The media’ coverage of the crisis over Syria reveals a shallow search for unimportant gaffes at the expense of an actual discussion of the situation at hand.
With Labor Day come and gone I assumed the media would follow the traditional model of moving back to substantive coverage of the issues instead of the lame filler that typically gets covered in August. Indeed with potential American involvement in the Syrian Civil War on the line over the horrific gas attack in August, this would seem a logical transition. Instead we’ve seen profoundly shallow coverage of some of the most serious matters our nation faces: war and peace.
Nothing personifies the lazy and shallow nature of much of the media’s discussion of the issues surrounding Syria that the obsession over Secretary of State John Kerry’s unfortunate slip of the tongue when he described a potential US strike in Syria as being “unbelievably small.” Kerry was clearly trying to stress that potential strikes would be carried out with minimal risk to American personnel. But rather than acknowledging the unfortunate phrasing and then moving on, people throughout the media immediately began pontificating about Kerry’s ruinous gaffe. Meanwhile far more important questions were left at the way side: would the administrations’ military plans work? What are the risks? Are there still options available short of war? Instead, John Kerry’s lack of appropriate press conference skills was treated as the far more important subject.
In addition to being a distraction from far more important issues surrounding the crisis in Syria, gaffes seem to be a pretty terrible way to judge the success or failures of an administration’s foreign policy. After all, the Bush administration was quite successful at rolling out its media strategy to sell the Iraq War. Indeed, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations over Iraq was notably free of embarrassing gaffes. It was however based on fabrications and outright lies. And this, and not the gaffes, is how it will be remembered in history.
This gaffe-centric coverage also has the unfortunate side effect of creating problems for the media later on down the road. As James Fallows pointed out:
Anyone who talks in public says some things wrong. It’s not fair to seize on these inevitable slip-ups and screw-ups when you know what the person “meant” to say. It’s also not productive, because an increasing gaffe-watch by the press makes public figures even more likely to muffle their thoughts in the gauze of protective bland-speak.
When the media focuses on the style of what a public official says at the expense of their substance a reinforcing cycle of isolation for important public figures can begin to form. If the press just focuses on gaffes, public officials start to say less and do so more in what Fallows calls “protective bland-speak.” This forces gaffe focused journalists to look harder and harder for mistakes, no matter how small, and blow those mistakes even more out of proportion as they have to file something. This in turn results in public officials retreating even more. The end result is a press out of touch with what actually matters and a public completely in the dark. Slate’s Josh Voorhees all but acknowledged he didn’t know what was happening on Monday:
It’s unclear whether their [Russia’s and Syria’s] statements were an attempt to seize on the confusion caused by Kerry’s initial comments, or if they represented a real diplomatic breakthrough—but either way they appeared to rather drastically change the international debate, at least the moment.
The media had spent Monday morning focusing on John Kerry’s gaffes, rather than the situation in Moscow and Damascus, so of course they could only explain what was going on as it being “unclear.”
The ironic thing here of course is that Kerry’s gaffe actually led to a diplomatic breakthrough. A break through that may very well allow Obama to dodge a difficult vote in Congress; potential involvement in a civil war in a dangerous part of the world and get the Syrian government to give up their deadly chemical weapons. It could take a while to see if this diplomatic breakthrough will bear fruit, but it already seems hard to characterize something that could be this productive as being a gaffe. After all, a blunder that results in success isn’t a blunder in the first place. It’s a happy accident, or part of the plan after all.
Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP