BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. This week we’ll start by fixating on the very thing we hate others to fixate on, phony controversies manufactured by presidential campaigns to win the news cycle by distracting the media and the public. If you’ve seen the talking dogs in the animated movie “Up” you’ll be familiar with the phenomenon.
DUG (THE DOG): My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you! My master made me this collar so that I may talk. S QUIRREL!
BOB GARFIELD: Last week, as so often happens, the media played the part of the dog. Here was CNN’s Wolf Blitzer being used in an Obama campaign video, quoting Mitt Romney sounding soft on Osama bin Laden.
[VIDEO CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
WOLF BLITZER: “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth, spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.” He was referring to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, of course, Romney’s 2007 criticism of President Obama’s hunt for Bin Laden was far more nuanced than this video, or Blitzer’s original report, would suggest. But, as John Cassidy of The New Yorker wrote recently, neither Mitt Romney’s actual position nor his relative decisiveness as a leader were really the point of this brouhaha. In this case, the point was to draw the attention of the easily distracted dog away from the recent less-than-stellar economic indicators. And blatant mischaracterization was merely the method.
JOHN CASSIDY: This is all a very cynical game. In this instance, surely they had this ad on tap for a while but they chose to release it on the Friday when there was pretty bad economic news. The GDP had slowed down in the first quarter, bad news for Obama. If you’re in Chicago at the Obama HQ, what you want is [LAUGHS] something to divert attention from that story. This video that they put out – it wasn’t actually an ad, it was just a video they put on YouTube – that’s how these things work. And within a day or two, everybody or everybody who covers the campaign had more or less forgotten about the economic news and they were talking about the Bin Laden raid and whether Romney would have done it or not.
BOB GARFIELD: The Romney campaign also saw the video as an opportunity, an opportunity to accuse the President of politicizing the bin Laden mission.
JOHN CASSIDY: If I was in the Romney camp, I would have said that too but I really don’t think that has much impact. I mean, we all know that both sides are going to exploit whatever they can for their advantage. I mean, for Republicans to, you know, accuse Democrats of showboating on national security [LAUGHS] is pretty crazy.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Mission accomplished.
JOHN CASSIDY: Exactly. I think Romney would have been much better served to acknowledge it in some way but spend the day at a factory or a job center or somewhere trying to change the subject.
BOB GARFIELD: But he didn’t go to the factory.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I want to take you to Manhattan where Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden. They’re at a fire station where 11 firefighters from the station died on September 11th.
BOB GARFIELD: And then the President one-upped him again.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good evening, from Bagram Air Base. This outpost is more than 7,000 miles from home, but for over a decade it’s been close to our hearts.
JOHN CASSIDY: [LAUGHS] Yeah, now there’s Romney now with Giuliani thinking it’s going to reflect well for him, and what happens but Obama pops on TV from Afghanistan where he’s flown through the night secretly. And it was all an attempt to turn what would have been a one-day story into a week-long story. And that seems to have worked out pretty well from the White House’s perspective, as far as I can see.
BOB GARFIELD: But I want to get back to what I alluded to in the introduction, which was that his victories were aided and abetted by a press writing about stuff that really is just a bunch of campaign optics, and yet there’s no candidate who can’t depend on the press to – in your words – take the bait. What should we be doing when campaigns try to manipulate us?
JOHN CASSIDY: I think – I think that’s a very deep question. Obviously, in an ideal world the media should ignore it or point out the inaccuracies in it and then move on to other subjects. But it’s just such an enormous industry covering the campaign these days that, that - that’s never going to happen. So I’m all for hand wringing on the part of the media and saying, you know, let’s not be manipulated by the campaigns but I think it’s going to be very hard to actually put that into practice. Somebody’s going to write about it and then everybody else has to follow to catch up.
BOB GARFIELD: In this case, you did a post mortem of it in The New Yorker, and now I’m doing a post mortem of your post mortem. Are we all just sucked into the same vortex of stupidity?
JOHN CASSIDY: [LAUGHS] Well, I don’t know about stupidity but certainly, you know, sort of campaign trivia. I mean, I, I tend to look at this period of the campaign as sort of a phony war between the two campaigns. It’s another four months until the conventions. Neither side has really put out any serious policy documents yet about what they’re going to do if they win. So we, as journalists, are left in this great vacuum, where we have to try and fill it with day-to-day stories, and the campaign know that so they produce a series of, as I say, bait stories, which we end up swallowing one way or the other, even if only in the sense of using it as an opportunity to sort of lacerate ourselves.
BOB GARFIELD: What follows is my editorial comment: Uhh [SIGHS].
JOHN CASSIDY: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: John, thank you very much.
JOHN CASSIDY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: John Cassidy is a staff writer for The New Yorker.