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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 8/16/19

The media's obsession with Democratic "gaffes" in the age of Trump insanity

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Gearing up for another Democratic primary season, journalists have already settled into the "gaffe" newsbeat, posting extensive updates on verbal miscues and how they could supposedly doom certain candidates. Specifically, the media narrative is that Joe Biden's gaffes will hurt him if he is the nominee against Donald Trump in the general election. Quick question, though: How many news articles and television reports have you seen and heard in the last year about Trump "gaffes" and how they may stand in the way of his re-election bid? Probably the same number as I have, which is basically zero. Keep in mind that just days ago, while reading off a teleprompter inside the White House, Trump misidentified the Ohio city that had just suffered a deadly gun rampage. But days of "gaffe" coverage? Not for him.

The entire gaffe enterprise has always been rather dubious, since it usually focuses more on the theater of it than it does on policy substance. Also, reporters have traditionally trained their gaffe patrols much more intently on Democratic candidates than they have on Republicans. (See also: optics.)

But today, the media's gaffe obsession really seems out of whack, given that it's unfolding against the backdrop of the presidency of Donald Trump, whose entire political career can accurately be described as a verbal gaffe. Famous for being a habitual liar, as well as boasting garbled and often impossible-to-follow syntax that leaves people scratching their heads trying to make sense of his pronouncements, Trump has obliterated the idea that an occasional gaffe ought to define a politician, or that it will doom his or her popularity.

And that was true back in 2016. As HuffPost's Jason Linkins wrote at the time, Trump's "hallucinatory presence and constant stream of cuckoo-bananas balderdash have essentially made the gaffe entirely irrelevant." Trump "doesn't have momentary lapses. He is a constant, walking lapse of good sense, taste and judgment."

That's even more true today. During one rambling, incoherent address this week in Pennsylvania, Trump said he won the county where he was speaking by 28 points (it was 18); lamented that roads aren't straight because of environmental regulations; bragged about being responsible for the construction of an energy plant that was begun under President Barack Obama; falsely claimed that the U.S. is the only country that exports wheat to Japan; claimed he's losing billions in personal wealth by serving as president; suggested China doesn't "have oil and gas"; misstated the time of his speech by three hours; and claimed credit for passing Veterans Choice legislation that was passed and signed into law under Obama.

More broadly, Trump's endless list of missteps includes:

  • Calling Hurricane Florence "one of the wettest we've ever seen from the standpoint of water"
  • Referring to the "oranges" of the Mueller investigation repeatedly when he meant "origins"
  • Talking about the "floors of the forest" when discussing wildfires and saying that the president of Finland told him they "spend a lot of time raking and cleaning" their forests
  • Calling Apple CEO Tim Cook "Tim Apple"
  • Referring to 9/11 as 7/11
  • Saying that noise from windmills causes cancer
  • Telling a crowd that "the kidney has a very special place in the heart"

And don't forget Trump last month claiming that during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army "rammed the ramparts and took over airports." Yet the political press now zeroes in on Democratic gaffes, knowing there is not similar news coverage for Trump.

I'm certainly not suggesting that Democratic candidates such as Biden should be immune to scrutiny when they make verbal missteps on the campaign trail (misstating the year he met with Parkland, Florida, shooting survivors, confusing the names of recent British prime ministers, etc.). And if in the end primary voters decide too many so-called gaffes raise serious doubts about a candidate, that of course is fair game. What is alarming, though, is the idea that journalists -- not voters -- announcing gaffes are defining a Democratic candidacy, and doing it while Trump trips over himself on a daily basis, and often in spectacular fashion. (To this day, Trump says "stealth" fighter planes are actually invisible to the human eye.)

Turning a blind eye to the Trump-era context, journalists are dutifully resurrecting the gaffe beat for the Democratic primary, suggesting that gaffes pose a major problem for some candidates, as they pretend Trump once again hasn't changed all the rules.

Note that the Biden gaffe dispatches have been noticeably light on quotes from actual voters who are bothered by the verbal missteps. AOL News didn't include a single voter who was disturbed by the gaffes in its report, headlined, " Biden's Verbal Mistakes Pile up in Iowa." Neither did The New York Times in its piece, "Joe Biden Knows He Says the Wrong Thing," even though it insisted "some Democrats say" the gaffes will hurt Biden. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal's "Biden's Gaffes Fuel Questions About His Potency Against Trump" stressed that Biden's missteps were "giving some party activists anxiety over whether he is as strong a campaigner." Yet, incredibly, the three Democratic voters actually quoted in the article specifically said the gaffes did not bother them ("I really don't think there's anything concerning at this point with that").

Recent polling suggests there's been little movement on that front. (Biden leads Trump by 13 points in a recent New Hampshire survey.) While most gaffe articles don't quote nervous Democratic voters, they do quote Trump mocking Biden, which suggests the press thinks that's what's really important during the Democratic primary.

Journalists and Trump think Democratic gaffes are a big deal. Voters? Not so much.


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Eric Boehlert is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, 2006). He worked for five years as a senior writer for, where he wrote extensively about media and politics. Prior to that, he worked as a (more...)

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