Two recent stories based on faulty premises -- an Illinois Review post that falsely claimed President Obama had supported "Stand Your Ground" as an Illinois state legislator, and a since-corrected BuzzFeed report that pushed the erroneous conclusion that gun violence prevention group Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) has suffered a membership drop -- have nonetheless spread throughout the right-wing media.
The cases are not parallel -- Illinois Review is a minor conservative Illinois political blog (their Twitter handle has about 3,000 followers) whose story was too good to check for the right-wing media, while the BuzzFeed story is an unfortunate outlier for a publication that typically produces good reporting. But the articles nonetheless illustrate the first-mover problem of correcting misinformation -- once a charge is levied and begins gaining momentum it becomes difficult to stop, no matter how clearly false the claim, due to the right-wing media apparatus that will push any story considered damaging to progressives.
The basis of the July 22 BuzzFeed article was that MAIG is losing membership ("is finding it hard to keep its membership up") because it has become too strident in its recent push for stronger gun laws. But BuzzFeed's premise was false: MAIG has actually seen an increase in membership during the period the article covered, with more than 100 mayors joining the coalition during that time of increased political action.
Buzzfeed has since updated its article, making a minor change to the text "to reiterate the fact that Mayors Against Illegal Guns is gaining more members than it's losing." But of course, that "fact" completely repudiates the premise of the article.
And of course, the damage has been done. The idea of MAIG shedding membership has already spread through the conservative echo chamber. The story was picked up by a number of right-wing outlets, with Breitbart News and the New York Post stating outright that the story indicated that the group's membership was down overall. The Post article in particular, which ran under the headline "weakened arsenal," linked the group "struggling to replace ex-members" to their focus "on banning weapons and other tough new gun-control measures" (by contrast, a New York Daily News piece cited the BuzzFeed report but framed the story with the fact that the group is larger and growing faster than ever before).
These sorts of misguided stories have an impact on the political debate. One NRA activist, who acknowledged that the number of mayors leaving "isn't a huge blow to MAIG," wrote that BuzzFeed's story "isn't good for MAIG. They will have to counter this meme, and that's good for us. Make them work for it."
Buzzfeed is alleging that the gun violence prevention group Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) "is finding it hard to keep its membership up," citing a few dozen of the group's hundreds of mayors who have resigned their offices, lost re-election, or chosen to leave the group due to "political heat." In reality, the group has seen its membership increase by 17 percent during roughly the period of time the article discusses.
In suggesting that mayors would flee a group that supports stronger gun laws in the face of political pressure from the National Rifle Association, the Buzzfeed article buttresses a long-running media myth that politicians who oppose the NRA should fear being defeated for reelection.
In the article, headlined "Mayors Abandon [NYC Mayor Michael] Bloomberg's Gun Control Group," Buzzfeed called MAIG "a rare group battling in the trenches against the well-organized and deep-pocketed" NRA. The article cites four mayors who "appear not quite to have signed on for that level of political heat" and left the organization because they disagree with some of its recent policy stances. The article further stated:
According to an old version of its member list, saved on a blog dated back to late February, more than 50 mayors who were then listed on MAIG's website are no longer there. Most of the mayors whose names are no longer affiliated with the group are off the list either because they resigned or lost an election, but others have specifically asked to be removed.
BuzzFeed reached out to dozens of the replacement mayors and none of them would confirm if they planned to join the group or if they were even considering it
Buzzfeed reported halfway through the article that, according to the group's executive director, MAIG "is growing much faster than it is shrinking" -- a claim that, if true, would seem to debunk the premise of the story. After all, if the group is replacing members at a faster rate than it is losing them, the group could hardly be said to be "finding it hard to keep its membership up."
The reporter does not appear to have attempted to verify this statement, instead placing it in opposition to the balance of his reporting. But a review of membership lists published on the group's website indicates that MAIG has seen a dramatic increase in mayors choosing to affiliate with the group in recent months.
Buzzfeed did not link to the "old version of its member list" it compared to the group's current roster of affiliated mayors. But the version of the group's membership list saved to the Internet Archive on January 27 lists 857 mayors; the list currently posted on MAIG's website features 1005, an increase of 148 mayors. According to a Media Matters review, MAIG has seen its representation increase in 33 states during that period; it has held level in 6 states and decreased in 8 states.
UPDATE: Buzzfeed has updated their article, changing their original report that MAIG "is finding it hard to keep its membership up" to indicate instead that the group "is finding it hard to maintain some of its members." In a correction appended to the piece, Buzzfeed explained that the change was made "to reiterate the fact that Mayors Against Illegal Guns is gaining more members than it's losing."
Newly hired BuzzFeed D.C. editor Benny Johnson described President Obama as a "truly committed statist" with a "seedy past" and "extremist ideas" who believes "there is no God above the state" and who acts as "a celebrity-in-chief."
Analyzing the presidential campaign in the wake of the first debate, Time's Mark Halperin wrote on October 10 that Mitt Romney's sudden "rush to the center" politically had emerged as the key topic - "the central tactical issue"-- for the Barack Obama's team to address. Halperin stressed it would be a challenge for Democrats because the Romney's campaign's "brazen chutzpah knows no bounds."
How odd. At the first debate Romney had so brashly reinvented himself by shifting his position on taxation, immigration and health care away from the Republican Party, that the onus was on Obama to counter Romney's slick maneuver. In other words, Romney's flip-flops, according to Halperin, were a major problem for the Obama campaign, not for the Republican who late in the game unveiled a new political persona. (Farewell "severely conservative.")
It's also telling that on October 10, Halperin considered Romney's makeover into a moderate to be the campaign's dominant issue. Yet one week earlier on the night of the first debate when Halperin graded both participants, the pundit made no reference to Romney's "rush to the center." In real time, Halperin heaped praise on Romney's style "(Started strong, level, and unrattled -- and strengthened as he went along") as well as his substance ("He clearly studied hard.")
Final grade, Romney: A-
Between the first debate and October 10, Romney's brazen flip-flops were not subject to any serious critique from Time's political team. What coverage Romney received for altering his campaign positions (aka his "tack toward the political center") mostly revolved around how conservative activists reacted to Romney's sudden embrace of moderate rhetoric. (They're totally fine with it.) Time was much less interested in what the about-faces said about Romney's candidacy, his character or what his presidency might look like.
The fact that the Republican candidate had radically altered his positions on core domestic issues just one month before Election Day was not treated as a campaign evolution that reflected poorly on Romney. To the contrary, it was largely portrayed as a savvy move by the Republican.
Time's soft peddling of Romney's broad reinvention was typical of how the Beltway press has politely covered the candidate's latest chameleon turn.
Trying to ignite a controversy by fabricating a quote from an Obama campaign deputy, members of the conservative press on Thursday lashed out at Stephanie Cutter for something she didn't say about the terrorist attacks on the United States embassy in Benghazi.
The gotcha attack received a crucial early boost from a BuzzFeed reporter who mischaracterized what Cutter said while appearing on CNN yesterday.
Pressed about key questions that remain about the embassy attack last month and what the security status was on the ground in Benghazi when four American were killed, Cutter noted on CNN that the topic had become politicized [emphasis added]:
In terms of the politicization of this -- you know, we are here at a debate, and I hope we get to talk about the debate -- but the entire reason this has become the political topic it is, it's because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. It's a big part of their stump speech. And it's reckless and irresponsible what they're doing.
Cutter clearly stated that she believed the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate had become a partisan political issue in the U.S. because Republicans were making it one during the campaign season.
That's not exactly a novel observation. As Republicans prepared to hold a recess hearing this week into the attack, a New York Times published an article headlined, "Before Hearings on Libya Attack, Charges of Playing Politics." And the paper's editors explained that they kept coverage of the hearing off the front-page, in part, because the issue had become so "politicized." (Fox News has led that "scandal" charge for weeks).
Romney himself shocked many observers when, as the Libya crisis was still unfolding, the candidate accused the Obama of sympathizing with "those who waged the attacks.'
"The conventional wisdom emerged in Washington almost immediately on Wednesday: Mitt Romney's handling of the violence in Egypt and Libya was a disaster," CBS News soon reported. The article quoted a prominent Republican strategist saying that Romney's reaction had suggested his "first instinct is to try to score political points."
Cutter pointing out the issue had evolved into a "political topic" isn't controversial or remotely outrageous. So the conservative media embellished the meaning of Cutter's remarks. They invented a controversy and ginned up the faux outrage by insisting Obama's deputy campaign manager said the Libya attack is only of importance, is only an issue at all, because of Republicans.
Cutter: Benghazi Is Only An Issue 'Because of Romney and Ryan'
Stephanie Cutter: Mitt Romney is "Entire Reason" Benghazi Attacks are a National Issue
Obama Spokesman Stephanie Cutter: Benghazi Is Only an Issue Because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan
Obama Campaign Official Stephanie Cutter: Benghazi Terrorist Attack 'Only an Issue because of Romney and Ryan'
Michelle Malkin's Twitchy:
Appalling disgrace: Stephanie Cutter says 'Benghazi Only An Issue Because of Romney and Ryan'
Note that several of the headlines included the phrase 'only an issue' in quotation marks, indicating it's a direct quote from Cutter. (Twitchy headline: "Cutter Says"). But it's not a direct quote because Cutter didn't say that. Instead, conservatives seemed be quoting a tweet from a reporter and then pretending it was a Cutter quote.
The tweet came from BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski who tweeted an inaccurate description of Cutter's CNN appearance:
That wasn't accurate. And "is only an issue" represented Kacynski's interpretation of what Cutter said, not what she actually said. In subsequent tweets, Kaczynski inserted more accurate language, but conservatives preferred his original, off-the-mark "only an issue" telling of the tale and used to attack Cutter.
If Obama's deputy campaign manager thought the attack on the U.S. embassy were only an issue today because of the Romney and Ryan, she likely would have said so. Instead, she superficially said it became a political issue (a partisan issue) because Romney and Ryan were campaigning on it, which is true.
BuzzFeed's Ben Smith only needed 40 minutes of a 90-minute debate to pick the "winner."
Mitt Romney, trailing in the polls, needed to prove tonight that he could stand on stage with President Barack Obama as an equal and a plausible president of the United States.
He did that in the crucial first 40 minutes of Wednesday night's debate, addressing Obama respectfully, even warmly -- but then tangling with a sometimes hazy and professorial Obama on taxes and deficits.
"You don't just pick the winners and losers -- you pick the losers," he told Obama of his energy investments, sliding time and time again into a second person singular address calculated to level the rhetorical playing field.
Calling a game in the middle of the fourth inning isn't standard practice in any league.
UPDATE: Conservatives like Sean Hannity quickly began highlighting Smith's early call of a Romney victory:
Today during a Univision forum, President Obama explained the lessons he'd learned during four years in office, telling moderators Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salines: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. That's how I got elected, and that's how the big accomplishments like health care got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out."
Buzzfeed reported on Obama's remarks, focusing on the phrase "you can't change Washington from the inside" and claiming that Obama "seemed to undercut a central premise of his 2008 election, and even to raise questions about the urgency of re-electing the president. The comment reinforces the perception that Obama could not accomplish what he set out to do."
That's completely backwards from what Obama actually said. Look at it again, watch the video -- the president credited the outside pressure from Americans as key to the big changes he has enacted while in office (i.e. health care reform). It's a fairly straightforward political message: change happens in Washington when Americans get involved and pressure political leaders to act.
How that "seems to undercut a central premise of his 2008 election" or "reinforces the perception that Obama could not accomplish what he set out to do" -- he cited specific accomplishments and went on to say that he planned to use this lesson as a strategy to achieve more in a presumptive second term -- is anyone's guess.
But the overriding urge seems to be to transform this into a "gaffe," stripping or ignoring context where necessary.
Here's the video and transcript of Obama's remarks.
OBAMA: The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. That's how I got elected, and that's how the big accomplishments like health care got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out. That's how we were able to cut taxes for middle-class families. So something that I'd really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so that they can put pressure on Congress to help move some of these issues forward.
Media are diverting attention from the fact that Republicans are obstructing a jobs bill that economists estimate would create millions of jobs by fixating on President Obama's comments that private sector job growth is "doing fine."
BuzzFeed is stripping comments by President Obama at today's press conference out of context and calling that distortion of what Obama said "a gift to Republicans."
Obama addressed reporters on the economy on Friday and said, "The truth of the matter is that, as I've said, we've created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we're seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government."
Obama was clearly drawing a contrast between job growth in the private sector -- which, as Obama said, has added about 4.3 million jobs in the past 27 months -- and the public sector, which has lost 550,000 jobs over the same period.
There is nothing controversial or shocking about those comments. Yet BuzzFeed is leading a media campaign to present that observation as beneficial for conservatives.
BuzzFeed declared this line, stripped of context, to be "a gift to Republicans."
In fact, during the press conference, Obama renewed his calls on Congress to pass a jobs bill, which Republicans blocked last fall. Fabricating this "gift to Republicans" helps the GOP divert attention from their obstruction of action to create more jobs.