Yesterday, ABC News released excerpts from Barbara Walters' interview with President Obama and the First Lady, scheduled to air on tonight's 20/20. Several news outlets have focused on President Obama's comments about the "laziness in me," featuring headlines that lack needed context.
Politico headlined their story "Obama: I have some Hawaii laziness," while the Daily Caller went with "Obama: "There's a laziness in me," and National Journal selected "Obama Blames Hawaii For His 'Deep Down' Laziness."
All of these headlines would likely give readers the impression that Obama was saying that he tends to avoid doing work, which would fit neatly into a common conservative attack on Obama. But the full context of the interview shows that Obama was actually saying just the opposite. Obama told Walters: "It's interesting, there is a -- deep down, underneath all the work I do, I think there's a laziness in me." [Emphasis added.] He later added: "when I'm mad at myself, it's because I'm saying to myself, you know what, you could be doing better; push harder. And when I -- nothing frustrates me more than when people aren't doing their jobs."
While some reports on the Walters interview have included parts of this key context, the headlines generally have not.
From the full transcript of the interview, obtained from the White House [emphasis added]:
Q Okay. What's the trait you most deplore in yourself and the trait you most deplore in others?
THE PRESIDENT: Laziness.
Q You've lazy?
THE PRESIDENT: It's interesting, there is a -- deep down, underneath all the work I do, I think there's a laziness in me. I mean, probably --
MRS. OBAMA: If you had your choice --
THE PRESIDENT: It's probably from growing up in Hawaii, and it's sunny outside, and sitting on the beach --
Q Sounds good to me.
PRESIDENT: Right. But when I'm mad at myself, it's because I'm saying to myself, you know what, you could be doing better; push harder. And when I -- nothing frustrates me more than when people aren't doing their jobs. Although -- sorry, I shouldn't provide two answers. The thing actually that I most dislike is cruelty. I can't stand cruel people. And if I see people doing something mean to somebody else just to make themselves feel important, it really gets me mad. But in myself, since I tend not to be a mean person, if I get lazy, then I get mad at myself.
The portion of the interview released by ABC News does not include this part of Obama's statement: "But when I'm mad at myself, it's because I'm saying to myself, you know what, you could be doing better; push harder. And when I -- nothing frustrates me more than when people aren't doing their jobs."
Politico's Ben Smith is calling this the "next anti-Obama talking point," while Mediaite's Jon Bershad says, "If you're a fan of right wing media ... you're probably going to be seeing that clip about 5,000,000 times in the next week." Which is all the more reason why responsible journalists should be emphasizing what Obama actually said rather than writing sensationalist, misleading headlines.
Politico reported Friday that more than a week prior, the wife of conservative Washington Post columnist George Will took a messaging position with the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Politico noted that Will had since discussed the GOP primary and disparaged Perry's primary opponents in two Post columns and on ABC's This Week, all without disclosing his wife's position. The article also indicated that while Will had told his Post editors that his wife's role was unpaid, it is in fact a paid position.
This morning, Will finally disclosed his wife's position during ABC's This Week. When given the opportunity by host Christiane Amanpour to do some "personal housekeeping," Will did not apologize for his failure to reveal this information, nor did he pledge to continue to make such disclosures in the future. In fact, Will's only "housekeeping" was mentioning that "some of the more excitable and perhaps less mature members of the Romney campaign have tried to make this personal."
Fox News contributor James Pinkerton confirmed that he was paid to "partner" with Michele Bachmann on her new book, but said he did not disclose his role in the project at the request of Bachmann and her publisher.
Pinkerton also revealed that Fox News knew of his arrangement from the start and approved of his keeping it from viewers.
"I was bound by a confidentiality agreement. They said, 'Don't tell anybody,' I said, 'Okay.' I told my superiors at Fox and they knew," Pinkerton said Monday. "I helped on the book from June, July and August, I helped, in a collaborator sense. ... I helped as a collaborator to her. She was busy on the road, so she would have thoughts and tell me things and I would try and help put them together."
Pinkerton is a regular panelist on Fox News' media criticism show and has frequently discussed Bachmann and the other presidential candidates.
Fox News did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Michele Bachmann hired former speechwriter and domestic policy adviser to the first President Bush and to President Reagan, Jim Pinkerton, to help write her forthcoming memoir, "Core of Conviction," POLITICO has learned.
Contacted by Media Matters Monday evening, Pinkerton confirmed he had collaborated on the book, saying he is mentioned in acknowledgements as "research and writing partner."
Pinkerton said he had "zero regrets" about keeping his part in the book secret from Fox viewers, saying he always disclosed that his wife, a former Bachmann campaign chief of staff, was working for Bachmann.
"I chose not to [disclose his part in the book] because I wanted to protect the confidentiality of the book, although I told my [Fox] superiors," he said. "Every time Bachmann came up, I said that my wife was working for the campaign, and I was making it clear that I had an interest, as it were, in the Bachmann campaign, through my wife's work."
Asked why he did not disclose his book connection, Pinkerton said: "I felt that, I felt the need to keep the book confidential at the request of all parties involved."
Politico reports this morning that according to a newly-released Gallup poll, "support for gun control is at its lowest level in 50 years." Likewise, CNN's Jack Cafferty is using the poll to claim that "more Americans are against gun control than ever before." In fact, the Gallup poll points to robust public support for either maintaining or strengthening current gun violence prevention laws.
Cafferty and Politico are focusing on the results Gallup received by asking respondents whether they support a ban on civilian possession of handguns. While a national ban on handguns may have been a topic of political debate when Gallup first asked the question in 1959, there has been no large-scale push in favor of such a ban in recent decades. Indeed, the Supreme Court has found that local bans on handgun ownership are unconstitutional.
Indeed, another question included in Gallup's poll demonstrates robust support for gun violence prevention legislation. 77 percent of respondents feel that the laws covering the sales of firearms should either be stricter or kept as they are now, with only 11 percent calling for them to be weakened.
In other words, the vast majority of Americans support reasonable gun control measures; only a small fraction is actually opposed to gun control.
This finding is confirmed by other recent polling that shows that Americans support measures to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals. According to one poll, 89 percent of respondents support requiring all gun buyers to pass a background check at gun shows, 94 percent support requiring gun owners to alert police if their guns are lost or stolen, and 69 percent support requiring those buying ammunition to pass a criminal background check. Another poll showed 86 percent of respondents supported background checks for every gun buyer
In the rush to cover the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer that received a loan guarantee from the federal government, many news media outlets have misrepresented or omitted key facts.
Last night's Republican presidential debate generated no shortage of headlines and much coverage of the record number of prisoner executions during the administration of Texas governor Rick Perry.
Asked by NBC's Brian Williams if he struggles with the idea that any one of those executed prisoners might have been innocent, Perry answered: "No, sir. I've never struggled with that at all. ... In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed."
Much of the coverage thus far has focused on the theatrics of Perry's staunch defense of Texas' system for capital punishment, rather than the substance. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote this morning that Perry was one of the "losers" last night, but "salvaged the second half of the debate with a very strong answer on the death penalty." For those wondering what was so "strong" about it, tough luck: Cillizza didn't explain. In today's Politico "Playbook," Mike Allen counseled Perry to "give the same answer on executions in every debate."
A few media outlets have noted Texas' controversial record on capital punishment, and some even spotlighted the case of Cameron Todd Willingham as a counterpoint to Perry's faith in the Texas criminal justice system. Willingham, convicted of murdering his three daughters by arson, was put to death in Texas in 2004. Perry denied a stay of execution to allow the state to review evidence that the fire science used to convict Willingham was spurious. In 2009 he abruptly replaced several members the state forensic science commission just before it was scheduled to hold hearings on the matter.
Willingham's case is an important one, but we should also be talking about the many wrongly convicted prisoners freed from death row in Texas in the last ten years. They, more than the unresolved Willingham case, demonstrate conclusively not just that the Texas criminal justice system is capable of making catastrophic errors when meting out capital punishment, but also that such errors happen with appalling frequency.
Following reports that President Obama and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) had a "blow up" while negotiating solutions to the default crisis, in which Cantor accused Obama of "abruptly walking out" of the talks, right-wing media have attacked Obama as a "petulant child" for allegedly doing so. However, in June, right-wing media praised Cantor and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) for walking out of default crisis negotiations led by Vice President Joe Biden.
Numerous mainstream media outlets have reported on Republicans' accusations that the Obama administration's drilling policies are to blame for the recent increase in gas prices. These media have failed to alert their audiences to the fact that according to energy experts, the allegation is entirely without merit.
In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll that rates how Americans remember previous U.S. presidents from the last half-century, only perennially unpopular Richard Nixon saved the Bush from a last-place finish. Of the nine most recent presidents polled, Bush came in eighth in terms of how many people retrospectively approved of his presidency. Of the nine presidents polled, the average approval rating was 59 percent. Bush though, only tallied a 47 percent.
Yet amazingly, Politico typed up the poll results as good news for Bush.
How was Bush's nearly last place finish in the poll good news? Because Bush's approval rating came in one point "higher" than Obama's latest Gallup rating. (Fact: Based on margin of error, the approval rating for both men is basically the same.)
That's right, Politico decided to mix apples and oranges and compare the backward-looking approval ratings of a president who is no longer in office, who no longer has responsibilities, and who no longer has to make difficult choices (hint: those numbers almost always go up over time) and sizes that up with today's sitting president.
And based on that oddball, nonsensical premise, Bush's eighth-out-of-ninth place finish in the Gallup poll is good news for Republicans and bad news for Obama! (I can't make this up.)
Kenneth P. Vogel's October 4 Politico article reported that conservatives are increasingly turning on James O'Keefe in the wake of his alleged plan to "seduce" and publicly humilitate CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau.
From Vogel's article:
Heralded last year as epitomizing a new form of "activist" journalist, James O'Keefe now finds himself abandoned by some of the powerful conservatives who championed him. And a multi-million dollar effort designed to offset what many conservatives regard as the leftward tilt of the mainstream media has been undermined by a series of increasingly bizarre incidents.
"Just because conservatives have what I believe is a well-grounded beef with the establishment press, doesn't mean that they don't have to abide by rules themselves," Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center, told POLITICO. "I have been telling my fellow conservatives that if we are going to accuse liberals of not following rules of journalistic ethics, then by God, we better follow them or we open ourselves up to all sorts of accusations, and one of them is hypocrisy."
Politico also reported that O'Keefe is losing support from conservatives who have previously funded O'Keefe and donors to organizations that have funded O'Keefe, such as the Leadership Institute and the Collegiate Network:
One such funder, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, over the years has given more than $1.6 million to the groups. But, in an interview after O'Keefe's arrest in New Orleans, " foundation president Mike Grebe sounded cautious when asked about whether the foundation viewed O'Keefe's style of journalism as helpful for the conservative cause.
"It's worthwhile, depending on the tactics involved, obviously," he said. "There should be some limits on that kind of activity. We think that the coverage of the problems at ACORN was very effective and turned some opinions regarding that organization, so there a place for it, but again, within limits."
On Monday, Grebe seemed to distance the foundation further, explaining it had "never funded O'Keefe or Veritas," and adding that its grants to the Collegiate Network and Leadership Institute "have always been for general operating purposes and their grant requests have never made any mention of undercover video journalism. And I have no knowledge of what they may or may not do in that field."
Media figures are falsely claiming that Obama is "backtracking" on his comments regarding a planned Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. But the president's statements on the issue have consistently emphasized, as Obama put it, a "commitment to religious freedom" and the legal right to build an Islamic center on a privately-owned site.
Last week, Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier told Greg Sargent that the AP's fact-check pieces are consistently among the wire service's most popular features.
In response, Politico's Ben Smith raised some concerns about the practice:
The rise of a formal fact-checking establishment has been, by and large, a very good thing for politics. ...
And there seems to be a market for it: Ron Fournier tells Sargent that AP is doing more and more of it in part because it's popular. That may be in part because readers like simple stories cast in black black-and-white, as fact checks often are.
But the practice, and the presumption of absolute authority, can itself easily be misused politically, and I think it's worth adding a note of caution on two levels. First, just because it's labeled "fact check" doesn't render an article any less vulnerable to error and spin. Further, much of politics is made of arguments about policy and values that aren't easily reduced to factual disagreements.
Smith's concerns strike me as reasonable: The structure many media organizations impose on their fact-checking pieces is often problematic. In particular, the labels many media fact-checkers apply are highly questionable and misleading. Take this PolitiFact assessment of Jeff Sessions' statement that Elena Kagen "violated the law of the United States" in her handling of military recruiters at Harvard:
So did Kagan violate the law when she banned military recruiters from using the Office of Career Services for that one semester?
First off, the law didn't say universities may not bar military recruiters. It said certain types of federal funds may not go to those schools if they bar the recruiters. There's a big difference.
It's certainly fair to say Kagan tested the law, but it's another thing to claim she violated the law. Kagan barred military recruiters from using the Office of Career Services only after a Third Circuit court ruled the Solomon Amendment was "likely" unconstitutional. And she reversed course even before the Supreme Court ruled against the universities -- so she didn't willfully flout the law after the Supreme Court made the law unmistakably clear.
Some may argue that the Third Circuit decision didn't affect Massachusetts, which is in the First Circuit, and that the Supreme Court was decisive in its reversal of that circuit court decision. So one could also argue that Kagan didn't comply with what the law required, but we think it's a stretch for Sessions to say Kagan "violated the law of the United States at various points in the process." There was at least some legal ambiguity -- for a time -- about Harvard's obligation. And, we note, no money was ever denied to Harvard. And so we rate Sessions' comment Barely True.
In short, PolitiFact said Kagan didn't really violate the law, then declared the statement that she did so "Barely True." That's an interesting definition of "barely true."
PolitiFact also gave a "barely true" to George Will's statement that Utah Senator Robert Bennett voted for TARP, the stimulus, and an individual mandate for health care -- despite concluding that Will was "incorrect that Bennett voted for Obama's stimulus bill, and it was inaccurate for him to suggest that Bennett cast a vote for an individual mandate." So, PolitiFact found that one of the three things WIll said was true and two were not -- and gave him a "Barely True." Sounds more like "mostly false" to me -- but PolitiFact doesn't have a "mostly false" classification, so they leave the impression that Will's statements were more accurate than they really were.
But that isn't a problem with fact-checking. It's a problem of execution. The problems Smith identifies aren't inherent to fact-checking; they are the product of the journalists responsible for conceptualizing and writing the fact-checks, not of fact-checking itself.
The other problem with the execution of these highly structured, branded "Fact Check" pieces is that fact-checking shouldn't be relegated to occasional, highly specialized pieces; it should be a basic part of everyday journalism. Checking the truthfulness of a politician's statements shouldn't be something a news organization saves for its "Fact Check" feature; it should be present in every news report that includes those statements. It isn't enough to occasionally debunk a false claim, as I've been saying over and over again.
Smith suggests the popularity of the AP's fact-checking pieces stems from the public's fondness for "simple stories cast in black black-and-white." I'm not so sure that's the case. I think it may stem less from the public's appetite for simplistic "Mostly True" graphics and more for its appetite for clearly-written explanations of the key issues of the day, rather than the endless passive-voice prognostication and horse-race journalism that makes up so much of today's political news content. It may be the substance and clarity that readers crave, not the overly-simplistic, label-friendly branded "Fact Check" pieces.
What I'd like to see isn't another media organization with a branded, occasional "Fact Check" feature -- it's a news organization that commits to never reporting a politician's statement without placing that statement in factual context. I suspect that a news organization that made that -- rather than assessments of how the claim will "play" -- a central value would see at least some of the readership benefits that the special branded features apparently bring. And I'm certain it would result in better journalism and a better-informed readership.
In his May 9 "Playbook," Politico's Mike Allen claimed President Obama was "poised to name" Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court and purported to characterize "what critics will say" about the nomination. However, the "critics' " arguments that Allen presented rest on baseless accusations, stereotypes and distortions of Kagan's record.
Fox News' Dana Perino and Byron York of The Washington Examiner channeled Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) criticism of Democrats for reportedly planning to pursue immigration reform legislation before a climate change bill. But last month, Graham himself reportedly called for President Obama to "step it up" on immigration reform efforts.
Politico's Ben Smith & Jonathan Martin argue that the importance of the tea party "movement" has been exaggerated by the news media. Their lede reminds me of something I've been meaning to address:
2009 was the year when many journalists concluded they were slow to recognize the anti-government, anti-Obama rage that gave birth to the tea party movement.
2010 is the year when news organizations have decided to prove they get it.
And get it. And get it some more.
It seems like reporters have been saying forever that the media had previously failed to pay sufficient attention to the tea partiers (or, more broadly, voter anger at government/Obama/Washington) -- but that they get it now.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, for example, says (or writes) this every few weeks.
Kurtz, March 22, 2010: "[T]here was no lack of journalistic shortcomings. When anger erupted at those town hall meetings last summer, much of the media wrote them off as a spectacle. Reporters were slow to recognize the growing public anger at Obamacare and what "tea party" enthusiasts viewed as out-of-control federal spending.
Kurtz, March 15, 2010: "The media initially ignored or downplayed the tea party protests, and now have had to acknowledge that it's a legitimate, if unfocused, force."
Kurtz, January 25, 2010: [M]uch as journalists were slow to recognize the significance of the 'tea party' movement last summer, most didn't treat this [Massachusetts Senate] race as a serious contest until the final 10 days."
The received wisdom that the media didn't pay enough attention to angry conservatives in 2009 is presumably a key factor in the increased coverage they've been given recently.
But is it true that the media dropped the ball last year?
The credibility of that notion actually takes a hit due to how long it has been around. See, way back in April of 2009, Kurtz was already asserting that the media wasn't paying enough attention to the tea party protests. Here's Kurtz on April 12, 2009:
CNN and MSNBC may have dropped the ball by all but ignoring the protests.
But the protests Kurtz was referring to hadn't even happened yet -- he was talking about the tax day protests organized by Fox News that were still three days away at the time. Just how much media attention should have been devoted to protests that had not yet occurred?
And it just isn't true that the media was "slow to recognize" the significance of what was happening last summer -- the August congressional recess, in particular, was dominated by wall-to-wall news coverage of angry conservatives yelling at town hall meetings.
It isn't that the media didn't cover the protests enough. It's that they didn't cover the protests (or the health care debate, or darn near anything else) well enough -- and, in doing so, they made it inevitable that overheated and false rhetoric would come to dominate public discourse.