Cropping and distorting a report by NBC News' Lee Cowan, Rush Limbaugh baselessly suggested that the audience at Sen. Barack Obama's September 9 campaign event in Virginia chanted, "No more pit bull," a reference to Gov. Sarah Palin, in response to what Limbaugh called Obama's " 'lipstick on a pig' joke." In fact, Cowan was reporting live from the Virginia event at which Obama made his "lipstick" remarks and said: "[A]t an Obama rally we were at earlier today in Michigan, the crowd actually started chanting 'No more pit bulls.' "
Try to follow this logic:
There's no question that Senator Obama did not refer to Gov. Sarah Palin as a pig during his talk last night in Virginia. Although the allusion to lipstick within a week of Ms. Palin's popular line at the Republican convention has prompted a great deal of chatter around the Internet.
So according to the Times, there's no way anyone could suggest that Obama was referring to Palin with his pig comment. No way. But what created the chatter on the Internet was Palin's previous reference at the convention.
First of all, the incessant chatter about the comment has been coming not from the Internet but from the mainstream press, and especially cable television, which won't stop talking about the non-story. (See below.)
And second, what actually prompted the story were erroneous suggestions by reporters at AP, WSJ, and ABC, among others, who claimed the candidate was referring to Palin; claims based solely on the ability of reporters to read the candidate's mind since he made no verbal references to Palin at the time. That in turn was pounced on by the McCain camp as proof of a personal attack.
This whole episode has been a journalism disgrace. The Times' attempt to blame this non-story on the Internet just adds to the misery.
On NBC's Nightly News, Andrea Mitchell reported former acting Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift's assertion on September 9 that when Sen. Barack Obama said at a rally that "[y]ou can put lipstick on a pig; it's still a pig," he made "disgraceful comments comparing our vice-presidential nominee, Governor [Sarah] Palin, to a pig." However, Mitchell did not report that on September 10 on NBC's sister channel, MSNBC, Swift admitted, "I can't know if it was aimed at Governor Palin."
On MSNBC, PolitiFact.com's Bill Adair said that Gov. Sarah Palin's claim to have put a jet airplane owned by the state of Alaska on the Internet auction site eBay was true and noted that "[t]he state was unsuccessful selling it on eBay, and they had to hire an aircraft broker to sell it, ended up selling it for considerably less than the state had paid for it." However, neither Adair nor Contessa Brewer noted that Sen. John McCain falsely claimed that Palin "took the luxury jet that was acquired by her predecessor and sold it on eBay. And made a profit."
The AP's Nedra Pickler wrote that "lipstick" has become "a political buzzword, thanks to" Gov. Sarah Palin's "joke in her acceptance speech that lipstick is the only thing that separates a hockey mom like her from a pit bull," and suggested that therefore Palin's joke had something to do with Sen. Barack Obama's reference to "lipstick on a pig." Yet Obama had previously used the expression in this campaign -- before Palin's reference to lipstick at the RNC -- and as Pickler noted in the same article, Sen. John McCain himself has used it. Indeed, the expression, and similar ones, has been used by politicians for years.
On America's Newsroom, in response to Sen. Barack Obama's statement that false rumors are "being promulgated on Fox News" about his purported "Muslim connections," Bill Hemmer asserted that "[n]o one here is promulgating untrue rumors about anyone's faith." In fact, Fox News hosts have repeatedly promoted false reports about Obama's religion, including the false report that Obama was educated in a madrassa.
CNN's Tom Foreman falsely claimed that Sen. John McCain was "getting Barack Obama's record right" when McCain claimed that "during the primary" Obama told the group Caucus4Priorities "that he would cut defense spending by tens of billions of dollars"; Foreman also falsely suggested that Obama has only recently begun to advocate "increasing the size" of the military. In fact, Obama told Caucus4Priorities that he would cut "tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending," not overall defense spending, and Obama repeatedly said during the primary season that he would increase the size of the military.
Contessa Brewer aired a clip of a McCain campaign ad without noting that the clip falsely suggests that Sen. Barack Obama was behind "attacks on Governor [Sarah] Palin" that have been called "completely false" and "misleading" by FactCheck.org. In fact, while FactCheck.org stated that many "dubious Internet postings and mass e-mail messages" about Palin are "completely false, or misleading," it made no reference to the Obama campaign. Further, Brewer did not note that the Obama campaign has reportedly denied the ad's second claim, that "Obama airdropped a mini-army of 30 lawyers, investigators, and opposition researchers into Alaska to dig dirt on Governor Palin."
Fox News' Carl Cameron claimed that Sen. Barack Obama "run[s] the risk of appearing a little bit arrogant" if he doesn't offer an apology for his "lipstick on a pig" comment. Cameron made the comment even though he twice stated during the program that the McCain campaign's complaints about Obama's comment may amount to "crocodile tears."
On The Lee Rodgers Show, a caller suggested that Sen. Barack Obama's remark that "you can put lipstick on a pig; it's still a pig" was directed at Gov. Sarah Palin and said: "[I]t's a little indicative of a Muslim attitude towards women that's creeping up, you know, and he just can't help but say it, how he feels." Brian Sussman responded: "Well, there's no question that Muslims, at least the religious ones, look at women as second-class citizens. ... I don't know if it was his father's genetic DNA welling up inside of him or not, but I'll tell you something: It was stupid."
NBC News Washington bureau chief Mark Whitaker said that the controversy over Sen. Barack Obama's "lipstick on a pig" comment "seems like a frivolous story" but it is "important to watch" because it's an example of "how good the McCain campaign is at ... driving the news cycle day after day." He did not acknowledge the media's responsibility in choosing what they cover.*
Conservative talk radio hosts have recently seized on comments Sen. Barack Obama made on ABC's This Week in order to suggest that the comments prove Obama is really a Muslim, not a Christian.
Fox News' Major Garrett uncritically quoted a portion of an ad by Sen. John McCain's campaign that claimed that Sen. Barack Obama's biggest accomplishment on education was teaching "comprehensive sex education to kindergartners." Garrett gave no explanation of Obama's actual position on sex education, provided no response from the Obama campaign, and gave no indication that he had sought such a response, nor did Garrett note that the bill Obama supported would have required school sexual education programs to give "age and developmentally appropriate" materials and instruction for students in kindergarten through 12th grade and included material warning children about sexual predators.
The Times and the Post will repeat the McCain camp's petty lies and slams without an ounce of critical analysis, not because they believe the spin, but because there's a massive conservative infrastructure devoting to working the refs and getting the coverage the right wants. Try as David Brock and John Podesta may, Media Matters and Think Progress just don't have the same level of influence. I absolutely guarantee that if the Ron Fournier situation were reversed - if the AP Washington Bureau were run by a shameless Democratic hack instead of a GOP hack like Fournier - there'd be hell to pay. Howls of "liberal media bias" would be echoing across every talk radio station, the major conservative blogs, Fox News, and into the mailboxes, real and virtual, of every Republican voter. The bureau chief would be gone or tamed within a week or two. As it currently stands, Fournier still has his job, and he's still doing it as badly as you'd expect. Liberals just aren't as good at ref intimidation.
Part of the reason why this is true is that the Right realizes that it isn't enough for the Media Research Center and Accuracy In Media and the Heritage Foundation to engage in media criticism. They all do it; it's a staple of the entire conservative movement. So the refs get worked every day, by a wide variety of people -- from local activists to the President of the United States. The Republicans are all media critics.
Progressives understand this much better than they did a few years ago, but there's a long way to go. (Ezra Klein is doing his part: his writing about the media's coverage of the presidential campaign has been excellent lately.)
Media entities could have had an internal conversation along the lines of: "This is stupid; let's cover the education stuff." Instead, news outlets are either giving McCain evil-genuis points for turning a nothing into a something, or are calling out the McCain campaign for being mean and duplicitous, but in any event, voters on the periphery of the conversation only hear enough to hear the accusations anyway.
Right. The important thing to remember is that nobody is forcing journalists to behave this way. They choose to do so. They choose to behave in a way that benefits stupid and dishonest claims.
And they can choose to stop. Or they can choose to continue. But either way, they're making a choice.