In the late 1990s, I was a producer for CNN's Sunday public-affairs program, Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. Because Late Edition aired after all of the other Sunday public-affairs shows, one of my tasks each week was to watch the earlier programs to monitor what politicians were saying. If a politician said something interesting, I'd edit a video clip out of the quote so that Wolf could air it on the show.
I was always on the lookout for a politician saying something off message. Why? Because anything unscripted and off-the-cuff was inherently more interesting than the canned responses we always heard. And in a newsroom, a less scripted response will almost always be deemed more newsworthy.
Years later, I developed a name to describe that phenomenon: "the seven-second stray." I call it that because if a spokesperson is on message for 59 minutes 53 seconds of an hour-long interview but says something off message for just seven seconds, I can virtually guarantee that the reporter will select that seven-second answer to play over and over again.
The seven-second stray can be all it takes to kill a political career. Just think of "legitimate rape." Or "macaca." Or "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." For Todd Akin, George Allen, and Gerald Ford, respectively, their entire careers became defined by just those few words.
Avoiding the seven-second stray isn't easy, especially when candidates are endlessly followed by cameras (or trackers) while suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. Creating compelling messages in advance helps, as does conducting regular practice interviews.
But the best way to prevent a politically fatal seven-second stray is to avoid being lulled into a false sense of comfort while speaking to reporters or appearing in front of live audiences. In our media training workshops, we regularly see spokespersons who remain wary of the reporter at the beginning of the interview--but who let their guards down as the interview continues and they get more comfortable with the reporter who's "friendlier" than they expected.
They may also fall for another reportorial trap--filling awkward silences when the reporter fails to jump in at the end of an answer with another question. Spokespersons who fill those silences are usually far off their message by that point, and are more likely to utter the kinds of seven-second strays that land them in regular rotation on cable news.
Taegan D. Goddard is the founder of Political Wire, one of the earliest and most influential political web sites.
Goddard spent more than a decade as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he was a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You
Won - Now What? (Scribner, 1998), a political
management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from
both parties. In addition, Goddard's essays on politics and public
policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers across the country,
including the Washington Post, USA Today, Boston Globe, San Francisco
Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and Christian Science
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University. He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.
PRAISE FOR POLITICAL WIRE
"There are a lot of blogs and news sites claiming to understand
politics, but only a few actually do. Political Wire is one of them."
-- Chuck Todd, NBC News political director
"Concise. Relevant. To the point. Political Wire is the first site I check when I’m looking for the latest political nugget. That pretty much says it all."
-- Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report
"Political Wire is one of only four or five sites that I check every
day and sometimes several times a day, for the latest political news
-- Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report
"The big news, delicious tidbits, pearls of wisdom -- nicely packaged, constantly updated... What political junkie could ask for more?"
-- Larry Sabato, Center for Politics, University of Virginia
"Political Wire is a great, great site."
-- Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's Morning Joe
"If I were on the proverbial
desert island and had only one web site to access, Political Wire would
-- Dotty Lynch, CBS News political consultant
"Taegan Goddard has a knack for digging out political gems that too
often get passed over by the mainstream press, and for delivering the
latest electoral developments in a sharp, no frills style that makes
his Political Wire an addictive blog habit you don't want to kick."
-- Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post
"Political Wire is one of the absolute must-read sites in the blogosphere."
-- Glenn Reynolds, founder of Instapundit
"I rely on Taegan Goddard's Political Wire for straight, fair political news, he gets right to the point. It's an eagerly anticipated part of my news reading."
-- Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.
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