May 24, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
A funny thing happened on the way to Colorado. Jay Carney, the President’s press secretary, laid into the White House press corps for “buying into Republican BS.” During a routine gaggle aboard Air Force One, Carney let the reporters have it. His specific complaint was about the press’s gullible acceptance of the Republican talking point that the Obama administration has been on “a reckless spending spree.” Carney cites and recites an article from MarketWatch – a Wall Street Journal affiliate – but I believe the impetus for Carney’s pique gets back to something we’ve covered here at the New York Times eXaminer, as I’ll lay out momentarily. I think the impetus for Carney’s ire is the New York Times, though it’s fair to say all of the mainstream media are implicated, if not specifically on this issue, then in other reporting. Midway through the gaggle, which began some time after 6:15 am ET yesterday, the time the press had to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base for the flight to Colorado, Carney said, apropos of nothing reporters were asking him,
Can I, since you guys are a little woolly-headed this morning, I just wanted to read something that I read this morning that caught my attention. This is from Market Watch’s Rex Nutting. He says, ‘Of all the falsehoods told about President Obama, the biggest whopper is the one about his reckless spending spree. Almost everyone believes that Obama has presided over a massive increase in federal spending, but it didn’t happen. Although there was a big stimulus bill under President Obama, federal spending is rising at its slowest pace since Dwight Eisenhower brought the Korean War to an end in the 1950s. Even hapless Herbert Hoover managed to increase spending more than Obama has.’
That means that the rate of spending – federal spending increase is lower under President Obama than all of his predecessors since Dwight Eisenhower, including all of his Republican predecessors. That is a fact not often noted in the press and certainly never mentioned by the Republicans.
Q: You’re emulating Herbert Hoover now as a standard –
MR. CARNEY: Not at all. I think it is simply a fact that despite the enormous challenges that this country faced when the President took office and the absolute essential need for taking dramatic action and significant action in passing a stimulus bill, as well as the other actions the President took, this President has been – has demonstrated significant fiscal restraint and acted with great fiscal responsibility. That is also why he has put forward a balanced plan to further reduce our deficit and debt by over $4 trillion.
That approach, that balanced approach is available – is supported by a broad majority of the American people, majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans outside of the nation’s capital. If only Republicans in Congress would agree to take that balanced approach, there is an opportunity for significant further deficit reduction.
I simply make the point, as an editor might say, to check it out; do not buy into the BS that you hear about spending and fiscal constraint with regard to this administration. I think doing so is a sign of sloth and laziness.
Wow! In discussing Carney’s outburst, Rachel Maddow cites as an example of false Republican talking points, “this new $10 million Karl Rove ad buy which says President Obama’s ‘unprecedented spending is just out of control.’” The Rove/Crossroads GPS ad was the first thing I thought of, too, because it is so egregiously inaccurate: an actress plays a helpless victim of Obamanomics, her jobless children live at home, forcing her to delay her retirement. Disconsolate, she says, “Obama started spending like our credit cards have no limit. His healthcare law made health insurance even more expensive.” Young and happy at first, she ages decades and turns despondent in the seconds before she confesses she voted for Obama in 2008. The co-producer of the ad was Larry McCarthy, who produced the infamous “Willie Horton” ad for Bush Pere in 1988. You can watch the ad here.
Thinking of Karl & Larry’s Excellent Tall Tale naturally brought to mind the equally excellent reporting of Jeremy Peters of the New York Times. Peters, according to the Times‘ own blurb, “is a political reporter…. He covers the presidential campaign, with a focus on the ways that candidates and political groups use media and advertising to sell their messages, ideologies and issues.” He’s an expert! The media are his message. Good to know. Peters wrote a feature on the GPS Crossroads ad. He loved it! – “… the 60-second advertisement, complete with special effects, is a deeply researched, delicately worded story of a struggling family; its relatively low-key tone is all the more striking, coming at a point in the campaign when each side is accusing the other of excessive negativity.”
The “deep research,” as it turns out, had nothing to do with searching for and verifying the oppo material in the ad. It has to do with the focus groups Larry McCarthy conducted over the course of a year, during which he learned that “Middle-of-the-road voters who said they thought the country was on the wrong track were unmoved when they heard arguments that the president lacks integrity. And they did not buy assertions that he is a rabid partisan with a radical liberal agenda that is wrecking America.”
Peters even liked McCarthy’s jokes, at least this one, made at President Obama’s expense:
The script, which he started writing that day in October, features a composite character from the focus groups. ‘Kind of like President Obama’s girlfriends,’ he noted dryly, referring to Mr. Obama’s acknowledgment that a girlfriend he referred to in his book ‘Dreams From My Father’ was a composite of several women he knew.
Peters extensively cites McCarthy’s “research,” the process of writing the script, and the soft tones of the actress and her message. He contrasts these with the “stern-sounding announcers” and “aggrieved citizens” in the Obama campaign ads against Bain’s “vampire capitalism” and against some GOP ads used in earlier campaigns.
In the 16th paragraph, Peters did allow the President’s side to get in a word: “Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, dismissed the commercial’s premise. ‘However many millions Mitt Romney’s special interest allies spend won’t change the facts,’ he said, noting that the economy has strengthened considerably since 2008.”
Peters is mum. Even though he reports some of the script, he never addresses the accuracy – or, rather, inaccuracy – of what the script says. Peters is interested in “tone.” The “premise” isn’t the point, is it? Hey, he gave the Obama campaign 25 words (almost). Apparently that’s the extent of his reportorial obligation under the New York Times‘ He Said/She Said Manual of Journalistic Standards and Practices.
The Washington Post did considerably better. Fact-checker Glenn Kessler gave the GPS Crossroads ad two “Pinocchios” (out of a possible four) after concluding,
On the debt, the ad exaggerates Obama’s impact on the rise of the debt, as it was not just spending but a decline in revenue that is responsible for the sharp rise in federal budget deficits. On health-care spending, the ad suggests that the new law was largely or mostly responsible, when in fact, according to one survey, it was only partially responsible.
Jamelle Bouie of the American Prospect, writing in the Post – and republished here at the New York Times eXaminer – was fairly appalled, not just by the ad, but also by the New York Times reporting:
As befitting a Karl Rove outfit, the claims in the ad are either misleading, or outright falsehoods. Citing a Reuters story from 2009 on conservative efforts to sink the bill, Crossroads GPS insinuates that the stimulus was a failure, despite wide consensus that the bill kept United States out of a depression, and significantly improved prospects for recovery.
The ad continues in this vein, blaming high insurance premiums on the Affordable Care Act – when the cited article says otherwise – and blaming Obama for the increase in debt, despite the fact that under his administration, government spending has risen at a slower pace than any time in the last 60 years.
I left Bouie’s original links in the citation. The last one is to Rex Nutting’s MarketWatch piece – the one Jay Carney cited on Air Force One.
Bouie goes on:
… I am surprised the Times would run such a positive piece on the ad and its creators, and forgo any attempt to evaluate the claims made by Crossroads GPS. Unfortunately, when it comes to coverage of Mitt Romney’s campaign for the White House, this is par for the course. The Republican nominee is running on a series of unsubstantiated or easily debunked claims: that he is responsible for 100,000 new jobs at Bain, that there has been net job loss under Obama’s policies, that the stimulus failed, that his policies would reduce the debt (the opposite is true), and that the Affordable Care Act was a ‘government takeover’ of health care.
It’s not hard to find an independent evaluation of each claim, and yet, it’s rare that news outlets challenge the Romney campaign – or Republicans in general – on any of it. The GOP is running the most mendacious presidential campaign in recent memory, and the collective response has been a shrug.
In an ironic coincidence, this week the New York Times eXaminer also covered the announcement that Art Brisbane – the New York Times‘ public editor or ombudsman – would quit in September at the end of his two-year contract, and had turned down the option to stay through a third year. As Erik Wemple of the Washington Post noted (and as we’ve extensively covered here at NYTX),
Unless he writes something dramatic this summer, his time at the New York Times will be remembered for the viral piece he wrote on Jan. 12: Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante? The Internet heaved and convulsed with long answers to this question, most of which could be summed up in two words: Um, yes. The furor over the item, Brisbane responded, misunderstood the question he was raising.
Executive Editor Jill Abramson, stung by the suggestion that the New York Times wasn’t already acting as a truth vigilante, sent Brisbane a note saying, among other things: “We do it every day, in a variety of ways.”
It appears Jeremy Peters didn’t get the Abramson memo.
In my first draft of this column, which I wrote yesterday, I mentioned a point I made in a column I wrote a few days ago titled “Willard’s Whoppers – What You Won’t Read in the New York Times.” In that column, I argued that “The public won’t hear about Willard’s chain of whoppers until the top dogs in the Obama campaign make them an issue.” I wrote that if Vice President Biden or President Obama didn’t speak up and specifically challenge Romney’s penchant for serial mendacity, voters wouldn’t know about it because the mainstream media were just not going to call out Romney on their own. I concluded my draft of today’s column by remarking that Jay Carney’s journalism lecture aboard Air Force One showed we were getting close.
There’s an update. Devid Dwyer of ABC News reports that
At a fundraiser for his re-election campaign in Denver [Wednesday night], President Obama set out to upend conventional Republican wisdom that his administration has been defined by excessive government spending. ‘I’m running to pay down our debt in a way that’s balanced and responsible. After inheriting a $1 trillion deficit, I signed $2 trillion of spending cuts into law,’ he told a crowd of donors at the Hyatt Regency. ‘My opponent won’t admit it, but it’s starting to appear in places, like real liberal outlets, like the Wall Street Journal: Since I’ve been president, federal spending has risen at the lowest pace in nearly 60 years. Think about that.’ Obama was referring to an analysis released this week by Rex Nutting, a reporter for CBS MarketWatch who is also affiliated with the Wall Street Journal.
So we’re there. Or almost there. President Obama has hit Romney, his GOP allies and Crossroads GPS for a central lie of their campaign against him. He has begun in a “quiet room”; he will have to expand the criticism and take it to the voters directly, clearly and forcefully.
In my “Willard’s Whoppers” column I wrote that if President Obama and Vice President Biden started calling out Romney’s falsehoods, “odds are you’ll read about it in the New York Times.” So far the results are 50-50. As of this writing (9:30 am ET Thursday), the New York Times has not reported on Obama’s remarks at fundraiser event. (The ABC News report went up at 8:30 pm ET last night.)
But in a New York Times “Caucus” blogpost, Peter Baker did report on Carney’s remarks on AF1. Suddenly getting all fact-checky, Baker questioned Nutting’s methodology, leaving the impression that Nutting’s thesis was flawed, so Carney was blowing smoke. Meanwhile, PolitiFact rated Nutting’s calculation “Mostly True.” The reason for the “mostly”: “The only significant shortcoming of the graphic was that it failed to note that some of the restraint in spending was fueled by demands from congressional Republicans.” PolitiFact is right. In fact, David Firestone’s criticism of Carney’s AF1 speech was considerably more enlightened. Firestone is a New York Times editorial writer, and in a blogpost published yesterday, he dinged Carney for buying “into a standard Republican line: restraint is good and spending is bad, even when government dollars are desperately needed by a struggling economy.” The same can be said for President Obama’s remarks, made after Firestone posted his criticism of Carney.
President Obama’s economic policies are certainly open to criticism. Firestone is on the mark. But criticism must be based on facts, not fictional oppo talking points. When an anti-Obama ad campaign gets a long, favorable plug in a straight news report, it is “slothful, lazy” reporting to fail to emphasize that the content of the ad is more fictitious than is the fictional woman who stars in the ad.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com