Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren did herself no good last week in response to a CNN question about the murder of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts, in which an undocumented immigrant has been charged.
She could have scored compassion and political points across the board, but instead shot herself in the foot.
Someone predisposed her to take her eye off the victim and focus on partisan politics — someone who drilled a catchy phrase into her that turned a chance for compassion into embarrassment. Was it a political strategist, a well-compensated PR consultant, or maybe an apparatchik from her office? He/she created the catchy three-word meme, "Mommas and babies," then drilled it into Sen. Warren like Henry Higgins did to Liza Doolittle, to be sure Ms. Warren used that phrase a couple of times on CNN.
#MommasAndBabies is an Instagram hashtag and also a Pinterest board, but no one uses it as a Twitter handle (yet). And a quick Google check did not show the phrase being uttered by the senator before the Aug. 23 interview.
At 8:23 a.m. on CNN's Early Start program, John Berman set the table in a two-shot screen, noting that in response to the Tibbetts murder, the president and vice-president had suggested "the immigration laws need to be stronger so that people like this man, who is accused of this murder, are not in the country."
Then it was Sen. Warren's turn to reply.
… I'm so sorry for the family. … But one of the things we have to remember is, we need an immigration system that is effective, that focuses on where real problems are.
Last month, I went down to the border, and I saw where children had been taken away from their mothers, I met with their mothers who had been lied to, who didn't know where their children were, who hadn't had a chance to talk to their children…
I think we need immigration laws that focus on people who pose a real threat, and I don't think mommas and babies are the place we should be spending our resources. Separating a momma from a baby does not make this country safer."
One of the cardinal rules of PR, under the question/response category, is that no matter what the question asked is, you should segue immediately into what you want to say, even if it's a comment unresponsive to the interviewer's question.
This was one time Sen. Warren should have flouted that rule. If done properly, she could have scored political points all across the board. Instead she stuck to the PR strategy, apparently not sensing that a big chunk of CNN's morning audience would find her catchy, sound-bite-y reply to be insensitive to the murder victim's family, to Iowans, and to a lot of viewers.
Once her reply was broadcast, every conservative talk show host, blogger, Tweeter, YouTuber and how many others got hold of it and four-walled it. It's been recorded for posterity, and will be used in every political campaign for the next 10 years.
The senator has two children and could have naturally been a little more motherly in her reply. Equally surprising, Sen. Warren's bachelor's degree from the University of Houston was in speech pathology and audiology, so it's not like she can't "hear" what she is saying
Sen. Warren spent just six seconds saying how she felt for the family (without naming it or the victim) and for Iowans, then politically jumped right into "we need an immigration system that's effective, that focuses on where real problems are."
Her "problem" focus was on undocumented families she saw being separated by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement at the southern border. Don't you think that any murder would fall into the "problem" category?
CNN's Berman then let the senator off the hook. Access is everything in today's media-driven "newsertainment" and no TV "journalist" would risk the temerity of actually pressing the original question and irritating someone "important" being interviewed. Stunts like that (we used to call it journalism) would mark the last time for a long time the guest would appear on that show or network.
It's not like Berman doesn't know that PR-trained interviewees are going to say what they want, irrespective of the question. It's a real journalist's job, mostly abdicated today, to ask about the killing and the report that someone illegally in this country stalked and killed Ms. Tibbetts. Instead, Berman let Warren prattle on without challenging her to respond to the status of the alleged killer.
Richard Lavinthal is a former daily and international wire service reporter, spokesman for federal and state prosecutors' offices, and national news organization marketing director. He now provides legal PR services for attorneys and their clients' important cases at PRforLAW LLC.