SONS OF FLUBBER: Keep flub alive!


Part 3—At the Post, flub never dies: We’re all sons and daughters of Flubber now! For that reason, we might want to understand the way flub culture works.

First law in the land of the flub: Once a flub has been committed (or invented), the flub can never die! For one small example of the way this works, consider Theda Skocpol’s front-page piece in Sunday’s Outlook section.

Skocpol wrote the featured piece at the top of page one, an analysis of the tea party. (She has a new book on the subject.)

Before long, she made a glancing reference to Candidate Perry’s “famous verbal flubs.” But then, she turned to Candidates Gingrich and Romney. With respect to the latter, Skocpol soon kept flub alive:
SKOCPOL (2/5/12): But the former House speaker is weighed down by personal baggage, including his associations with mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Conservatives hate “government bailouts,” but in our interviews we rarely heard tea partyers condemn Wall Street capitalists for receiving them. Instead, they contend that corrupt government officials and policies to help minorities buy homes were responsible for the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009. Many tea partyers think the poor are coddled by government and nod their heads in agreement when Romney says he is “not concerned about the very poor.”
Do tea partyers "nod their heads in agreement when Romney" makes the quoted statement? Since Romney only said that once, we’re not entirely sure what Skocpol means. But however one wants to read that claim about tea party folk, Skocpol serves a familiar function here—she keeps Romney’s flub alive. Once a flub has been committed/invented, readers will see it all over.

Let's be fair! On one level, Skocpol is quoting directly. The words inside those quotations marks were actually uttered by Romney.

But is that a reasonable piece of quotation, or has the quoted statement been taken "out of context?" We’d be inclined to vote for the latter, a point we’ll discuss tomorrow. But everyone knows how flub culture works—how the game of flubs is played.

Once a flub has been identified, it gets repeated through the annals of time. John Kerry was for it before he was against it! That "flub" was also derived from a technically accurate quotation of Kerry. But the press corps’ use of that pointless "flub" made a joke of the 2004 campaign.

The modern "press corps" loves its flubs—has loved them for maybe four decades! They provide a substitute for thought, the thing the "press corps" is often at pains to avoid. Example: Candidate Romney has made a string of proposals which are, on their face, just bat-shit insane. But you can go for weeks at a time without hearing this fact discussed, even on “liberal” TV shows, which keep us so well entertained.

Flubs are much more fun! And flubs are easy to work with.

This produces a very stupid culture—and the very stupid culture of flubs has done much more harm to major Dems than to big Republicans. But the culture of flubs is deeply engrained, even among those who can actually see its problems.


Paul Farhi is one of the brighter, saner people at the Washington Post. (Brush with greatness: We met Farhi at a comedy event some years back.) But when Farhi discussed the problems with flub culture this weekend, even he finagled some facts, keeping flub alive.

Farhi’s piece appeared last Saturday, on the front page of Style. (He used the term “gaffe,” an old-fashioned term for the flub.) As he started, Farhi was being fair to Romney in various ways:
FARHI (2/4/12): There’s an old saying in political circles: A gaffe is what you make when you unintentionally say what you really believe. If that’s the case, Mitt Romney really has been speaking his mind lately.

More accurate, of course, is that in speaking his mind, Romney let slip a few lines that, taken out of context, distort or oversimplify his views.

"I’m not concerned about the very poor," the man reportedly worth $250 million said in an interview this week, inadvertently reminding everyone that he is reportedly worth $250 million.

"I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," Romney said in January in a comment that was meant to refer to health-care insurance providers but was widely perceived as meaning: He likes firing people.

There’s no doubt Romney’s camp would like to take back those comments, primarily because they reinforce—fairly or not—a caricature of him as a wealthy man who is out of touch with people struggling in a tough economy.
Farhi was being much more fair than is the norm in his guild. He quickly said that Romney’s gaffes have been "taken out of context." He said this process "distorts or oversimplifies" Romney’s actual views.

He said those comments reinforce "a caricature." He suggested this may not be "fair."

The headlines atop the Farhi piece added to the air of sanity. "The gaffe: A fact of modern campaigns," the banner said in the hard-copy Post. "Constant scrutiny means public slip-ups are virtually unavoidable." In the body of his piece, Farhi even reminded his readers that Candidate Obama committed some flubs in 2008—flubs which still get pounded and flogged in reliably low-IQ precincts.

Interesting! If “flubs” are virtually unavoidable, should we focus on them so much? Here at THE HOWLER, we would say no—and Farhi cited one of the downsides to this stupid culture. "Candidates are on safer ground when sticking to their stump speeches, which they give hundreds of times during a campaign, or relying on talking points, which they often review before appearing in public," he quite correctly observed. "Some politicians are loath to place themselves in a format that might encourage them to let loose."

So true! Especially for candidates who are targets, the low-IQ scribblers who drive flub culture will seize upon all incommodious speech, no matter how silly or pointless. For this reason, targeted pols will often cling to the religion of their talking points—although they will then get criticized for being stiff, wooden and scripted.

This is a very dumb part of our culture, driven by love of the flub.

Romney’s proposals are bat-shit insane; the children prefer to play with his flubs. And inside the press corps, flub never dies! Here’s what happened when Farhi himself tried to report the basic facts about Romney’s latest:
FARHI: In the case of Romney’s comment about "the very poor," the candidate and his campaign did immediate damage control this week, pointing out that poor people have a "safety net" and that Romney’s focus is on helping the middle class.

As Romney put it later, "We will hear from the Democrat party the plight of the poor, and there’s no question it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor."
Truly, that’s very strange. A person reading Farhi’s account would think that Romney (and his campaign) only mentioned the safety net "later," at various points "this week." In fact, Romney mentioned the safety net even as he committed his "flub," a millisecond after the part of his statement which Farhi quoted. Even as he committed his flub, Romney cited the fact that "the very poor" have access to the safety net, which he said he would fix if necessary.

Strange! Even as he tried to be fair, Farhi’s basic account of Romney’s new flub was baldly misleading. By some unknown decree, things just seem to work this way within the culture of flub.

Keep flub alive! Romney’s proposals are bat-shit insane. For decades, though, the American "press corps" has worked quite hard to look past such facts. (The DNC has always helped out.) Instead, they play with their flubs.

This low-IQ culture is a very large part of the way Gore and Kerry both “lost.”

Tomorrow: The Times explains what he said

Even in this passage: Something seems to inspire the modern scribe to keep flub alive. Even in this passage, Farhi’s prose is jumbled in a slender fashion:
FARHI: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," Romney said in January in a comment that was meant to refer to health-care insurance providers but was widely perceived as meaning: He likes firing people.
Was Romney’s comment meant to refer to insurance providers? As everyone and his crazy uncle noted at the time, the comment did refer to insurance providers!

Farhi’s construction involved a minor nuance of speech. How strange though. In its slender tendency, it served to keep flub alive!


  1. The press reaction to "I like being able to fire people" was also weird because it completely missed the genuine flub!

    Most of us can't fire our medical insurance. You won't be able to get your pre-existing condition insured---the one that made you want to fire your insurance. And for most of us our employer offers once-a-year open enrollment among a small number of options.

    In the gloriously sunny free-markets-fix-everything fantasyland of the Republican stump speech, Romney's remark maybe made sense.

    But in the real world, it is the Republican-reviled "Obamacare" that makes possible Romney's vision of firing your medical insurance when you aren't happy with it.

    That's his flub. A non-flub version of Romney's statement would look like this:

    I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. Thanks to President Obama and the Affordable Health Care act, you can have your own insurance and if you don’t like what they do, you could fire them.

    Understanding Romney's real flub involves a neural system slightly more complicated than a reflex arc. Maybe as many as three neurons connected together.

    But as Somerby had demonstrated, reflex arc pretty much describes the total capability of the modern journalist and pundit.

    1. Thank you. That's what I've been grousing about ever since he said it. Fire your health insurance company indeed. I only wish!

  2. Where was Mr. Somerby when the Romney campaign took Obama's quoting McCain out of context to make it look like they were Obama's words instead of McCain's?

    The Romney campaign even tried to play us for rubes by claiming since Obama spoke McCains's words in a effort to criticize him, McCain's words were Obama's position.

    This doesn't even count as a flub.

    Instead its outright lying.

    Perhaps Mr. Somerby can post a few rants about the outright lies of the right wing propaganda machine sometime in the near future.

  3. The Real Anonymous is REAL concerned about the "right wing"...and little else.

    1. As Mr. Somerby writes: "Romney’s proposals are bat-shit insane;"

      I'd add to that, he's considered too moderate to get nominated by the right wing republicans.

      In other words he's not bat shit crazy enough for them!!

  4. The Real Anon, isn't Mr. Somerby in the process of writing a book about the outright lies of the right wing propaganda machine?

    1. No.

      It's about how the NY Times, WaPo et al's coverage of campaign 2000 got W elected.

      From the book's site: "More specifically, How He Got There will explore the mainstream press corps' poisonous coverage of this history-changing campaign. This book thus discusses a remarkable episode in modern press history–an episode the liberal world has generally failed to explore."

  5. I usually agree with Bob's comments and slant on the sad state of affairs in our journalistic swarm. But, I would like to suggest that frequent references to someone being "batshit insane or crazy" isn't so good from our side either. There is a lot wrong with the ideas coming from the Right, much to despair of and fear. However, it is still better to be thoughtful and spell things out a little more. Pronouncements like this are not really better than "Gore wore brown and invented the internet" etc..