Top 3 political spelling blunders immortalized by the media

'I'm With Mitt' iPhone app

When it comes to politics, semantics matter. Every word, every turn of phrase, is subject to media scrutiny. Sometimes it seems there’s practically a bad grammar beat, where reporters and bloggers eagerly await the opportunity to gleefully pounce on our less eloquent politicians. George W. Bush perhaps learned this more harshly than any other president, having entire blogs, columns and even a poem devoted to his bizarre mistakes and malapropisms (a.k.a. Bushisms).

Now, as you probably suspect, I’m a stickler for good spelling and grammar. Using the most appropriate words, or a particular sentence structure, is essential to communicating ideas with precision and clarity. If you can articulate something well, it means you understand it deeply. So, when politicians butcher spelling, grammar, or simple sayings, it makes us wonder (fairly or not) if they’re totally full of BS.

As one political convention ends and another gets underway, I thought I’d take this opportunity to round up what I deem the top three political spelling blunders in recent memory, with the caveat that social media and a 24-hour-news cycle magnify every gaffe nowadays to epic proportions in 10 seconds flat. (Maybe President Tyler couldn’t spell Tippecanoe to save his life, but we’ll never know because it’s not immortalized on the Web or on TV for all to see…) So here they are, in no particular order:

Dan Quayle misspells ‘potato’: Dan Quayle should count his lucky stars he wasn’t Vice President in the age of Twitter (Joe Biden, of course, hasn’t been so fortunate).  Twenty years later, he’s perhaps best remembered for a fateful day in 1992 when he visited a classroom in New Jersey. A boy steps up to the chalkboard, Quayle asks him to spell ‘potato,’ and he writes it out (correctly, mind you) in neat cursive.  Dan Quayle “corrects” the boy’s spelling and has him add an ‘e’ on the end. Dumbfounded, the boy complies and writes ‘potatoe’ on the board – at which point Quayle starts clapping and congratulating the boy for getting it “right” the second time around. Talk show hilarity ensues, and Dan Quayle takes his place in the pantheon of frequently mocked politicians.

Sarah Palin misspells ‘repudiate’… or maybe it was ‘refute’: Palin is perhaps the only other politician to be lambasted as much as Bush for, well, making no sense whatsoever. Tina Fey had a field day using Palin’s own mystifying sequences of words, which I won’t even dare call sentences, to parody her on SNL. To be fair, it’s possible to be a brilliant writer yet freeze up when it comes to speaking in front of an audience. And Palin, in fact, compared herself to a certain brilliant writer named William Shakespeare when she made up the word ‘refudiate’ on Twitter (she meant ‘refute’, FYI). It even went on to become word of the year in 2010. Brava, Ms. Palin — or should I say, ShakesPalin.

(Note: Bushisms including “misunderestimate” didn’t make the list because they aren’t spelling errors, per se — they’re just completely baffling non-words.)

Mitt Romney’s campaign misspells America: It started as an attempt to reach tech-savvy voters with a logo calling for “A Better America” that Romney supporters could superimpose over images they posted across social media. It ended as a nightmarish example of the importance of spell-check, when the campaign released their “I’m With Mitt” app calling for “A Better Amercia” … oops. It went on to become a positively hilarious Internet meme with more parodies than serious posters – and it spread faster than, well, the Romney campaign furiously trying to fix their spate of spelling errors.  We know Romney likes to fire people, but I’m not sure what happened to the poor staffer who let the famous ‘Amercia’ typo slip. Last I read, Romney’s looking for a copy editor.

As ridiculous as these errors might seem, no election should be determined on the basis of egregious typos (*gasp!*) – or even what might appear to be a total disregard for the English language.  But with the current campaign-season circus, it can sometimes be hard to cut through the semantic crap to get to a kernel of truth.

Sure, everybody makes mistakes sometimes, and not every typo means you can’t trust a candidate. But it does seem like sloppy communication is on the rise among public figures you’d expect to be most cautious (ahem, Anthony Weiner). Maybe they’re just behind the times. Or maybe these kinds of careless errors are a reminder that social media and a 24-hour-news cycle are contributing to a culture in which candidates often worry more about media attention and less about delivering a meaningful message.

Are plagiarism and fabrication on the rise because we’re too info-hungry?

(c) drubig-photo - Fotolia.comWhen I first heard the news about Jonah Lehrer fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in his book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” I was shocked. Aside from the fact that I’ve really enjoyed reading his writing over the years, it takes serious balls to lie about Dylan, of all people.

But when I heard on Friday that Fareed Zakaria had admitted to plagiarizing sections of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker piece on gun control in his own column for Time, well, that was just completely befuddling. I mean, we’re talking about the former editor of Newsweek International, a current editor-at-large for Time, host of his own show on CNN, and a seemingly omnipresent columnist and pundit on international relations and foreign policy.

Looking at his resume, you might wonder “How does he do it?” Well, that’s precisely the problem. At some point, it’s physically impossible to keep up with the demands for more information in today’s 24-hour news cycle. Something has to give. In the case of tech blogger Om Malik, it was his health, and he suffered (but survived) a heart attack at the young age of 41. In the case of Fareed Zakaria, it was his reporting that took the hit, and you can see the full extent of his ‘lapse’ on the Atlantic Wire.

There’d been warning signs that Zakaria was over-extended — like when he basically gave the same graduation speech at Duke and Harvard. Still, copying yourself isn’t necessarily a moral quandary — it’s just really tacky. Chances are, things started to come to a head and Zakaria likely hired himself research or writing assistants to stay on top of the heap of assignments. Of course, that’s just speculation — though I’m not alone in my thinking. But when he says the incident “is entirely my fault,” he’s right. Whether the lapse was a result of his own reporting or failing to review someone else’s, it was sloppy work for someone of his caliber.

Now, before it sounds like I’m going too easy on Zakaria, I should point out that plagiarism makes me furious and I think it’s a fundamental sin of journalism. A few years ago, my writing partner and I poured our hearts (and a whole lot of time) into writing a piece for Little India magazine about Indian immigrants who are leaving the U.S. and returning home. We were shocked and angry when we learned that Mona Sarika had plagiarized us extensively in an online piece she wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

But Zakaria isn’t right out of journalism school, nor is he a struggling journalist trying to make a name for himself. As the Dallas Morning News points out, Zakaria is widely-respected as a  first-rate thinker. I say “is” (not “was”) because despite some cries for all plagiarists’ heads on a platter, I believe he deserves a second chance. I’m surprised by my position (which I know is supported by at least one other group of editors), since I’m usually of the hard-nosed Jack Shafer school on this issue. But in this case, I can’t help but wonder if a.) there’s a  systemic problem that needs to be addressed, b.) degree of the offense and intention should matter (is this as bad as Jayson Blair?), and c.) maybe I’m a little biased, and would hate to see Zakaria — at long last, a smart Indian-American personality on TV — get fired.

To be sure, he hasn’t exactly done us any favors with this recent incident. And saying that the reason plagiarism’s on the rise is because journalists are too busy or we as an audience are too demanding is a total cop-out.There are hoards of skilled journalists out there who would happily share the burden but can’t seem to find work.

The good news is, we live in a world where there’s obviously still a demand for good ideas and information. The bad news is, as beat reporters fall by the wayside, it seems original reporting is getting replaced with linking off to what other people reported and calling it a day (ahem, HuffPo). And with editorial budgets getting slashed, having full-time fact-checkers (who might uncover some of these transgressions in their research) is becoming a luxury except for some of the most elite organizations.But that’s opening a can of worms, and I don’t expect anyone to have a simple solution to the business problems facing journalism.

At the root, this is a marketing problem — and by that, I mean Zakaria’s own desire to be the face of foreign policy news in the U.S., and the media’s desire to build up marketable personalities who can sell books and draw ratings. And for better or worse, the only real solution is personal responsibility. Call me crazy, but maybe having your own TV show and doing it with integrity is enough. Sure, you can take on the occasional side project (an article here, a book deal there) but what’s the point in biting off more than you can chew in the name of building your brand?

I hope to see work from Zakaria in the future, just much less of it. After all, when you’re trying to be Superman, you usually end up more like Icarus — burned and bruised from your nasty fall.

Welcome to ‘This Wonderful Word’

(c) rodolphe trider - Fotolia.comI love words. Since I spoke my first, my life has pretty much been a non-stop barrage of talking, reading and writing. Just ask my friends and family.

Growing up, I romanticized print media and fantasized about the day I’d work as a writer or editor. I eventually reached my goal — but by the time I got there, everything we thought we knew about books, newspapers, and magazines had been turned on its head.

For a while, we expected to witness the death of journalism and publishing at any moment. But it’s been nearly 20 years since the Internet went public. And while the turn of a page has been replaced with a click of a button, the ability to communicate world-changing ideas to the public hasn’t become obsolete — and it probably never will.

The problem is, as a society, we’re slowly losing our ability to think, read and communicate deeply. If you want to know just how bad it is, read Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s sort of like the Hunger Games, only your brain is Panem and the Internet is the Capitol, trying to deprive it of any real sustenance.

Don’t get me wrong — I work as an online editor and I love the way the Internet and mobile technology have cracked open how we create and share information. I like trying to convey complex ideas in 140 characters on Twitter… it’s like a puzzle. I embrace the fact that language is constantly changing with the times, and I don’t have a problem with the fact that BitTorrent and cybercast are now in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But as the world gets smaller and faster thanks to technology, there’s a growing crisis of faith in the written word as the institutions struggle to keep up. Faltering newspapers. Journalism scandals. Stumbling book publishers. Grammar gone wild in an era of texting and tweeting. But I believe that language, while sometimes clunky and limiting, is all we’ve got. It doesn’t just shape how we view the world — it IS how we view the world. It’s important to preserve our brains’ ability to use it and process it with agility, as well as the publications offering up ideas that encourage us to think deeply and differently.

So, welcome to ‘This Wonderful Word’ — my love-blog to language that’s part media criticism, part linguistic trivia and trends, and entirely the ramblings of a devoted word nerd.