Citing Milbank, Wash. Times' Curl repeated disputed version of Obama's “symbol” remark

Citing Dana Milbank's July 30 Washington Post column in an August 8 Washington Times article, reporter Joseph Curl uncritically repeated as fact a disputed version of a comment Sen. Barack Obama reportedly made in a closed-door meeting with congressional Democrats. Moreover, Curl falsely claimed the comment came during Obama's July 24 speech in Berlin.

Milbank wrote:

Inside, according to a witness, he told the House members, “This is the moment ... that the world is waiting for,” adding: “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.” As he marches toward Inauguration Day (Election Day is but a milestone on that path), Obama's biggest challenger may not be Republican John McCain but rather his own hubris.

Curl wrote:

Mr. Obama hoped to use the trip to shore up his foreign policy credentials, but Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank pulled out a line from his speech -- “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions” -- and wrote a piece titled “President Obama Continues Hectic Victory Tour.”

While Curl adopted Milbank's interpretation of the comment as self-aggrandizing, other people who were reportedly in the meeting disputed that interpretation. In a July 29 entry on the Post's The Trail blog, Post staff writer Jonathan Weisman reported a similar version of the comments, like Milbank citing “a witness,” and said that remark “suggest[ed]” that Obama “was beginning to believe his own hype.” But Weisman later posted an update saying that “House leadership aides pushed back against interpretations of this comment as self-aggrandizing,” and reported: "[O]ne leadership aide said the full quote put it into a different context. According to that aide, Obama said, 'It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign -- that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol.' " Indeed, as Media Matters for America noted, the leadership aide's version of the quote is entirely consistent with numerous other statements Obama has made over the last two years.

As Media Matters noted, Milbank wrote in an online chat on August 7 that "[m]y colleague Jonathan Weisman and I believe the quote was correct as written, and that this supposed 'context' is a recreation, after-the-fact, by Democratic aides who were worried about how the quote looked." But, as Media Matters has also noted, in an online chat on August 8, Weisman did not say, as Milbank claimed, that he “believe[s] the quote was correct as written” ; he said he did not know whether it was.

Here is the exchange in Weisman's August 8 online chat:

New York: Yesterday, in here, Dana Milbank claimed that both he and you believe your controversial quoting of Obama from the House Caucus fully reflected the context in which the statement was made, and that claims otherwise by aides and Congressmen in attendance are in fact lies. Does Milbank in fact speak for you on this?

Jonathan Weisman: I was waiting for this question. I'm happy to see Dana taking a firm stand. I'm a little more squishy. Here's what I can say. The source of the quotes is an unimpeachable voice of House Democrats and a strong Obama supporter. We did not cherry pick quotes. We ran them exactly how they were e-mailed to me. And the “context” that was provided was provided the next morning, after House Democratic aides met to compare notes. I can't say whether the first rendition was more accurate than the second. I can say those providing the second rendition had good reason to supply context that would nullify the first. I can also say I trust the suppliers of both renditions.

In addition to accepting Milbank's disputed interpretation of Obama's remark -- which Curl falsely claimed was made in his Berlin speech -- Curl also asserted in the article: “Media watchdog groups say the first-term senator has garnered far more positive reporting than his opponent, especially during his jaunt abroad.” Curl did not cite studies to back up his assertion, but according to a study of network news coverage that was released on July 28 by the Center for Media and Public Affairs: “Since the primaries ended, on-air evaluations of Barack Obama have been 72% negative (vs. 28% positive). That's worse than John McCain's coverage, which has been 57% negative (vs. 43% positive) during the same time period.”

From the August 8 Washington Times article

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has long been a media favorite, and cable news networks provided gushing, round-the-clock coverage of his recent European tour, including his Berlin speech to an estimated 200,000 Germans. Media watchdog groups say the first-term senator has garnered far more positive reporting than his opponent, especially during his jaunt abroad.

Mr. Obama hoped to use the trip to shore up his foreign policy credentials, but Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank pulled out a line from his speech - “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions” - and wrote a piece titled “President Obama Continues Hectic Victory Tour.”