Media outlets continued to mislead on the Clintons' "fairy tale" and civil rights quotes

››› ››› LAUREN AUERBACH

Articles in Newsweek and The Washington Post mischaracterized a remark by former President Bill Clinton, claiming that he appeared to dismiss Sen. Barack Obama's campaign as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." In fact, Clinton was referring to Obama's statements about his position on the Iraq war; he was not talking about the Obama campaign as the "biggest fairy tale." Further, the Newsweek article, as well as a New York Times article and a Washington Post op-ed, all truncated a comment by Hillary Clinton on the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, omitting a portion of her remarks in which she referred to President John F. Kennedy.

In his cover story for the January 21 issue of Newsweek, editor Jon Meacham mischaracterized quotes by former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY). Discussing January 7 comments by Bill Clinton, Meacham reported as fact that "Bill Clinton appeared to dismiss [Sen. Barack] Obama's [D-IL] campaign as 'the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen,' a remark that infuriated many African-Americans." Similarly, in a January 12 Washington Post article, staff writers Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray wrote: "Bill Clinton ... appeared to dismissively describe the campaign platform of hope and change offered by the strongest black presidential contender in history as the 'biggest fairy tale I've ever seen.' " In fact, Clinton was referring to Obama's statements about his position on the Iraq war; he was not talking about the Obama campaign as the "biggest fairy tale." Indeed, in a January 13 piece for The New York Times' Week In Review section, reporter Mark Leibovich noted that in using the words "fairy tale," Clinton "was referring specifically to the perception that Mr. Obama was totally pure in his opposition to the Iraq war."

Both Meacham's Newsweek article and Kornblut and Murray's Post article reported that Clinton discussed his remarks in a January 11 interview on The Al Sharpton Show. Meacham wrote that "Clinton called Al Sharpton's radio show to clarify, arguing that the 'fairy tale' remark was limited to Obama's claim that he would have opposed the Iraq War if he had been in the Senate in 2002-03 despite expressing some doubts to The New York Times in 2004." The Post article reported: "In a call-in interview on Al Sharpton's radio show, Clinton said he had meant only that Obama's statements about his position on the Iraq war are a 'fairy tale,' because Obama (D-Ill.) had voted to fund the war upon arriving in the Senate after saying he opposed the invasion." But neither Newsweek nor the Post noted that Clinton's remarks to Sharpton were consistent with his original comments at the January 7 campaign appearance.

Further, the Newsweek cover story, a Washington Post op-ed by journalist Marjorie Valbrun, and a New York Times article by Adam Nagourney and Patrick Healy all truncated a comment by Hillary Clinton on the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Meacham wrote in Newsweek that "Hillary Clinton noted that while Martin Luther King Jr. marched, it 'took a president' -- Lyndon Johnson -- to get civil-rights legislation passed and signed." Valbrun wrote: " 'Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,' Clinton said. 'It took a president to get it done.' " Valbrun added, "In other words, 'I have a dream' is a nice sentiment, but King couldn't make it reality. It took a more practical and, of course, white president, Lyndon Johnson, to get blacks to the mountaintop." And Nagourney and Healy reported: "This was what Mrs. Clinton said on Monday: 'Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.' "

However, each of these pieces omitted the middle portion of Hillary Clinton's quote, in which she referred to President John F. Kennedy. Following is Clinton's full quote:

I would point to the fact that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality. The power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president who said, "We are going to do it," and actually got it accomplished. [emphasis added]

Indeed, Nagourney and Healy's article gave no indication that anything had been omitted from Hillary Clinton's comments, quoting two different parts of Clinton's statement as one continuous quote without ellipses. As Media Matters for America documented, The New York Times has repeatedly cropped Clinton's civil rights comments.

Nagourney and Healy's Times article did report that Bill Clinton used "the phrase 'fairy tale' in talking about Mr. Obama's views on the war in Iraq."

From the January 7 campaign event with Bill Clinton, as transcribed by Congressional Quarterly:

QUESTION: Thanks. One of the things that Senator Obama talks about a lot is judgment and I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the recent criticism of Mark Penn, who is Hillary's chief strategist, who's been criticized for being somewhat out of touch with reality.

For instance, he circulated a memo about Iowa, saying "Where's the balance," [sic: bounce] and then the next day, there was a 12-point jump for Obama.

CLINTON: He was wrong. He was wrong about that, because the balance [sic] always occurs on the second day, not the first day. It always occurs on the second day, not the first day.

But since you raised the judgment issue, let's go over this again. That is the central argument for his campaign. "It doesn't matter that I started running for president less than a year after I got to the Senate from the Illinois state senate. I am a great speaker and a charismatic figure and I am the only one that had the judgment to oppose this floor [sic: war] from the beginning, always, always, always."

First, it is factually not true that everybody that supported that resolution supported Bush attacking Iraq before the U.N. inspectors withdrew. Chuck Hagel [NE] was one of the co-authors of that resolution, the only Republican Senator that always opposed the war, every day, from the get-go.

He authored the resolution to say that Bush could go to war only if they didn't cooperate with the inspectors and he was assured personally by [then-National Security Adviser] Condi Rice, as many of the other Senators were. So, first, the case is wrong that way.

Second, it is wrong that Senator Obama got to go through 15 debates trumpeting his superior judgment and how he had been against the war in every year, enumerating the years and never got asked one time, not once, "Well, how could you say that when you said in 2004 you didn't know how you would have voted on the resolution? You said in 2004 there was no difference between you and George Bush on the war and you took that speech you're now running on off your Web site in 2004 and there's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since."

Give me a break.

[applause]

This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen. So you can talk about Mark Penn all you want. What did you think about the Obama thing, calling Hillary the "Senator from Punjab?" Did you like that? Or what about the Obama handout that was covered up, the press never reported on, implying that I was a crook, scouring me, scathing criticism over my financial reports.

[Former independent counsel] Ken Starr spent $70 million and indicted innocent people to find out that I wouldn't take a nickel to see the cow jump over the moon. So you can take a shot at Mark Penn if you want, it wasn't his best day. He was hurt, he felt badly we didn't do better in Iowa.

But, you know, the idea that one of these campaigns is positive and other is negative, when I know the reverse is true and I have seen it and I have been blistered by it for months, is a little tough to take. Just because of the sanitizing coverage that's in the media doesn't mean the facts aren't out there.

[applause]

Otherwise, I do not have any strong feelings about that subject.

[laughter]

Go ahead. I've got to take a question back here and then I -- go ahead.

From the January 21 issue of Newsweek:

In New Hampshire, Bill Clinton appeared to dismiss Obama's campaign as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," a remark that infuriated many African-Americans. "When has 'black' and 'fairy tale' ever been mentioned in the same sentence?" asked Todd Boyd, professor of African-American and Critical Studies at the University of Southern California. "That was just insulting, and he needs to be very careful." Clinton called Al Sharpton's radio show to clarify, arguing that the "fairy tale" remark was limited to Obama's claim that he would have opposed the Iraq War if he had been in the Senate in 2002-03 despite expressing some doubts to The New York Times in 2004: "What would I have done? I don't know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made." And when Hillary Clinton noted that while Martin Luther King Jr. marched, it "took a president" -- Lyndon Johnson -- to get civil-rights legislation passed and signed, the comment prompted some Obama supporters to say that Clinton was minimizing King. By late last week, South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn felt compelled to issue a statement calling for a ceasefire: "I encourage the candidates to be sensitive about the words they use. This is an historic race for America to have such strong, diverse candidates vying for the Democratic nomination." John Lewis, the Georgia congressman, civil-rights veteran and perennial optimist, said, "I hope we will put these issues of gender and race to rest and return to the marketplace of politics."

From the January 12 Washington Post article by Kornblut and Murray:

The comments have come from Clinton (D-N.Y.) and several of her most prominent surrogates, including New Hampshire ally Billy Shaheen, who made insinuations about Sen. Barack Obama's admission of past drug use, and Clinton's husband, Bill Clinton, who appeared to dismissively describe the campaign platform of hope and change offered by the strongest black presidential contender in history as the "biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

[...]

Bill Clinton spent much of the day trying to explain his remarks and regain the confidence of a community that historically has provided some of the Clintons' strongest support. In a call-in interview on Al Sharpton's radio show, Clinton said he had meant only that Obama's statements about his position on the Iraq war are a "fairy tale," because Obama (D-Ill.) had voted to fund the war upon arriving in the Senate after saying he opposed the invasion.

From Valbrun's January 13 Washington Post op-ed:

Clinton herself has made racially tinged comments that could be taken as either insensitive or patronizing. The most widely noticed was in her efforts to dismiss Obama's talk of "hope" and "change" as empty idealism. In doing so, she offhandedly diminished the important role played by Martin Luther King Jr. in pushing America to meet its promise of equality for millions of black Americans. "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act," Clinton said. "It took a president to get it done."

In other words, "I have a dream" is a nice sentiment, but King couldn't make it reality. It took a more practical and, of course, white president, Lyndon Johnson, to get blacks to the mountaintop. Of course no black man could have hoped to be president 44 years ago. And, for that matter, neither could any woman.

What was Clinton thinking? King's name is sacrosanct in most black households, and for poor and struggling blacks whose lives have yet to reflect King's ideals, "hope" is more than just a notion. Clinton managed to insult a beloved black leader in her eager attempt to insult a rising black leader.

From Nagourney and Healy's January 13 New York Times article:

Mr. Clyburn said he was disappointed by what Mrs. Clinton had said and by former President Bill Clinton's use of the phrase "fairy tale" in talking about Mr. Obama's views on the war in Iraq.

[...]

This was what Mrs. Clinton said on Monday: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done." At a later stop, she said that her remark had not captured what she had sought to portray.

Mrs. Clinton seemed prepared to address the question Saturday the second she stepped in front of reporters, and she went into the attack as soon as she was asked about Mr. Clyburn.

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