Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Curse of the Open Mic

When I worked in radio we had a maxim. You should treat every microphone as though it were on. That didn't prevent one of my co-workers from accidentally airing a personal conversation with his girlfriend after he failed to turn off the telephone link after a call in show.

There are few political faux pas that inspire such glee-- to the other political party-- as the open mic gaffe. This is when a nomally polished public speaker is caught in an unguarded moment on a microphone he or she did not know was on.

Former John McCain advisor Mike Murphy and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan have joined the ranks of public figures whose "off camera" views and speaking styles were accidentally exposed. If they are feeling a bit red faced about the whole thing, they can take comfort in the fact that the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, himself was caught in a hot mic scandlette back in the 1980s.

(Before making a radio broadcast at the height of the Cold War in 1984, he quipped: "I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever - the bombing begins in five minutes.'" the joke went out over the airwaves. The Russians weren't amused.)

Open mic embarasments almost always inspire mirth because they unintentionally reveal the differences between people's public and private personas. Democrats have had extra reasons to wallow in Schadenfreude because this conversation, immortalized for the next day or two on Youtube, reveals two talking heads doubting the credentials of Vice Presidental candidate Sarah Palin.

Of course this would be most ripe for humor of one of the speakers were found to contradict their earlier public statements. For example if Peggy Noonan had written an article just that morning in the Wall Street Journal that called Palin "powerful" and "transformative."

She did? Great! Of course, you have to take her praise of Palin a bit out of context to create the most effective and Schadenfreude-worthy flipflop. The gist of her article was that the Palin choice might work or might backfire.

"The Sarah Palin choice is really going to work, or really not going to work," Noonan wrote. "It's not going to be a little successful or a little not; it's not going to be a wash. She is either going to be magic or one of history's accidents. She is either going to be brilliant and groundbreaking, or will soon be the target of
unattributed quotes by bitter staffers shifting blame in all 'The Making of the President 2008' books."

With a little tweaking, like they do with the film reviews, that paragraph can be pared down to "The Sarah Palin choice is... brilliant and groundbreaking."

There's the pay off! Let's not let the text of the article get in the way of a great story.

Of course the Democrats have had their open mic moments too. Do you remember this summer when Jesse Jackson was caught whispering a threat to "cut Obama's nuts off" before a televised interview with Fox News?

Back in 2001, The BBC did an entire feature on the curse of the open mic. But drawing attention to gaffes by Tony Blair (in 1993) and by George W. Bush (in 2000) didn't prevent them having a converstion in a room full of every imaginable type of recording equipment at the G8 summit in 2006. The infamous "Yo Blair" conversation revealed the U.S. president's cowboy speaking style and his in depth analysis "China is big and so is Russia." Blair, for his part, refers to international economics as "this trade thingy."

With the increased presence of 24 hour television news media, call in talk shows, and video on cell phones, expect more delightful unguarded moments in the future.