Gotcha Politics

This blog post (which made it onto boingboing today) was the last straw for me.  It takes Microsoft to task for using a Macintosh to create their latest “I’m a PC” ad campaign.  There’s no discussion of the content of the ads.  Just a quick mention of a meaningless point of embarrassment.  Gotcha!

There’s too much of this going on in the wider world of the media today.  Instead of discussing content, background, and nuance, everyone is on the hunt for the latest misstep.  It’s not just that these gotchas are meaningless distractions.  The media’s focus on the embarrassment instead of the content means the target will be quick to cover their tracks, wave a hand around the subject, and move on.  Any opportunities for further debate are lost.

Here’s an example: last week, while major financial institutions were going belly up, McCain stated that the “fundamentals of our economy are very strong”.  His opponents immediately picked up on the contrast. McCain was forced to offer up some pablum about how the American worker is the foundation of the American economy.

And that was that.

McCain looks a little silly for a while, but we’re really no closer to understanding how he really feels about economics, market regulation, and other important topics that are pushing to the forefront in this election.  What about consumer culture?  The burden of debt and trade deficits?  The ongoing shift away from a manufacturing economy?  How are these affecting the long-term stability of the American and global economies, and what kinds of activities should government be taking in each of these areas?  An opportunity for real debate and understanding was lost because everyone was too eager to yell “Gotcha!”

There are plenty of examples of these kinds of empty mistakes, and they’ve had varying impacts.  Howard Dean’s over-exuberance in the 2004 campaign appeared to destroy his campaign because he was… too enthusiastic?  During a recent interview, Obama spoke about his “Muslim faith” (quickly corrected to “Christian”), and I’m sure the right-wing media enjoyed chewing up that little sound bite.
I don’t expect the media at large to be able to step away from their pursuit of the latest misstep, no matter who makes it.  We are living in a sound-bite culture, and major media conglomerates need to do what they can to feed into their audience’s attention span.  It’s only going to get worse as the news cycle continues to accelerate and audiences continue to fragment, and I don’t have any grand solutions to offer here.

But I can ask my friends to take a step back.  Take a breath.  The next time you see someone on the other side of the debate make a mistake, don’t pounce.  Don’t base a gleeful blog post on a single misspoken phrase.  Instead, dig.  Ask questions and keep digging.  Look for the actual truth behind the misstep, and you might find even more powerful arguments to make your case.