- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

Little details generate big coverage.

Gaffes du jour, waffles, flag pins, sartorial choices: Magnified by the press, the seemingly ridiculous or inconsequential factors often turn into full-blown news events. For added frisson, journalists only need add the suffix “-gate,” and voila — instant headline.

It was only a matter of hours before Sen. Barack Obama’s 34-word theory about embittered small-town folks became “Bittergate,” a convenient term which has been bandied about by pundits and campaign strategists for almost two weeks. The Illinois Democrat also became the center of “Wafflegate” after making a plea to eat his waffle breakfast in peace after a reporter asked him a question about terrorism in a Pennsylvania diner.

Both became allegorical tales for either Mr. Obama’s elitism or his unwillingness to be candid with the press — and then some. Time magazine, the New York Times and NBC were among many news organizations offering editorials about the moment.

“Barack Obama cannot have his waffle and eat it, too,” observed Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant yesterday.

Mr. Obama was criticized by conservative bloggers and defended by their liberal counterparts. The Los Angeles Times and ABC News went so far as to report that the waffle in question was for sale on EBay. The network also focused on the candidate’s decision not to wear an American flag pin during an April 16 debate — which consequently inspired online exposes about patriotism and lists of pin wearers at the Huffington Post.

“Bloggers tend to jump on these things quicker than the mainstream media. Blogs are just so immediate. Something gets posted, people comment, it gets linked all over the place and then is suddenly useful. Reporters and strategists go online to see what people are talking about. This stuff ends up in press releases, too,” said Ian Faerstein, the “Blogometer” editor for Hotline, National Journal’s news site and blog.

Indeed, small moments have legs. The fallout from Mr. Obama’s “bitter” comment generated the most campaign stories last week — making up a full 25 percent of all coverage of the White House race, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

“Obama was the top newsmaker,” noted analyst Mark Jurkowitz.

“It’s amusing to see liberals outraged that Barack Obama would be pelted with gaffe questions. Those who win by the ‘macaca’ can also lose by the ‘macaca.’ Gaffes can truly become turning points in campaigns,” said Tim Graham of the Media Research Center.

He was referring to then-Sen. George Allen’s now infamous “macaca moment.” When he called a Democratic operative “macaca,” it was caught on tape and ultimately derailed his re-election campaign for Virginia senator two years ago.

Unintentional verbal goofs are the least consequential of gaffes, Mr. Graham said. The most important gaffes are ones that threaten to change the image of a candidate, he said, such as Mr. Obama pitching himself as “unifier and everyday man” when his quotes “make him look like a snooty-nosed Harvard Law elitist.”

“Often, statements have to be manufactured into gaffes, and can take days or weeks to build into something damaging, so the media is often crucial in making them stick, or letting them slide,” Mr. Graham said.

Assorted ‘-gates’ are a fixture in political and press parlance, meanwhile. There’s always Watergate, travelgate, Chinagate, troopergate and dozens more; their allure is now three decades old. New York Times language columnist William Safire identified the “-gate construction” syndrome in journalists in 1978.


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