of fools and gulls whom it is their job to report on with condescension and the job of the clever politician to cozen. Yet widespread hatred of the media and politicians may indicate that people are not quite so stupid as the flub-watchers and spinmasters think they are.