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"Reliable Sources" Panel On Media's Coverage Of "Gaffes" In 2012

Fred Francis, Lauren Ashburn, Steve Roberts and Howard Kurtz on the gaffe-centric coverage of the 2012 campaign.

KURTZ: Steve Roberts, when you look back at this campaign and the media on balance provide nutritious fair or a lot of empty calories?

ROBERTS: Look, you can say that they got distracted by the etch- a-sketch or by binders full of women --

KURTZ: You could say that. I just did.

ROBERTS: But you could also say these candidates are so scripted, they are so focused, they are so predigested that we get very few real glimpses into what they really think until some of these, quote, "gaffes" are revealing moments.

When Mitt Romney says, "I like to fire people," that revealed a mindset. When he talked about 47 percent, it revealed the mindset.

ASHBURN: All we care about is that one sound bite that we can then play over and over and over again.

FRANCIS: But what Steve said is they're so scripted -- well, they're not so scripted until they're not, OK? And they don't script their ad libs. OK?

And the ones that get in trouble with etch-a-sketch, that wasn't Romney, but it was one of his people. And the others who get in trouble like Hilary Rosen, they make these gaffes or the candidates go off message and start ad libbing and they are prepared to do that. And it's the one sound bite that you're looking for.

ASHBURN: That's true. Well, don't look at me in looking for it. But it's driven, right, Howie, by social media--

FRANCIS: Indeed.

ASHBURN: --because so many people are dual-screening. They're watching the TV. They're on the Twitter. And Twitter is 140 characters, and you want to be snappy and you want people to think, Oh, they're clever. And so you take Big Bird and you take ``binders full of women'' and you run with it.

KURTZ: I was at the second presidential debate, and I had my head down, and I didn't realize until I looked at Twitter a little later that ``binders full of women,'' this phrase that (INAUDIBLE) slipped out talking about, you know, trying to recruit more women in Massachusetts, had gone utterly viral.


ROBERTS: It had the virtue of being-- you know, spreading vicious truths. I mean, the fact is that we get so few moments where we see inside these candidates and see what they really think.

KURTZ: I want to-- I want to--

ROBERTS: And these moments can be very important, Howie.

KURTZ: I want to blow the whistle. I'm not saying that none of these are stories. If Romney's chief adviser says he's going to Etch- a-Sketch his whole campaign to reset for the fall, that's worthy of being covered.

What I am saying-- I think you will agree me, these guys don't-- is that the extent to which it comes to dominate a whole week's worth of coverage--

ROBERTS: Well, sure.

KURTZ: --completely, in many cases, squeezed out any serious debate of what we all would agree where what the campaigns should have been about.

FRANCIS: Both the Romney and Obama campaigns, OK, went along with a very scripted five or six or eight or ten months. And everybody covers that. As soon as they go off script in an Etch-a- Sketch moment or a ``the private sector is doing fine'' moment-- as soon as they go off script, everybody jumps up. So you cannot blame--

KURTZ: You don't see any excess here?

FRANCIS: No, I don't.


FRANCIS: No, I-- in fact, I do not.

ASHBURN: You think binders and Etch-a-Sketch and all of that was played just the right amount of time.

FRANCIS: First-- first-- no, I'm not saying that. I'm just saying if we ran what they said week after week after week, we'd be running the same sound bites.

ASHBURN: Because they have the same speeches.

FRANCIS: So when they go off message-- when they go off message, it's news.

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