Not Optimal Binders Full of Big Bird: Our National Conversation

Has anyone else noticed that some of our biggest news stories this election cycle are about statements each of the presidential candidates made — taken out of context?

Take the now famous “binders full of women” comment, for example. A woman attending the town-hall style presidential debate asks Romney what he plans to do about income inequality issues for women, to which Romney responds by sharing a story of his tenure as governor, when he ordered his staff to conduct a search for qualified women for a position to which almost no women applied.

He continued, telling her how his staff came back to him with “binders of women,” a compilation of qualified women for the position that once had close to no female applicants. He was proud. Because of this and other efforts, his cabinet had more women in senior positions than any others in the state at that time.

What he meant is that his staff and compiled “binders complete with qualified women applicants.” That is not a news story nor is it an offensive thing to say. If a woman was looking for offensive gender comments, Romney generously left plenty for her to choose from. This was not one of them.

Could Romney have gone with a better choice of words? Certainly. But, the fact that he chose the wrong set of words should not distract us from the points he made. There now seems to be the expectation that a public figure will say all of the right things, at the right time, all the time, and it’s completely unrealistic. Is there anyone who uses the perfect phrase at every moment in time? No. And we shouldn’t expect that in this case either.

Or, take Obama’s case. In an interview with Jon Stewart, he was presented with a comment from Stewart, in reference to the way his administration responded to the Benghazi incident.

Stewart said, “I would say, even you would admit, that it was not the optimal response, at least to the American people, as far as all of us being on the same page” (emphasis added), to which Obama responded by saying, “If four Americans get killed, it is not optimal, and we are going to fix it. All of it.”

The statement alone, “If four American’s get killed, it is not optimal,” taken out of context, sounds insensitive and careless. And yes, while it sounds unsympathetic of him to say the words, after watching the thirty seconds that preceded that comment, it’s obvious that Obama does care, and is simply responding to Stewart asking if he would agree about the situation being “optimal.” Instantly, it is not nearly as horrible and insensitive as it sounds. But, it’s a less interesting news story if kept in context.

What is worse? Intelligent Americans are being sucked into this mindless election discussion that involves “binders full of women” and “not optimal,” “firing big bird,” etc. One can say, “I’m not being sucked into such trivial conversations about the debate,” but when these same trivialities are the top news stories of respectable news outlets, how can you avoid it? These stories are what shape public discourse.

The solution? I don’t know. What I do believe, however, is that it’s time for Americans to fight back and demand large news sources return to their journalistic roots to produce actual news, relevant analysis, and insight.

October 29, 2012
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