The ‘carefully’ cliché: Why journalists should stop using their new favorite word

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo! News

Whatever your feelings about who the Republicans chose as their nominee, the primary campaign scored two clear achievements for the cause of rational politics. First, it demonstrated once and for all that the Iowa caucus process is a farce.

Second, the battle buried one of the more noxious clichés in political journalism: “momentum.” Used most often in TV stand-ups in place of a more ungraceful uttering such as “uhh...,” “you know, like...” or “isn’t my time up yet?” its invocation this past season was a guarantee that shortly after it left the speaker’s mouth, egg would appear all over said speaker’s face. Rick Santorum’s Iowa surge led him to a devastating New Hampshire showing where Mitt Romney won in a landslide. That, in turn, begot him a double-digit defeat in South Carolina at the hands of Newt Gingrich. To further complicate the momentum game, Gingrich’s Palmetto State triumph was followed by a landslide loss in Florida, where victor Romney was battered a week later....OK, enough.

With “momentum” now consigned to the ash heap of blather, we are now free to confront the reigning candidate for rhetorical oblivion: “carefully.”

The word has become the all-but-inevitable adverb for analyzing (I use the term loosely) any political speech, ad, appearance, policy position or interview. You will be hard-pressed to find any such event that is not described as “carefully staged,” “carefully orchestrated” or—and this is an all-time favorite—“carefully choreographed.” (Read enough of this stuff and you can be forgiven for thinking you’re flipping through a review of a Bob Fosse retrospective.)

Just last Sunday, The New York Times offered readers a careful “two-fer.” A front page story on President Barack Obama’s campaign swing through Ohio recounted an appearance at a “carefully scouted location, the Kozy Corner Diner in Oak Harbor” where Obama could be seen mingling with working-class folk. Another front-page story, this one about tax-exempt groups shielding political donors, reported how Karl Rove’s Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies “began a $25 million ad campaign, carefully shaped with focus groups of undecided voters.”

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Actually, the Times’ insight into the Obama strategy had been “scooped” days earlier by CBS News, which, covering that Obama swing through Ohio, noted that “it was all part of a carefully choreographed bus tour, with Mr. Obama stopping at a local diner, even picking up some local produce, and ordering two beers in a local bar.”

To be fair to the Times, it noted back in May how Romney’s occasional ad-libbed remarks “have clashed with the imperatives of the carefully choreographed, modern political campaign.” And in April, it was CNN’s turn to observe that a Romney event “was carefully staged to underscore his message. Rows of mostly women were seated behind him, filling television screens.”

Now, at first glance, this adverb seems to belong in the “dog bites man” category (or as the younger folks might put it, “duh...”) Should a presidential campaign carelessly scout a location? (“Hey, Fred, this toxic waste dump seems perfect!”) Should we expect Karl Rove, or any political operative with an IQ larger than his hat size, to remark: “Hell, it’s only $25 million—don’t bother with research, just say whatever the hell you want”?

But of course, this misreads the purpose of that “careful” categorization. It is, in fact, a signal to us readers, listeners and viewers. It’s supposed to let us know that our intrepid reporter has seen through the artifices of these clever campaign apparatchiks. There is a reason why the president is appearing at a bustling factory: to try to convince us that, despite those numbers you have and will be seeing, the economy is on the way back. There is a reason why Romney is standing in front of all those women (or Hispanics or African-Americans): to try to convince us that this rich white guy cares about all of us.

Fear not, American voters, the “careful” signal blinks. I have read ‘The Selling of the President.’ There will be no wool pulled over these eyes!”

There is no doubt that campaign staffs have a clear sense of what they want seen—and not seen—when their candidate goes out in public. But (if it is permitted to have a grain of sympathy for the devil), consider how the press responds when a campaign event is not “carefully staged,” or crafted or orchestrated. Think: water, blood in, sharks.

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When Mitt Romney’s team moved an event inside Ford Field in February to accommodate a larger than expected crowd, the press fixated on the tens of thousands of empty seats that the campaign never intended to fill. At an Obama speech in May at Ohio State, the empty seats were taken to symbolize the decline in enthusiasm from four years ago.

But the current crop of journos has a steep hill to climb to match the ultimate hammer-drop on a less-than-carefully choreographed campaign event. That honor belongs to ABC’s Sam Donaldson, who, aided by a microphone glitch at a 1988 rally in Philadelphia, “called into question the competence of the Dukakis campaign.” (Of course, given the Dukakis campaign, Sam may simply have been prescient.)

There is good reason why such steely eyed scrutiny of campaign logistics is so tempting: It’s easy. No dreary research into whether the assumptions behind Romney’s economic policies add up; no need to chronicle the conflict between where Obama said the economy would be now and where it actually is. Take it from someone who’s spent more than half of his life in this arena: It’s a lot more fun to say, “Look! A bale of hay at an Iowa rally! It’s been carefully placed there to appeal to the farm vote!”

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