So an aide to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told a reporter to "shove it," and to kiss his behind. This was a sad development, but not because of the (marginally) crude language of the campaign aide. It was because of what the episode and the reaction to it says about modern campaigns and journalism.
To start, everyone was cranky. It's fewer than 100 days until the election, which makes everyone cranky. The time zone challenges of heading from the United States to Britain to Israel to Poland made it worse. The press corps was rightly cranky, since Romney almost never takes time for press. And the Romney campaign was understandably cranky, since his foreign trip was not quite going as planned.
So there Romney was, at Warsaw's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a solemn memorial site in Poland, and heading back to his car when a couple of reporters yelled out questions. "What about your gaffes?!?!" screamed one. The Romney aide responded with the colorful comments, irritated at the indelicacy of screaming out a question at such a site, and quite possibly, more than a little annoyed that Romney's trip had been dominated by the candidate's poor choices of commentary. Bottom line: The aide should not have lost his cool. But the press corps should not have shouted out questions—especially ones like that—at a sacred site in a foreign country. And Romney should be more available, so reporters don't have to stoop that low.
But the most disturbing development is that this event became news at all. It's not the first time a press secretary or aide spoke that way to a reporter—and reporters have gotten as hot under the collar as the aide. In past campaigns, one or the other would have made a crude comment, apologized for it later (as the Romney aide did), and then offer to buy the offended party a drink. None of it would have been in a newspaper, or on TV, because it is not news. It is just a normal workplace conflict and its significance is dwarfed by real issues that affect actual American voters.
Technology has made things worse, even as it has allowed news organizations to tell more and to tell it more quickly. Now, everything is "news," even when it isn't. So not only are readers and viewers offered minutiae and gossip, but candidates are more wary. It's no use traveling with a candidate, since the contenders almost never come back on the plane or the bus and just chat with reporters. But can you blame them, when everything they say, or what their face looks like when they're saying it, shows up in some inane Tweet or blog?
Central and Eastern Europe, home to relatively new democracies, is also still struggling with the idea of press freedom and accountability. The display by both the campaign and some of the reporters covering it this week was an embarrassment.