BOB GARFIELD: What Vice President Biden uttered on last Sunday’s Meet the Press was initially described as a gaffe, but it wasn’t the typical Biden outbreak of embarrassing candor. This was the truly rare gaffe that changed history. Writer Jason Pargin says, don’t be distracted by that exception. He wants us to be on guard for the run-of-the-mill gaffes that are such a mainstay of election season. And once we see them, he says, for the love of God, ignore them.
Pargin wrote a recent guide for political junkies like himself on how to spot and avoid attention-getting, but let’s just say bogus political headlines, in under ten seconds. First, skip any headline with the word “gaffe” in it. Jason, welcome to the show.
JASON PARGIN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: What is a usual gaffe?
JASON PARGIN: When a politician takes the stage in Cincinnati and says, “Thank you, Cleveland” that’s a gaffe. A gaffe, by definition, is of no consequence but it’s an embarrassing story that will absolutely be on the nightly news that night, it will dominate talk radio. It’s Barack Obama stumbling over a teleprompter and accidentally saying, “There are 57 states in the United States.” Everyone’s heard that. My conservative friends would mock me with that, “Oh, you voted for this guy, he thinks there are 57 states in the country. Deep down, everyone knows it really means nothing.
BOB GARFIELD: And the reason you're a national hero, in my view, is because you have told us what headlines we can just stop at. A gaffe in the headline is one. Another is [LAUGHS] any headline ending in a question mark.
JASON PARGIN: Basically, a news story that the outlet thought was so questionable that they just went ahead and marked it as such. It basically gives them a blank check to put anything out there, ‘cause even innocuous ones like, “Is the World Headed for Economic Collapse?” question mark. Even then, that lets them write the story so that they don’t actually have to tell you the one thing that you really want to know. [LAUGHS] Is it? Let me know. I’ll buy canned food and, and bibles and I would move into the mountains. But you need to let me know that.
But instead, it gives an excuse to write a content-free story, and they don’t have to stand behind it because they – they were just asking.
BOB GARFIELD: Next on your list, the word “blast.” So-and-so blasts so-and-so for statement on such-and-such.
JASON PARGIN: Yes. Again, completely inconsequential in the long run. Mitt Romney blasting the President’s new economic plan is not news. He’s repeating the exact same thing that he’s going to be saying from now until Election Day. But if he thoughtfully deconstructs it, that apparently doesn’t make a headline that anyone would want to click on but if he blasts it or if he eviscerates it, whatever ridiculous hyperbole they want to put to describe criticism of policy, that apparently is the only thing that will get people to click on it. But it winds up putting the focus entirely on the fight.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s a surprise in your list, words that you can stop at and read no farther - lawmaker. Lawmaker? Why that?
JASON PARGIN: This is probably the most insidious one but there’s a specific type of headline in a news story where they will pick out some very, very low-ranking member of the opposing party, where they have said something stupid, so, for instance, a state senator. There are states that have more than 300 legislators, in some cases, elected with as few as 2,000 votes or fewer. They have effectively no power, but they do have the ability to go in front of a microphone and say incredibly stupid things.
When some lawmaker from Tennessee says something incredibly insensitive about rape or about race or about immigration, all of the blogs, all of the pundits on the other side will say well, see, see? That’s what the Republicans think about these issues. Of course, that’s not true. It can be a pundit, it can be anybody who you can tar the entire other side with; that narrative trickles out in the form of something Ted Nugent said.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] And finally, you think the term “a blow to” is just as execrable and anti-democratic as they come.
JASON PARGIN: Yes. For instance, the Supreme Court, during the questioning about health care, really made it sound like they were leaning against it. In headline after headline after headline is oh, this would be such a blow to Obama. And it’s like we’re talking about a 10 trillion-dollar [LAUGHS] piece of legislation that affects probably every American. The idea that that would get boiled down to - oh, this is a huge blow to the administration - is almost insulting.
BOB GARFIELD: You mean, because it reduces to a matter of petty politics an issue that is, is so vast for the economy and for the body politic? Is, is that what you're getting’ at?
JASON PARGIN: Yeah, I mean, this impacts you. Taking something like the biggest Supreme Court decision coming up in a generation and boilin’ it down to it only matters to this one man is crazy.
BOB GARFIELD: Jason, I’m about to thank you and back announce you, and when I do that the listeners will learn your affiliation. You're the first from your news organization ever to appear on this show. Jason Pargin, writing under the name David Wong, is a senior editor for Cracked.com.
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