Analysis: “What Is Aleppo?” How Right and Left-Wing Media Covered an Iconic Gaffe

Last Thursday, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” where panelist Mike Barnicle asked him what he would do, if elected, about Aleppo. “And what is Aleppo?” replied Johnson, sparking a whirlwind of criticism and ridicule.

Nathaniel Haas, writing for the left-leaning Huffington Post, characterized the comment as “undoubtedly a disqualifying moment,” stating that Johnson replied “as if Aleppo […] were a brand of cholesterol medication or the title of a Game of Thrones episode.” Right-leaning Fox News published an article calling the comment a “jaw-dropping gaffe.” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton weighed in as well, saying in a press conference the same day “you can look at a map and find Aleppo.

If nothing else, Johnson’s gaffe demonstrated that he can bring both sides together.

Other pundits, however, disagreed with the excoriation leveled at Johnson for his remark. Most notably, Mike Barnicle, who had first asked Johnson the damning question, wrote an article for the Daily Beast titled “I asked Gary Johnson about Aleppo. I don’t blame him for not knowing.” In the article, he told his readers “don’t blame Gary Johnson for his ignorance” and also pointed out that “neither of the two major candidates […] have been asked the same question recently.”

After the article, MediaFile interviewed Barnicle on Monday about his response to the gaffe, in an analysis comparing his interview antics to those of Matt Lauer.

Nicole Gaudiano, writing for USA Today, also downplayed Johnson’s error, agreeing with the candidate that “it happens.” She went on to state that “other politicians have had their own Aleppo-esque moments,” highlighting famous gaffes like Rick Perry’s “oops” moment during a GOP primary debate and Dan Quayle’s misspelling of the word “potato,” among others.

Others still used Johnson’s flub to explore separate, unrelated issues. Writing for right-wing news and opinion website Breitbart, Bruce Majors attacked left-wing candidates Jill Stein and Hillary Clinton, stating “As gaffes go it may not be as major as Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s mistake […] where she boarded the wrong plane. And as far as forgetfulness goes it may not compare to…Hillary Clinton forgetting some 20 times […] about what she knew, who she met, or what she did with classified emails.”

Jenna Amatulli, trends editor for the Huffington Post, used the buzz around the incident to make a point about insufficient media coverage and public attention surrounding the Syrian Conflict, writingthe problem isn’t just Johnson’s error. It’s that the candidate’s gaffe is capturing our national attention, while the deaths of thousands of people and the worst refugee crisis since WWII  often don’t seem to inspire nearly as much concern.”

Washington Times columnist and editorial  writer Kelly Riddell published an article on the conservative outlet’s website, asking the question “Is Gary Johnson finished?” and continuing with “did the Libertarian presidential candidate ever really have a chance?” Riddell excused Johnson’s mistake, writing that “to err is human” but took issue with Johnson’s broader platform, particularly his support for a carbon tax. She called it “inexcusable,” asking “what’s free-market or conservative about that?”

Whether Johnson’s error was “undoubtedly disqualifying” or “not a thing,” it is clear that it has effected widespread conversation, however inane, about the Syrian conflict and turned the fickle eye of cultural attention towards a crisis  that badly needs it.

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