Nominally, anyway, this website is supposed to be about asking questions. Here is one: did the New York Times publish my favorite New York Times article earlier this month? I have been asking myself that question since September 8, when the paper ran an article entitled, “‘What Is Aleppo?’ Gary Johnson Asks, in an Interview Stumble.”
Before September 8, Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential candidate, had been having a difficult time attracting national, mainstream media attention. By third-party standards, he was polling well, though, and, in early September, he was making a big push to force the hand of the Commission on Presidential Debates to include him in the then-upcoming first presidential debate.
Part of that push included an appearance on an MSNBC morning talk show that day. During the appearance, one of the hosts asked him, “What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?” Johnson responded by attempting to clarify the question: “About?” The host: “Aleppo.” Johnson: “What is Aleppo?”
The internet exploded. A candidate the primary-party adherents previously refused to acknowledge existed rapidly was called out for widespread rebuke, deemed an unserious candidate, and declared unworthy of the presidency (one politically attentive friend wrote that this made Johnson less fit to occupy the White House than Donald Trump). The unstated assumption, of course, was that everybody knows what Aleppo is, and if Johnson is ignorant of such a basic thing (“What is Philadelphia?”), he must be a fool indeed.
News websites rushed to capitalize on the sudden spike in critical attention to the Johnson campaign, and the New York Times, by way of the above-linked article, was no exception. It soon became clear, however, that Johnson was not the only purported policy expert asking “What is Aleppo?” By the end of the day, two corrections appeared at the bottom of the Times’ viral content piece, which they published in their Politics section as part of their Election 2016 coverage:
In this political age of internet journalism, that is the definition of perfection, and I have little more to add than to answer my question above in the affirmative.
(Regarding the coverage of the moment more generally, it almost certainly goes without saying that it ended with the “What is Aleppo?” question and ignored Johnson’s recovery and substantive answer when he realized he was being asked about Syria.)
This presidential campaign has been relatively gaffe-free, at least by conventional (e.g., Joe Biden) standards. Many regard Trump’s entire campaign as one long-running gaffe, or worse, though, and it likely has warped our understanding of what it is for a presidential candidate to “gaffe” during a campaign.
As Trump’s campaign gained steam, writers took aim, laboring to describe just how terrible and unpresidential they believed Trump was. In one sense, the task was easy. Trump provided– and is continuing to provide– plenty of examples, any one of which seemingly would have been enough to sink a candidate’s chances in previous elections. (Maybe part of the reason people have been so quick to pounce on Johnson after his Aleppo gaffe, as well as the more recent one (details; response), is because it allows them to slide back into normal campaign territory. Johnson is more of a conventional presidential candidate than Trump, and, as such, he has made some seemingly typical candidate blunders.)
In another sense, though, the task of describing and contextualizing Candidate Trump has proven increasingly difficult, because, even before Trump emerged as a viable politician, we were doing a poor job of allocating our extreme adjective resources. The danger of describing everything as “incredible” is that, when something actually incredible (unbelievable, terrible, etc.) happens, the dilution of the word’s meaning makes it difficult to contextualize just how extreme the occurrence was. Maybe Trump really is an unimaginably extreme candidate; more likely, I think, he is exactly as extreme a candidate as we used to consider our politicians (“war criminal!” “savior!”).
Johnson’s gaffes may facilitate the termination of any practical viability present in his campaign. They probably could not have come at a worse time for him. They also offer a lens through which to view the campaigns of the primary parties’ candidates, as well as the media’s coverage of the campaign as a whole.
More than anything, though, I keep coming back to that New York Times article, which, if little else, serves as a needed lesson in humility and a (perfect, humorous) reminder that we all might not be the experts we think we are.