Hot Mic Moments Are Nothing New

Game changers? No. Embarrassing? Sure. But instead of a process story about an unforced error that did not affect any substantive narrative, don't we deserve to have the media focus on substance?
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Most communications professionals in politics have a story to tell about the time their boss was caught - or nearly caught - on a live microphone. We have leapt across tables, knocked over podiums, or grabbed a principal's lapel to muffle a microphone when realizing that an unscripted moment was about to occur.

It is ironic that for an industry so often criticized for canned talking points, it is a significant faux pas for U.S. politicians to be caught with a "hot mic." Yet when the moment happens, members of the media are also quick to create a process story out of the blunder.

Carly Fiorina, who ran as the GOP candidate to unseat incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer in 2010, was behind in the polls when she got caught on a hot mic making fun of Boxer's hair. While it was possible to point to the incident as evidence that Fiorina was both careless and catty, the gaffe did not do anything to change the discourse around the election. That didn't stop cable television hosts from highlighting it. Rather than focus on differences in the platforms of the candidates, pundits spent more than a few media cycles poking fun at the candidate and at a race that could now be more easily dismissed as a cat fight among two women.

Democrats have had their fair share of hot mic moments as well. In fact, TIME has compiled a list of the "Top 10 Hot Mic Moments" in history, including President Obama's comments, prior to a television interview, regarding Kanye West's misbehavior at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards ("He's a jackass") and Vice President Biden's remarks at the announcement of passage of the president's healthcare legislation ("This is a big f_____ deal").

Game changers? No. Embarrassing? Sure. But instead of a process story about an unforced error that did not affect any substantive narrative, don't we deserve to have the media focus on substance?

For example, this weekend Secretary of State John Kerry taped interviews on all five major Sunday morning shows to discuss the ongoing turmoil between Israel and Hamas among other topics - important issues affecting our international security and policy that deserve serious debate and consideration. But when Secretary Kerry was caught on a hot mic having a conversation with a staffer as the Fox News Sunday cameras were gearing up, the pundits directed their attention elsewhere.

In commenting on the ongoing assaults, Kerry was overheard saying, "It's a hell of a pinpoint operation," as his aide comments that, "It's escalating significantly."

Anchor Chris Wallace called the hot mic comments an "extraordinary moment of diplomacy." Really? The secretary commenting on innocent civilians being caught in the crossfire might be significant if he hadn't said it before, but there is nothing Kerry said in the hot mic moment that he didn't say on camera on Fox. Or Face the Nation. Or Meet the Press. Or in any of the press he has done over the past several days. But that didn't stop more than a dozen news organizations from posting independent stories about the "gaffe" within a few hours of the taping.

Process stories about a hot mic moment in which nothing was said that differed from on the record comments. What a waste.

There are hot mic moments that matter, and there are hot mic moments that serious reporters should leave for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. When Congressman Michael Grimm threatened NY1 reporter Michael Scotto after an interview about the president's 2014 State of the Union address turned to local topics, it was relevant. The altercation not only gave voters insight into Grimm's character, it foreshadowed the campaign finance probe for which he has now been indicted.

But pieces focused on chit-chat about hairstyles, pop culture and a few curse words? "Breaking" news segments about a diplomat speaking to a staff member in the face of serious global crises about the urgency that he is moments away from saying on air? We should all find something better to do with our weekend.

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