February 2, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Maybe I shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. Yet small stuff has consequences, too. In this case, the small stuff is five little words.
You might think the big political story on Wednesday would have been that Mitt Romney won the Florida GOP presidential primary by a wide margin on Tuesday. But the candidate himself stepped on that story early in the day when he told Soledad O’Brien of CNN, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” (The video is here.) When O’Brien gave Romney an opportunity to clarify his remark, he blew that, too.
This is scarcely Romney’s first revelatory gaffe, and the media piled on, noting that the super-rich candidate seemed to have little or no understanding of the challenges which the poor – particularly the working poor – face every day. “Mitt, the social safety net is not a hammock,” Joan Walsh of Salon wrote. The New York Times weighed in with a story by Ashley Parker headlined “’Poor’ Quote by Romney Joins a List Critics Love.” Parker is one of the Times reporters covering the Romney campaign. In her report, Parker writes,
Taking in the full context of his remarks, as Mr. Romney urged reporters to do, his statement seems more benign: ‘I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich; they’re doing just fine.’ He is most concerned about the middle class, he said.
But for a campaign that has itself been accused of taking President Obama’s words out of context, the remark about the poor immediately became cataloged in a growing list of awkward comments by Mr. Romney, including a remark that his speaking fees last year of $374,327 were ‘not very much’ and his line that ‘corporations are people.’
The five little words I find problematic are “has itself been accused of.” Parker uses the passive voice to report that some unnamed persons have accused the Romney campaign of taking President Obama’s words out of context. Yeah? So? Accusations are the grist of politics. Everybody knows that a lot of those political accusations are false or at least far-fetched and misleading. Besides, in Parker’s construction, the accusations are against the Romney campaign, not the candidate. So the gist of Parker’s report is that some anonymous people – who are most likely to be Mitt Romney’s political rivals – have accused – perhaps falsely, for all we know – some other anonymous people of misrepresenting the President’s words. Not exactly consequential.
Suppose Parker had written instead:
But Mitt Romney himself has admitted to taking President Obama’s words out of context….
That would certainly put Romney’s complaint yesterday that his own remark was being taken out of context in, well, a different “context.” My rewrite also happens to be factual:
On November 21, the New York Times reported,
Mitt Romney previewed his first television ad…. The 60-second spot begins with images of President Obama in New Hampshire as the democratic nominee in 2008, talking about his plans to turn around the economy…. Then, the ad shows Mr. Obama saying, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’
But the line, which is perhaps the spot’s most devastating moment, is also the one that seems to be the most taken out of context. In fact, at the time, Mr. Obama was referring to something that an aide to his then opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona, had said in reference to the McCain campaign — not Mr. Obama, then or now.
The report goes on to suggest that the Romney campaign expected criticism:
As soon as the ad was broadcast on Mr. Hannity’s show, the Romney campaign sent out an e-mail defending its use of Mr. Obama’s quote. (The e-mail also included Mr. Obama’s full quote ….) [Gail] Gitcho, [Romney's communications director,] added that ‘the tables have turned,’ and implied that the line Mr. Obama once used against Mr. McCain could now be leveled against Mr. Obama himself.
The ad garnered a lot of criticism at the time the campaign began airing it. The best response was a BuzzFeed video mash-up titled “Romney for Obama,” which edited Romney’s words to suggest he supported Obama in 2012. (Sadly, YouTube took down the mash-up.) PolitiFact gave the Romney ad a Pants-on-Fire rating, concluding that “Obama’s words … have been taken out of context in a ridiculously misleading way.”
Journalism professor Thomas Edsell, in a New York Times op-ed piece, was outraged by “the first irrefutable violation of ethical standards” in the 2012 campaign. In his lede, Edsell wrote,
Struggling to justify a recent television spot that reached new heights of deception, a top operative in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign put it plainly, while insisting on anonymity:
“First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…. Ads are agitprop…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context…. All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”
Thomas Beaumont of the Associated Press reported that Mitt Romney himself
is defending a TV ad that quotes President Barack Obama out of context…. Romney told reporters in Des Moines his campaign distributed the ad with a press release noting the words were originally from Obama’s opponent.
‘There was no hidden effort on the part of our campaign. It was instead to point out that what’s sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander,’ Romney said…. ‘This ad points out, now, guess what, it’s your turn. The same lines used on John McCain are now going to be used on you, which is that this economy is going to be your albatross.’
It is possible that Ashley Parker doesn’t read the AP (although the Times is an AP subscriber), so maybe she didn’t know Romney had defended the ad. Maybe she was too busy on the campaign trail to read Edsell’s critique. Perhaps she doesn’t rely on PolitiFact, which would be a sign of healthy skepticism. But when Parker wrote her report for today’sTimes, she certainly knew that one clip in Romney’s first campaign ad was “the one that seems to be the most taken out of context.” Because that’s what Ashley Parker wrote. The author of the Times report of November 21, which I cited above, was Ashley Parker.
Assuming that Parker did absolutely no fact-checking for her story for today’s Times, she at least knew that there was more to the backstory than that the Romney campaign “has itself been accused of taking President Obama’s words out of context.”
CNN reported yesterday that “… Mitt Romney sought to clarify a remark he made earlier…, saying his words were being taken out of context.” Given the candidate’s complaint, Parker had a responsibility to report that Romney had defended an ad that he admitted took President Obama’s words out of context. Instead, Parker inexplicably abandoned her own earlier reporting to write that unnamed others had accused unnamed Romney’s staffers of misrepresenting Obama’s words. This is not sloppy reporting. It is deceptive reporting. It is giving Mitt Romney a pass for doing exactly what he is accusing the media (and his rivals) of doing: taking a presidential candidate’s words out of context “in a ridiculously misleading way.” Romney approved a campaign ad that he admitted was deceptive. In her report today, Ashley Parker pretended that never happened.
What makes Parker’s deception worse is that, especially because of the influence of the New York Times, other reporters at other news organizations are sure to shift the responsibility for the misleading ad from Romney to unnamed others. As I demonstrated in a column I wrote last week, when the New York Times waters down, weakens or misstates a fact, other media outlets do the same. The facts get “disappeared” and the misstatements get reported. The few readers who pay close attention to who said what when may recall what really happened, but the general voting public will soon think some nefarious others have accused poor, upstanding Mitt of deception. Soon those “others” will become the Obama campaign, and it won’t be long before the meme is that President Obama himself is a crybaby who can’t take the heat of a tough campaign. A few days after Romney released the deceptive ad, Maggie Haberman of Politico was already treating it as a “he said/he said” disagreement. Haberman suggested that the tie went to Romney because “If nothing else, the ad was clearly intended as a signal of the bare-knuckled race Romney would run in a general,” and that “the ad works in a GOP primary” because it “is ‘taking the fight to President Obama.’”
Ashley Parker’s report in today’s New York Times reinforces the notion that the veracity of the Romney ad is debatable. Romney’s campaign ad was Pants-on-Fire false. Parker once reported the fact that the ad took the President’s remark out of context, and “In fact…, Mr. Obama was referring to something that an aide to his then opponent … had said…; not Mr. Obama.” Now she is reporting this fact as an anonymous accusation. You might call Parker’s latest reporting “misleading.” It is.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com