When Dumb Stories Matter

As Jonathan Bernstein explained at Salon over the weekend, this is the time of year when the absence of actual news promotes a silly season of bogus scandals, inflated “gaffes,” and a general slide into media idiocy:

It’s no surprise that mid-summer, when lots of newsmakers are on vacation (and when little is happening even in the sports world), is when stories such as the “ground zero mosque” or Shirley Sherrod’s supposed racism took off. Not just those; any kind of meaningless hype, whether it’s a supposed gaffe or some meaningless polling random variation, is going to get far more attention than it deserves.

That interpretation would seem to apply to “WawaGate,” the latest “controversy” involving Mitt Romney (in this case the candidate’s amazement over a hoagie-ordering device at the popular mid-Atlantic convenience store chain). That’s certainly the initial take by TAP’s Paul Waldman, who calls the media’s treatment of the story part of “the dumbgeist.” But he goes on to suggest that while the “story” is idiotic, it does suggest something significant that we already sort of knew: Romney really has poor instincts as a candidate, doesn’t he?

[T]he story you’ll be hearing is that Romney’s amazement at the Wawa touch-screen display (made only more vivid by him saying “Wawa’s” when it’s actually just “Wawa”) shows how out-of-touch he is with common folk….

But that’s not what it actually shows. It shows that Mitt Romney is a terrible, terrible candidate.

If he weren’t such a terrible candidate, he would understand…that if you visit a place that ordinary people are likely to visit—a convenience store, for instance—it’s probably not a good idea to later describe what you saw there as though you had just been to the pyramids of Giza or got a secret look at the iPhone 5.

If he weren’t such a terrible candidate, Mitt Romney would also understand how much political reporters love, love, love historical campaign references. Every political reporter can’t wait to show their viewers or readers how great their memory is, to pull out how much today’s event reminds them of something that happened when they were working on their first campaign. And amazement at an electronic device inside a store is just a blinking red light that screams “George H.W. Bush and the scanner!!!”

So the WaWa “story” doesn’t matter in itself, but somewhere down the road the kind of strange lack of self-awareness that led Romney into the jaws of this silly story could wreak some real damage on his candidacy. We just don’t know when.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.