Politico's Obama coverage marred by inaccuracies, misleading reporting, and baseless allegations


The Politico launched in January with the stated goal of "covering the politics of Capitol Hill and of the presidential campaign, and the business of Washington lobbying and advocacy with enterprise, style, and impact." Its coverage of Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) presidential campaign, however, has been marred by factual inaccuracies, misleading reporting, and baseless allegations: In less than five months, The Politico has wrongly suggested that Obama flip-flopped on the origin of his name, branded him a "rookie" for making "mistakes" they acknowledge are "trivial," baselessly suggested he borrowed rhetoric from former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), wrongly claimed that he changed his position on health care mandates and flip-flopped on whether President Bush has made us "safer," diagnosed him with a "Jewish problem," and allowed a "Republican strategist working on the 2008 presidential race" to attack Obama anonymously.

On May 31, Politico senior political writer Ben Smith wrote on his weblog that a February 24, 2006, article in the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill., paraphrased a statement Obama made on health care at a town hall meeting. According to the Daily Herald's paraphrasing, Obama said: "It's time to accept that we must offer some form of basic health care to every American. Health care should be like auto insurance -- mandatory for all Americans. A larger pool of subscribers would drive down health care costs." The article did not contain a direct quote from Obama or offer any context, and Smith did not indicate that he had contacted the Obama campaign or the Daily Herald to confirm this information.

Nevertheless, Smith used the article to suggest Obama had shifted his stance on mandates for health insurance, writing: "But still, it's interesting to see that his instinct was apparently toward individual mandates, before his wonky friends at the University of Chicago convinced him that there's a better -- if, perhaps, less easily sold -- way." The Daily Herald's paraphrasing, however, turned out to be inaccurate. According to a transcript of the meeting the Obama campaign sent to Smith, Obama was simply describing the health care plan enacted in Massachusetts, which has individual mandates, saying that the "basic idea is we're going to treat health insurance like auto insurance. It's mandatory." He did not endorse the Massachusetts plan or its individual mandates, instead referring to it as "just one example" of a plan to provide "some kind of basic health care for every American." Smith later posted a correction to the item: "The Daily Herald report referred to below appears to have been inaccurate. The Obama campaign sent over a transcript of the original event (below) that has Obama describing, but not endorsing, the Massachussetts [sic] plan."

A similar incident occurred less than a week later. On June 5, two days after the Democratic debate on CNN, Smith wrote on his blog: "Hmm. Obama, who poked [Sen.] Hillary [Clinton (D-NY)] yesterday for suggesting that we're safer than we were before 9/11, seems to have thought the same thing himself back in 2004." Smith's source was a January 2004 Chicago Tribune article that cited "a Tribune questionnaire on national security issues" that noted simply: "All the candidates conceded the nation is safer today than before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001." Once again, Smith relied on a single source that paraphrased Obama's position but did not offer a direct quote or primary documentation of any kind. Smith added: "Now maybe the Trib can dig that up ..." When the Chicago Tribune produced the questionnaire, Smith posted an update to the entry in which he acknowledged that his source had been inaccurate and that "Obama didn't really say we're safer." According to Smith, however, the fault lay with the Chicago Tribune and Obama:

UPDATE: The Trib digs it up, and offers what's basically a belated correction. Obama didn't really say we're safer. This is the second time recently I've seen an old story on Nexis simplify an Obama position to the point of inaccuracy; it does have something to do with his habit of answering questions without answering them.

Smith wrote on February 12 that Obama "hasn't sponsored any legislation that would affect the way Americans live their daily lives." As Media Matters for America noted at the time, Obama was the primary sponsor of 152 bills and resolutions introduced in the last Congress, including legislation to create a federal standard for renewable diesel fuel (S.1426), to improve benefits and services for members of the armed forces and veterans (S.3988), and to direct the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to establish guidelines for tracking spent fuel rods (S.1194).

As Media Matters Senior Fellow Eric Boehlert documented, Smith also wrote on March 13 that Obama has a "Jewish problem," but failed to provide any real evidence of such a problem existing for Obama. As Boehlert explained:

First, notice that article was not about Obama's alleged problem with Jewish voters (as the headline suggests), but it was about Obama's alleged problem with Jewish voters who attended a conference sponsored by the pro-Israel (and pro-war) group AIPAC. While unquestionably a powerful force within the Beltway, The Politico's implicit suggestion that AIPAC members reflect a larger Jewish concern about Obama was a misleading one.

Secondly, The Politico couldn't even confirm AIPAC had a problem with Obama because the only AIPAC rep quoted in the article actually supported Obama.

By way of explanation, Smith insisted that, "Several AIPAC attendees told me that while Obama is 'saying the right things,' they don't think his heart is in it." Yet if the feeling were so pervasive, why didn't The Politico quote even a single AIPAC attendee making that allegation about Obama? Instead, The Politico reported the anti-Obama "sentiment" had been "circulating largely on private email lists."

Isn't it rather obvious that in today's digital age, virtually any "sentiment" about any candidate can be found circulating on private emails lists? Yet that doesn't mean that the sentiment qualifies as news.

Meanwhile, the lone news hook for the Politico piece was that a single "Iowa Democrat and AIPAC member" had written a letter to Obama asking the candidate to clarify comments he'd made about Palestinian suffering.

Every working journalist knows it takes three to make a trend. But at The Politico, apparently one will do. As an annoyed reader posted in The Politico's comment section, "You're attempting to create a controversy where none exists. One letter from a member of AIPAC asking for clarification of a comment is NOT a 'Jewish Problem.' " Indeed, if a lone activist lawyer who was a member of the NAACP wrote a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) asking for clarification on his remarks regarding civil rights and then released it to the press, would The Politico announce "McCain's Black Problem"?

Politico chief political correspondent Mike Allen has also contributed to The Politico's flawed Obama coverage. On February 9, Allen wrote that Obama's "name offers fodder for the critics" and suggested that Obama has been inconsistent in explaining the origin of his name, asking: "Why has he sometimes said his first name is Arabic, and other times Swahili?" As Media Matters noted at the time, the Swahili word "baraka," meaning "blessing," is derived from the Arabic word "bariki." Allen also wrote that Obama's "frank liberalism" is a "big vulnerabilit[y]," citing as evidence Obama's support for same-sex civil unions. Polling data, however, have shown that majorities of Americans and "independents" favor either same-sex marriage or same-sex civil unions.

On March 27, Allen wrote that Obama has "shown a tendency toward seemingly minor contradictions and rhetorical slips" and that these "trivial" and "rhetorical miscues have been more curiosities than obvious political blunders." Nevertheless, as Media Matters noted, Allen constructed a 1,200-word article around these "trivial" inconsistencies (apparently leaked to Internet gossip Matt Drudge an hour before the article was posted on The Politico's website) that bore the headline: "Rookie Mistakes Plague Obama." In the same piece, Allen alleged that there were "strange echoes" of fellow Democratic candidate John Edwards' speeches in Obama's rhetoric, even though the examples Allen highlighted -- Obama describing himself as a political outsider promising to "change" Washington -- have been common rhetorical themes in presidential candidacies for years and were employed by George W. Bush in 2000 and Bill Clinton in 1992.

Politico reporter Kenneth P. Vogel devoted an entire April 13 article to German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth's attendance at an April 11 fundraiser for Obama. As Media Matters noted, Vogel quoted an anonymous "Republican strategist working on the 2008 presidential race" attacking Obama, saying that Scharioth's attendance was "a glaring sign of inexperience that he would showcase support from a foreign diplomat." According to Vogel, the strategist "declined to be named out of concern for the campaign." At no point did Vogel explain which campaign the Republican strategist was "concerned" about, or even what the anonymous strategist's "concern" was. Rather, Vogel simply allowed a Republican operative to attack a political opponent from behind the shield of anonymity.

Posted In
The Politico
Barack Obama, 2008 Elections
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