Not once in the past twelve months has President Obama logged a seven-day stretch where his positive press coverage outweighed the negative, according to Pew Research analysis. And based on recent media trends, that streak is in no danger of being broken as the Beltway press continues to pile on the Democratic president with routinely negative and increasingly misleading coverage, while at the same time giving his Republican rival a pass.
Whether it's in response to the right wing's incessant whining about unfair campaign coverage, or the product of the media's innate desire to create a close, competitive (and marketable) presidential contest to market, the resulting storyline is clear: Obama's faltering!
From a late-May Politico campaign analysis piece ("Obama Stumbles Out of the Gate") that read like it had been cribbed from a Karl Rove column the previous week ("Obama's Campaign Is Off to a Rocky Start"), to the recent congestion of sound-alike refrains, the "liberal media's" narrative has become set in stone and conservatives must be pleased since it echoes their own anti-Obama message.
There's nothing wrong with chronicling the ups and downs of campaigns. And nobody's suggesting the Obama re-election run hasn't had stumbles. All of them do. (Although note, Obama's Gallup approval rating has remained constant in the high-40s for a few months now, and even climbed to 50 percent last week.) But the feverish, one-sided coverage in recent weeks signals that a clear, GOP-leaning script has been adopted by the Beltway media. And yes, it makes a mockery out of the tired chant of a left-wing newsroom bias.
No surprisingly, the current wave of coverage is cresting on some shoddy journalism. (See fabricated oral sex jokes and botched Bill Clinton reporting.) Just look at the remarkably lazy and dishonest handling of Obama's comment about private sector job growth being "fine." The coverage represents a sterling example of how the press has had its thumb on the scale this spring.
For the past few years, much of the conservative echo chamber has thrived on exploring what they see as Barack Obama's mysterious, ominous past. The most prominent examples of this fixation have been the durable birth-certificate conspiracy and the increasingly exotic allegations that Barack Obama Sr. is not Obama's father (suggested "real" fathers have included Malcolm X and, as recently as last week, Frank Marshall Davis).
In a newly-released Vanity Fair piece adapted from his upcoming Obama biography, journalist David Maraniss details two of Obama's romantic relationships during his early 20s, complete with interviews of his ex-girlfriends. The article seemingly puts to rest conspiracies promoted by conservative big wigs about why none of Obama's exes have ever come forward. Rush Limbaugh asked this very question last year, citing "one of these email things" he had been sent.
In Dreams From My Father, Obama wrote about a romantic relationship he had with a woman in New York. The lack of a name (and the fact that no one had come forward to claim the mantle) led some creative conspiracy theorists to doubt her existence. Her presence in the book was one of the main pieces of "evidence" in WND columnist Jack Cashill's much-mocked theory that Bill Ayers is the true author of Dreams.
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.