Are Gaffes Good?

Don't we prefer the truth, even if it pops out by accident?

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Rahm Emanuel finally gave them what they wanted on ABC's This Week last Sunday, which was not a deeper understanding about the issues surrounding the oil spill, or even any real news, but simply a quote. Even if the quote said nothing that wasn't obvious or old, it was fine as long as it reinforced the story line of the moment, and could be used as a headline the next day. He supplied the quote--"This [Heyward's unfortunate decision to take a day off and watch his son in a yacht race] has just been part of a long line of PR gaffes and mistakes." But to Emanuel's credit, he insisted repeatedly that the real story is the spill itself, not the gaffery around it.

It's one of the oddities of political journalism these days that politicians and others in the news, like the chairman of BP, get savaged for committing gaffes and other PR mistakes. If a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth, as someone once said, why isn't that a good thing? Don't we prefer the truth, even if it pops out by accident? Increasingly, no. What the press seems to value is successful spin. As gaffes and the phony umbrage that follows them gradually swallow up our politics, the press has taken on a bizarre role like that of judges in a figure-skating competition, as opposed to referees in a hockey match. What counts is the artistry. Figures in the news get points for successful spin (whether true or not), for a positive image (whether deserved or not), and for avoiding gaffes (that is, for not telling the truth.) Tony Hayward is obviously clueless about how to manipulate the press and his image in it, and for that--at least as much as for ruining the Gulf of Mexico-- the press is punishing him.

It reminds me a bit of Microsoft when I worked there in the mid-1990s. As the company's image began to sag, and antitrust problems loomed, people started advising it to hire Washington lobbyists and PR firms. Microsoft had previously done very little of this, feeling that if it asked nothing of Washington, Washington would ask nothing of it. This attitude was criticized at first as a bit naïve, then as really stupid, and ultimately as almost unpatriotic. This is America! And in America we hire lobbyists. We hire PR firms and speechwriters and we buy TV ads featuring adorable children. We have talking points and we stick to them, however disingenuous. Who the hell does Bill Gates think he is, refusing to play the game according to the rules? He must think he's better than everybody else. We'll show him! Which they did.

Google, by the way, has not made the same mistake.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.