If you make a gaffe, it means you’ve made ‘an embarrassing mistake in a social situation or in public’ (source: Longman).
The more your vocabulary improves, the more you’ll see how stronger, more colourful words like ‘gaffe’ are used in the media to portray someone as being an idiot or careless.
And in politics, this can be very powerful – and very persuasive. For example, while the details of a financial crisis seem too difficult or complicated for most people to follow, they do understand ‘gaffe’ or ‘blunder’ or other such negative words which are used in big headlines, creating the image that someone is an idiot.
Gone are the days where what a politician said is objectively reported: these days journalists are more like commentators, and add their own spin.
Here are a few examples:
Australian Opposition Leader Tony Abbott this week heavily criticised Prime Minister Julia Gilliard for not going to Indonesia to talk to their President about people trying to illegally enter Australia. Instead she was in New York for a United Nations General Assembly meeting, with about 14o other world leaders.
Unfortunately Mr Abbot forgot to check that the President of Indonesia was also in New York!
Headline: Abbott under fire for Gilliard gaffe
Verdict: it was widely recognised as a gaffe, but it was nowhere near as bad as when Tony Abbott said ‘sometimes shit happens’ after an Australian soldier was killed in Afghanistan. In his defence, on that previous occasion he said the material was taken out of context by Channel Seven (read more here on that one).
Romney v. Obama and the American media
Most of the American mainstream media want President Obama to be re-elected, and they’re not even hiding their preference (as a side note, it could be interesting homework for you follow a few news sites this week and observe how differently they present President Obama compared to Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney).
For example, when talk show host David Letterman asked President Obama last week about what the US budget deficit was, the President replied: ““I don’t remember what the number was, precisely.”
His country is $16 trillion in debt and yet the President of the United States of America doesn’t know how much?
Headline: I tried to find some headlines, but all I got were the more extreme Right-wing blogs and news sites. The mainstream media either didn’t report it or they buried it.
I did, however, find it reported in the Right-leaning New York Post as ‘Obama can’t add; lies to Letterman.’
And Fox News, namely commentator Bill O’Reilly, did fairly call him on it on his evening news programme.
Verdict: If that was British Prime Minister Cameron or Australian Prime Minister Gilliard or, indeed, the leaders of the opposition in those countries, I’m confident the media would make this the top headline of the hour. ‘Gaffe’ would be all over the place, but..not in liberal, pro-Obama America.
However, there was massive outrage among liberals over a week ago when a video from an event in May was released to the media. In it, Mitt Romney said of people who will vote for Obama:
“There are 47 per cent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
“And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Headline: there was outrage all over the internet. The Huffington Post, listed by Technorati as the most popular blog in the USA, usually has anti-Romney headlines, such as the one below, and they led with this ‘scandal’ for at least two days, even highlighting the fact that Mitt Romney wouldn’t apologise.
Verdict: a separate sentence in that video, when Mitt Romney said ‘Palestinians have no Interest whatsoever in establishing peace,’ was a gaffe and certainly a more serious comment, but the headlines about ‘the 47%’ were just very weak political point-scoring by the American liberal media.
As a side note, while it was refreshing to see Fox News report on this matter in a more balanced way, they were a little hypocritical in airing a video from 1998 of President Obama saying he believed in ‘re-distribution.’
They didn’t need to go back to an old video from 1998 in order to attack him – the facts and figures of today’s economy should be more than enough ammunition.
Your homework – as a Language Watcher
- The Huffington Post is a liberal news site which wants Obama re-elected, and it has a very negative opinion of Mitt Romney.
- Fox News is a news site which exists due to the liberal bias of other sites: it’s owned by News Corporation, whose newspapers around the world generally promote a more Right-wing agenda. This has meant that they are more sympathetic to conservative views than other sites.
Your job is to do two things:
- Compare how the two sites report on Governor Romney and President Obama. How are the same stories being reported differently?
- Next, see if you can find any other colourful words to make either of them look very good or very bad. What language of bias can you find?
As an example, just above you can see The Huffington Post making it seem like Governor Romney doesn’t pay enough in taxes. However, as Bill O’Reilly correctly points out on The O’Reilly Factor, Mitt Romney made a capital gain, and paid just over 14% tax, which is the rate for capital gains tax in the United States.
In other words, he was simply following the law.
Verdict: Interestingly, while Governor Romney appears to have followed the law 100%, he is made out to be in the wrong. However, I haven’t seen a mainstream liberal media site from the USA discussing the morality or legality of Obama’s policy of killing people in other countries who he believes are terrorists. I have seen this topic being discussed in the British and Australian media, by conservative and liberal commentators alike (eg here, here and here).
spin – the way someone, especially a politician or business person, talks about information or a situation, especially in order to influence the way people think about it (Longman)
bury – you can bury something by digging a hole, and then covering it up. Likewise, news which is buried is news which the media hide or don’t give a big priority (Longman)
call someone on something (eg Bill called him on it) – to hold someone accountable when you believe they’ve made a mistake or done something wrong
outrage – great anger and shock (Longman)
air – here, it means to broadcast something on TV or radio
ammunition – this can be the bullets you need to fire a gun, and more figuratively: ‘information that you can use to criticize someone or win an argument against them.’
bias – an attitude that you have that makes you treat someone in a way that is unfair or different from the way you treat other people (MacMillan)
capital gain – profit you make from selling an asset
made out (to be) – portrayed; shown