August 8, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel provides an object lesson today in how to twist straight news reporting into cover for a political candidate’s blatant misstatements. Gabriel uses the handy he-said/he-said methodology, weights the he-saids toward that candidate and ignores or glosses over inconvenient facts that refute and undermine the candidate’s attacks on his opponent. The story, headlined “Romney Presses Obama in Work on Welfare Law,” appears on page A11 of today’s Times. Political reporters Michael Shear and Peter Baker also “contributed reporting.” Gabriel leads with the he-said/:
Mitt Romney accused President Obama on Tuesday of gutting one of the signature bipartisan accomplishments of the recent political era: the overhaul of welfare policy. Mr. Romney, taking up criticism that has gripped conservatives for the last few weeks, attacked a directive by the Obama administration that Republicans say does an end run around the welfare law, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, that is widely credited with reducing government dependency.
‘I hope you understand,’ Mr. Romney said while campaigning [in Illinois], ‘President Obama in this last few days has tried to reverse that accomplishment by taking the work requirement out of welfare. If I’m president,’ he added, ‘I’ll put work back in welfare.’
We’ll get back to that.
Next, Gabriel hits the /he-said rebuttal button: “The attack drew an all-out denial from the White House and the Obama campaign, which accused Mr. Romney of warping the issue and, not least, of hypocrisy because, as Massachusetts governor, he urged similar flexibility in the federal law.”
Now, since New York Times reporters won’t tell you how the story unfolded, I will. Earlier this year, some governors, led by the Republican governors of Nevada and Utah, “asked the Obama administration for some new flexibility on welfare standards – the governors had some ideas about moving folks from welfare to work and needed the White House to sign off.” On July 12, Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, agreed to the request. In a memo to the states, she wrote that states could apply for waivers that would allow them “to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”
In response, “Congressional Republicans decried the move as ‘a blatant violation of the law’ and contend the waivers will actually cause harm to the impoverished Americans because beneficiaries will come to rely on the handout with little motivation to seek employment.” Sam Youngman of Reuters wrote yesterday that “the health department’s decision has generated strong opposition from many Republicans. In the House, 76 Republicans complained in a letter to Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who sought to assure them that states will have to move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work.” Speaker John Boehner, who didn’t sign the letter, issued a statement opposing the rule. Two Republican governors, Terry Branstad of Iowa and Rick Scott of Florida agreed with their Congressional friends. Branstad called the HHS ruling “absolutely a terrible step in the wrong direction.”
As Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post writes today, “conservatives smelled a rat. Robert Rector, a welfare expert at the Heritage Foundation, announced that ‘Obama Guts Welfare Reform’.” – a headline featured in the Romney ad. Mickey Kaus, another welfare expert, also outlined various ways … the memorandum could be used to water down work requirements….” All this, naturally, inspired Me-Too Mitt to jump on the Outrage Bandwagon with this statement, issued in mid-July: “The success of bipartisan welfare reform, passed under President Clinton, has rested on the obligation of work. The president’s action is completely misdirected. Work is a dignified endeavor, and the linkage of work and welfare is essential to prevent welfare from becoming a way of life.”
The irony of the Republicans’ complaints was not lost on liberal observers. Here was the Obama administration bowing to states rights advocates – granting more power to the states than the law strictly required – and Republicans were grousing about it. Liberal economist Dean Baker said at the time, “Sounds to me like [the conservative critics have] a problem with leaving things to the states and want a one-size fits all imposed by the Washington bureaucrats who think they know better than anyone else. Seriously, this is an issue about perhaps giving the states a bit more leeway. [Republicans are] obviously worried that the voters in some states might be too generous to poor people. Life is tough.”
Trip Gabriel eludes to the GOP side of the argument in his report. He writes, “… conservative critics, including Speaker John A. Boehner and the Heritage Foundation, pounced on the new rules, which they said would lead to redefining ‘work’ to include activities like hula dancing and attending weight-loss programs.” Gabriel links to the Heritage Foundation’s critique.
He does not, however, state outright that the governors who initiated requests for waivers were Republicans. In fact, Gabriel seems to go to some trouble to hide this critical fact, a fact that completely undercuts Romney’s attack. First, Gabriel waters it down by putting it in the /he-said frame and by eliding a significant element:
Of five states that initially requested or considered waivers, two have Republican governors, Utah and Nevada, the administration said.
Say what? Here’s how a careful New York Times reader would parse that sentence: (a) More Democrats than Republicans considered the waivers. (b) Since the writer doesn’t say which governors requested and which considered waivers, perhaps only Democratic governors actually requested the waivers. (c) “… the administration said”: so that’s Obama’s story. The New York Times has judiciously decided against vouching for it. (d) Therefore, there’s a good chance it isn’t true. There is nothing to lead the reader to even suspect that the two governors who requested the waivers were the Republican governors of Nevada – Brian Sandoval – and Utah – Gary Herbert.
Now watch how Gabriel further muddies the water in his report on a conversation the Times had with a spokesperson for Gov. Sandoval:
Mary-Sarah Kinner, a spokeswoman for Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, said the governor had sought discussions with the federal government about waivers for Nevada’s welfare program. In a letter to the federal government, the head of the state’s office of health and human services department said that he was ‘very interested in working with your staff to explore program waivers.’ But Ms. Kinner, using the language of Mr. Romney’s attacks, said in a statement that Mr. Sandoval would never seek a ‘request to weaken work requirements.’
In other words, according to Gabriel’s report, Romney and Sandoval are on the same page. But that is not true. Romney is attacking the waivers. Sandoval is requesting a waiver. Nevada wants more flexibility to manage the welfare-to-work program. I think Gabriel knows what he’s writing. I don’t think he is confused. But surely his readers are.
Because all of July’s GOP outrage was ill-informed at best and completely fake at worst, because it was solidly conservative Republican governors who first requested the waivers, and perhaps because “no waivers have yet been issued,” the story died down. So I’m not sure how “gripped” conservatives were.
But. July was a bad month for Romney. Between the Obama camp’s attacks and his own foot-in-mouth troubles, he has slipped a few critical points in the polls. He has spent the last week duking it out in the ring with Harry Reid, who claims he heard from a person in the know that Romney didn’t pay any taxes for ten years. No doubt anxious to change the subject from why Romney won’t release his tax returns (he has not released full returns for any year) and erase all memory of his horrible trip abroad, the Romney camp launched a new assault on the HHS directive yesterday. Besides Romney’s remarks, Gabriel reports that
In a memo released Tuesday, Mr. Romney’s policy director, Lanhee Chen, said the administration had delivered ‘a kick in the gut to the millions of hard-working middle-class taxpayers struggling in today’s economy.’ The speech was part of a coordinated assault with the Republican National Committee, which sounded the theme in a television ad on Tuesday. ‘Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job,’ the ad’s narrator says. ‘They just send you your welfare check.’
The ad is here.
Gabriel treats all this as typical political season back-and-forth:
The fierce exchange reflected the intense competition for working- and middle-class voters, and recalls the vitriolic debates of the 1990s, which centered on fairness, government dependency and irresponsibility. And in seizing on welfare, a theme that aides said Mr. Romney would continue to amplify in the coming days, he invoked Mr. Clinton, who worked with Republicans to pass welfare reform, as a bipartisan figure – an implicit contrast with Mr. Obama, whom Republicans portray as a staunch big government liberal.
Gabriel does Romney’s “triangulation” for him. There’s Romney, the good conservative soldier. There’s Clinton, the moderate, evah-so-willing to reach across the aisle in bipartisan camaraderie. And there’s Obama, the hard-line radical liberal, bent on imposing a European socialist welfare state on Americans. Gabriel does not bother to mention that one star of the ad – President Clinton – has denounced the spot as “not true’’ and misleading. Clinton’s full statement on Romney’s attack is here, and as Jed Lewison writes, “it is scathing.”
Greg Sargent of the Washington Post describes the ad and its message:
It shows a hard-working man wiping sweat off his brow as it tells you that Clinton required work for welfare, while Obama wants to send ‘welfare checks’ to those who don’t work. The basic idea is to portray Clinton as the ‘good’ kind of Democrat, in contrast with the unrepentant radical ‘bad’ Democrat Obama supposedly represents. We also saw this trick in the Rove-founded Crossroads ads that used distorted Clinton quotes about taxes to portray Obama as far more zealous about tax hikes than Clinton, even though the latter raised taxes on the wealthy, just as Obama wants to do.
Clinton, of course, was popular with the sort of blue collar white swing voters Obama needs to limit his losses among; hence the Romney camp’s effort to drive a wedge between the two Democratic presidents. Call it the GOP’s game of Good Dem, Bad Dem.
But there’s more to it than the Good Dem, Bad Dem game. That “hard-working man” Sargent describes, as well as a “hard-working woman” who appears later in the ad, are white. To follow Sargent’s model, I’d call it the White Dem, Black Dem game. As Steve Benen of “The Rachel Maddow Show” wrote yesterday,
For decades, Republicans used ‘welfare’ as part of a racially-charged message (‘Democrats want to give white people’s money to lazy black people who’ll get checks for sitting around’). I can’t speak to Romney’s motivations – I’m not a mind-reader – but the language in the ad harkens back to the kind of ugly and racially divisive rhetoric we heard from GOP candidates for far too long…. If Romney has any shame left, now would be a good time for him to take a long look in the mirror and come to terms with what he’s become.
And Ed Kilgore of the Washington Monthly, who worked on implementing welfare-to-work reform back in the day, wrote yesterday,
It’s the old welfare-queen meme, which Republicans have already been regularly reviving in their attacks on the Affordable Care Act, on Medicaid, on food stamps, and in their much broader and horrifyingly invidious claims that poor and minority people deliberately taking out mortgages they knew they couldn’t afford caused the whole housing market collapse and the financial crisis that followed.
The claim that Obama is quietly bringing back the old welfare system is perfectly designed to bring back the old politics of the 1980s, when Republicans constantly (and often successfully) sought to pit middle-class voters against the poor while distracting attention from the vast welfare system supporting corporations and the wealthy.
Allow me to add that Romney’s whole line of attack, which Gabriel writes Romney will “continue to amplify in the coming days,” is an overt attempt to remind voters that President Obama is “the black guy.” It’s the (first) Romney version of Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m.” ad, where the message is, “I am white, and I will protect you from the black guy.” Romney implicitly adds, I will protect you and your money from the black guy.” Gabriel never even hints at the racial subtext of Romney’s message, a “subtext” that could not be much closer to the surface. No, the “debates” of the 1990s did not “center on fairness, government dependency and irresponsibility,” as Gabriel contends. They were all about exploiting racial animus. Romney’s line of attack simply continues a GOP “tradition” that began with Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. How convenient for the Romney camp that they can now use it to target “the black guy from Chicago,” who will “quietly” as the ad says (i.e., “stealthily”) steal white people’s hard-earned money and spread it around among his lazy, good-for-nothing black South Side neighbors. As Steve Benen wrote, “it’s disgusting.”
Gabriel writes that “the Obama campaign accused Romney of warping the issue.” The term “warping” suggests the Obama camp was complaining about some minor tweaking of the facts. Romney didn’t lie, exactly; he just exaggerated a bit or slightly “reshaped” facts and events, something Americans expect candidates to do. So nothing unusual there. According to the Washington Post, though, “Obama campaign officials pushed back hard. In a conference call with reporters, deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter blasted the ad as ‘hypocritical and false.’” That sounds to me like some way from “warping.”
Eventually, Gabriel does critique the Romney ad, after a fashion:
‘Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job,’ the ad’s narrator says. ‘They just send you your welfare check.’ That claim seemed a stretch even by the standards of 30-second political ads. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, which issued the welfare initiative in a memo on July 12, wrote later in the month that to qualify a state must ‘move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s past performance.’ [Emphasis added.]
“Seemed a stretch”? Here’s how PolitiFact characterized the ad:
That’s a drastic distortion of the planned changes…. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs – HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law. The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: ‘They just send you your welfare check.’ The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is ‘designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.’
The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!
Gabriel never even mentions that a central claim of the ad is that the Obama plan would gut the law by “dropping work requirements.” That is not true. Rather, HHS would grant waivers to states that adopted methods designed “to move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work.” The plan increases the work requirement; it does not” drop” or even reduce it.
Steve Benen, who has been chronicling “Mitt’s Mendacity” every week for more than half a years, wrote,
… this is as dishonest an ad as you’ll ever see – in 2012 or in any other campaign cycle…. Romney’s lying. He’s not spinning the truth to his advantage; he’s not hiding in a gray area between fact and fiction; he’s just lying. The law hasn’t been ‘gutted’; the work requirement hasn’t been ‘dropped.’ … Al Obama did is agree to Republican governors’ request for flexibility…. What does it say about Romney’s strength as a candidate that he has to make up garbage and hope voters don’t know the difference?
Because Sebelius made the change at the request of Republican governors, Greg Sargent remarks, “this ad is tantamount to claiming that Republican governors want to gut welfare reform and ensure that the government just sends people a ‘welfare check.’”
Near the end of his article, Gabriel does own that “Mr. Romney was also one of 29 Republican governors who urged the federal government in 2005 to allow waivers granting more flexibility for their state welfare programs.” As Chris Good of ABC News wrote yesterday,
Romney signed a 2005 letter to Sen. Bill Frist (along with Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, etc.), when welfare programs were being reauthorized under Bush. As the governors lobbied Frist on the bill, they [the governors] praised ‘state flexibility’ [emphasis added by Good]:
“The Senate bill provides states with the flexibility to manage their TANF programs and effectively serve low-income populations. Increased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit and the ability to coordinate state programs are all important aspects of moving recipients from welfare to work.”
So it’s not as if welfare ‘waiver authority’ and changes to ‘allowable work activities’ are facially radical.
Andy Rosenthal, the New York Times‘ editorial pages editor wrote, “For the record, the waivers don’t do away with the work requirement; they provide states with more flexibility in how they shift welfare recipients into jobs. We call this federalism. But if the president’s guilty of gutting welfare reform, then his challenger’s guilty of having tried to do the same thing in 2005.”
Gabriel ends his article with a final he said/he exchange:
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, assailed Mr. Romney for supporting, as governor of Massachusetts, changes in the law that would have weakened it. ‘Hypocrisy knows no bounds,’ Mr. Carney said.
Asked about the charge of hypocrisy, Mr. Romney told Fox News that he was ‘all in favor for flexibility for states. My focus is on increasing work requirements, not eliminating them,’ he added, “and what the president is doing is saying that we are going to take out the requirement for work. It is a big mistake.’
Gabriel gives Mitt Romney the first word, the most words, and sure enough, he gives Romney the last word, too. Gabriel doesn’t tell you the last word is a lie. But it is.
By the way, Gabriel’s article contrasts fairly sharply with the report in the Washington Post by Philip Rucker and Bill Turque. The Post has a reputation for being a more conservative paper than the Times and has received repeated criticism for putting conservative analyses on the front page disguised as news stories. But Rucker and Turque put unequivocal criticism of Romney’s attack right near the top of their story:
The presumptive Republican nominee charged that the Obama administration has reversed the popular bipartisan welfare reform that President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996 by allowing waivers for states for welfare work requirements. But the charge drew immediate push back from the Obama campaign, and a direct rebuke of Romney by Clinton himself, who called it false.
… Earlier Tuesday, [Romney']s team rolled out a new 30-second television advertisement … that says,“Obama guts welfare reform.” … Experts on the law, however, said the changes were consistent with calls from governors for lighter federal regulations and intended to ease the burden of states seeking flexibility. [Emphasis added.]
The highlighted elements are missing from Gabriel’s report.
Let me emphasize that Gabriel’s report is not one of the quickly-written, lightly-edited “Caucus” posts that reporters knock out while on the road with the candidate. I cut the authors quite a lot of slack on those posts. I don’t expect them to be thorough analyses. The article here, though, is a full report for the dead-tree edition of the paper. Two other writers and some editors assisted Gabriel. So I am not just quibbling or tripping on Trip because I’m so mean. When Trip Gabriel writes pro-Romney (or pro-anybody) stories – when New York Times editors condone or encourage or demand stories that mislead – they are performing a gross disservice to the reading public, and ultimately, to what passes for democracy these days. Not only does Gabriel misinform readers by tilting the story in Romney’s favor, he also encourages mendacious candidates like Romney to keep on keepin’ on.
Want proof? Today, a day after PolitiFact lit Romney’s pants on fire, Romney is out on the trail, and here is what he is saying: “He [President Obama] removed the requirement of work from welfare. It is wrong to make any change that would make America more of a nation of government dependency. We must restore, and I will restore, work into welfare.”
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com