Why There Aren’t Supermarket Scanner Moments Anymore

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Everybody knows the story. Another sad impostor in the long line of presidential candidates who try to emulate the Normals, George H.W. Bush walked into a grocery store one day in 1992 and blew his Joe Sixpack cover story by marveling at the futuristic wonder that was the store’s decade-old bar code scanning technology. Everybody knows this story because it was a perfect illustration of the thickness of the White House bubble. What many people don’t seem to know about this story is that it is completely false.

It was a grocers’ convention, not a store; and according to every eyewitness account, Bush wasn’t completely blown away by the scanners, which were in fact of a new, innovative variety. The other version spread because of a New York Times article the following day by a reporter who wasn’t there. (The Times did get the location right–transposing the story to a supermarket happened later.) Despite a lot of people’s best efforts, the fiction became legend — one of the stickiest myths in U.S. political history. I’ve met plenty of people who still believe it. They’re out there. And some of them even work in the news business.

MSNBC’s estimable Andrea Mitchell is apparently one of them. On Monday she introduced a clip of Mitt Romney by remarking, “Maybe this was Mitt Romney’s supermarket scanner moment.” It was and it wasn’t. The clip seemed like the Bush Myth all over again: At a rally in Pennsylvania, Romney professed amazement at a local convenience store’s touchscreen sandwich ordering doohicky, a mainstay of Sheetz’s, Wawa’s and other fine dining establishments for many years. And not unlike the Bush Myth, context spoiled the whole story. Romney was just making a point about (yawn) burdensome regulation. The full clip made it pretty clear he wasn’t about to invest heavily in hoagie robots any time soon.

But in one very important way, Romney’s Wawaterloo (we’re calling it that, right?) was completely different: No one is going to remember it. The news cycle chewed up the myth and spat out the truth in short order. The debunking was even led by Politico, not always the most rigorous adherent of Keeping Things In Perspective. The explanation for all this is pretty simple: The same frenzied, shouted, GIFed and Tweeted modern media that people say is scrambling our brains and our democracy is actually pretty good at settling this kind of thing.

In 2012, no presidential candidate says anything into a microphone without poorly paid campaign gophers filming it from 3 angles. (The video Politico posted to show the full context of Romney’s remarks was recorded by someone in the crowd.) If that wasn’t enough, we now have a political press corps that tweets before it blogs, blogs before it files a story, and updates that story twice from its Blackberry in Lawrence O’Donnell’s green room before the thing goes to press for the morning. Media critics worry, and rightly so, about the effect this churn has on the precision of those early first drafts — but the iterative process does seem to weed out some falsehoods and framing errors before the big, narrative-setting stories go live.

Take, for example, the time Rick Perry called on a mannequin. Initial reports had it that the dusty-brained Texas governor mistakenly solicited a question from a wooden lady at a town hall meeting. It wasn’t a mistake. He was joking. And people who had witnessed the exchange corrected the record before the Legend of the Mannequin became ingrained in the public’s imagination. Romney’s Wawa moment will enjoy a similar fate in the dustbin of forgotten campaign stories too-telling-to-be-true. There are a lot of reasons to hate the frenetic, gaffe-obsessed media of the 2012 election. But this kind of myth manufacturing isn’t one of them.

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