Frequent public speakers often have nightmares of finding themselves standing before the audience completely naked.
Actors and actresses often share that recurring anxiety as well, and a some add in the terror of every line rehearsed into rote suddenly draining away and leaving only a blank script behind.
All the while, the audience stares uncomfortably waiting for the performer on stage to say or do SOMETHING.
As a political opinion writer, my recurring nightmare is of getting some critical fact horribly wrong or writing something damning enough to end (or at least, damage) someone’s political career, only to find out that I missed the mark by a mile and probably ended my own career instead.
Evan Halper of the Los Angeles Times is living MY nightmare this week.
Sunday evening, Halper published a profile piece on Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, Halper has been following Buttigieg and others on the campaign trail in New Hampshire recently.
Halper quoted Buttigieg as saying,
“For a lot of people, ‘normal’ has been a real problem for a very long time, and I think the failures of the Obama era help explain how we got Trump.”
Except Buttigieg said “failures of the old normal” and not “of the Obama era” and Halper admittedly transcribed the quote incorrectly.
Well, as mistakes often do, this one went viral faster than Hillary Clinton taking a shot at Tulsi Gabbard.
Pundits across the political spectrum weighed-in with everything from “How dare he?” to “Is he a Republican like Tulsi?” to “Well, the guy DOES have a point.”
People raged at how a guy polling so poorly with African Americans would dare take such a shot across the bow at America’s first black president, a president many still rank as the most popular of their lifetime.
Julian Castro, one of Buttigieg’s opponents for the nomination and a vocal critic of Buttigieg on issues of race (and a member of President Obama’s cabinet as HUD Secretary) fired back hard at Mayor Pete in a since-deleted tweet.
People interpreted Buttigieg’s quote as a thinly veiled takedown of another of Buttigieg’s opponents for the nomination, Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president and the guy added to the Obama ticket to provide foreign policy expertise.
There is always a bit of apprehension for a writer when the time comes to push the “publish” button as things in the internet age never go away once they go live. Someone always has a screen shot.
What makes me sad is not that Halper made such a tragic mistake. I am sure he feels terrible and embarrassed and understands this mistake will haunt him each step of his career going forward.
No, what makes me sad if that THIS is the state of journalism today.
Halper, no-doubt, had a deadline. He admits the mistake happened because he was transcribing his notes from one rally while in a loud room listening to another.
But here’s the thing:
Halper had to know that the quote he was writing, if accurate, would throw a hand grenade into what had been a relatively attack-free primary season.
That did not raise a red flag?
At no point did Halper say, “Maybe I need to reach out to Buttigieg or to his press team to verify that I have this right?”
At no point before the story went live did an editor ask Halper, “Are you SURE you got this right?”
Nope, Halper had to get it published, so he did not catch it.
And either the editor is sloppy or frequently has a dozen pieces fired to the inbox at once (all on deadlines) and the submitted works no longer get the review they (and those IN the articles) deserve.
Most likely, an experienced journalist like Halper has a green light. I had that twice in my writing career, first as a featured contributor at Yahoo and more recently once I had proved myself over 50+ articles on Reverb Press.
A journalist proves they know the rules, of good conduct and of proper attribution, and they can often publish without running a piece by an editor. A green light.
Yes, as a writer, I love that freedom when it was afforded to me by sites I wrote for and it is second nature now that I write for my own site.
But every once in a while, when I write something that hits someone hard, or when I gather a bunch of facts to make a correlation I have not read others make, my hands get a little clammy and I get a knot in my stomach just before I push that ‘publish’ button.
“What if I am wrong?”
My pieces rarely get more than a few thousand views. And I take great pains to be accurate and thorough and diligent with citations. But if I ever really screw one up, I am sure it will go viral just like Halper’s did. That is just how life works.
I don’t know where Evan Halper goes from here.
Pete Buttigieg seems to have accepted that apology.
Media types are expressing “I know how you feel” or “Happens to the best of us” or “Everyone makes mistakes”, and this may blow over.
But for me, I cannot get past this one line in Halper’s piece:
“There are rarely surprises on the stump, and every word the candidate utters feels deliberate.”
Yet just a few paragraphs later, Halper throws-out a mangled Buttigieg quote that would be not just a surprise but a bombshell.
And he didn’t catch it?
And he didn’t see the contradiction?
There is something not right about that.
Look, Pete Buttigieg frequently talks on the campaign trail about not going back to the Bill Clinton era or even to the Barack Obama era.
And he is right.
There are things there to criticize from those eras. President Clinton signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He signed welfare reform. He signed NAFTA. Every one of those targeted and hit a key Democratic constituency like a sledgehammer:
LGBTQ, poor and rural folks, blue collar union factory workers.
Would any Republican president sign a law expanding abortion rights, or penalizing churches for political activities? Never.
But President Clinton had personal ambitions and he had a world view that straddled what Democrats and Republicans were saying at the time. So, he did.
Barack Obama rode to power in 2008 with a sizable House majority and, by September 2009, controlled a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate (58 Republicans and 2 Independents who caucused with them).
He achieved, yes.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Two Supreme Court Justices. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. Obamacare.
The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act only happened in the aftermath of the midterm bloodbath of 2010 when Tea Party Republicans ousted Democrats from control of the House and made Obama a lame-duck president for most of his remaining six years. The Fair Pay and Hate Crimes laws rely on the Justice Department for enforcement, so if the Justice Department is headed and staffed by misogynists, homophobes, and racists, the protections get a little thin. The Trump administration has been able to roll back some of the protections afforded by the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And while Obama achieved two Supreme Court Justices, it is the third that was not confirmed that changed the balance of power on the Court.
He achieved, yes, but he could and should have achieved much more. He and Democrats were too pragmatic, too unwilling to bloody a few noses, and they failed to stop a bully when they had the chance.
I don’t think Buttigieg is taking cheap shots at former Democratic presidents (or, vice presidents) when he levies those criticisms or when he asks what we CAN achieve going forward.
Evan Halper took some taking points, some phrases he had heard Buttigieg say in various forms and formats, and he put those together in the form of a quote he attributed to Buttigieg.
That is not acceptable journalism and that cannot happen. Not in quotation marks.
But Halper does call attention to a bigger issue Democrats are facing.
What won in 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012 is not assured of being a winning strategy for a Democratic nominee in 2020. George W. Bush and his aw-shucks compassionate conservativism would have suffered as quick and exit from the campaign in 2016 as his brother Jeb did.
Every election is different.
Right now, there are several “camps” among the Democratic candidates.
There are the ‘Radicals’ (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren) with big policies dreams of revolutionary change.
There are the ‘Back to Obamas’ (Joe Biden, Joaquin Castro) with reassurances that if we just go back to 2009 all can be good again.
There are the ‘Pragmatists and Prosecutors’ (Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker) who want to fight back at Trump but want to do it sensibly.
And then there is Pete Buttigieg.
He wants to be everything to everyone.
He wants to take the best of the Clinton and Obama presidencies and build on them without repeating their mistakes.
To do that, without losing Clinton or Obama voters, he must criticize the policies and the eras without criticizing the presidents.
He wants to take the best of the proposals his rivals for the nomination have made but without all the mandates and big price tags.
Sooner or later, voters will look at the Sanders/Warren proposals and ask, “How will you ever pass this, and if you do, how will you ever pay for it?” And they will look at the Biden/Buttigieg proposals and ask, “Is that ALL there is? That will not even restore what we lost under Trump let along provide new gains.”
The race will be on to the center. Maybe Harris, Booker, or Castro will already be there claiming it? Maybe some else will find just the right nuance to make theirs the argument that wins?
Evan Halper messed-up, BAD. Not saying we should crucify the messenger, but we are within our rights to criticize him.
The messenger got the quote wrong, but he got Buttigieg’s message right.
What Buttigieg needs to understand, as he looks back at the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama era, is that both were wildly popular with women and with African Americans, the two demographics that dominate the current Democratic Party. These are two constituencies where Buttigieg has failed to make inroads, failed to connect, and is struggling to find even minimal support.
I am not sure criticizing (in hindsight) the presidencies of the two men these groups most admire is the smart way to build a winning coalition.