Media falsely characterized Bill Clinton, Obama as having "lashed out," "fire[d] back angrily" at reporters

››› ››› SARAH PAVLUS

CNN's Wolf Blitzer asserted, as did a Washington Post blog entry, that Bill Clinton "lashed out" at CNN congressional correspondent Jessica Yellin after she asked him a question following a campaign event in South Carolina that day. Recounting the exchange to Blitzer, Yellin agreed, "He lashed out, Wolf." Similarly, an ABCNews.com report described a "testy exchange" between Barack Obama and New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny. But videos of the two exchanges do not support these sensational descriptions.

Twice in the span of two days, news outlets have misrepresented separate exchanges that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and former President Bill Clinton (D) had with reporters on the presidential campaign trail. CNN and The Washington Post described Clinton as having "lashed out" at a CNN correspondent, while ABC News characterized Obama as having "fired back angrily" at a New York Times reporter. But videos of the two exchanges do not support these sensational descriptions.

During the January 23 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer asserted that Bill Clinton "lashed out" at CNN congressional correspondent Jessica Yellin after she asked him a question following a campaign event in South Carolina that day. Recounting the exchange to Blitzer, Yellin agreed, "He lashed out, Wolf." Additionally, CNN's Political Ticker blog featured a report on the exchange that claimed Clinton "lashed out" at Yellin, and Washington Post reporter Anne E. Kornblut wrote in a January 23 entry for the Post's political blog, The Trail, that Clinton "lashed out" and "snapped at" Yellin. However, video of the exchange does not bear out that description. Indeed, a January 24 New York Times report on the same exchange noted that "Mr. Clinton's remarks were delivered in an even tone." The Situation Room report on the exchange featured a clip of the video, and the Political Ticker report linked to the full video.

Additionally, as Talking Points Memo blogger Greg Sargent documented, a January 22 ABCNews.com report misrepresented an exchange in South Carolina between New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny and Obama, which followed Zeleny's question on whether Bill Clinton was getting "in his head." ABC described it a "testy exchange," in which Obama "fired back angrily" and repeatedly "confronted" Zeleny. Sargent provided video of the exchange and noted, "The whole tone of the [ABC] story implied that Obama had had a very confrontational moment with Zeleny. ... Did it happen this way? Nope. ... [I]t's clear that the tone of the exchange wasn't anywhere near as acrimonious as ABC claimed it was. When Obama said, 'don't try cheap stunts like that,' he was smiling -- he certainly didn't 'fire back angrily.' " Sargent continued: "By packaging a story implying a sharp confrontation with that headline about Bill 'getting in Obama's head,' ABC strongly implied that Bill is getting in Obama's head and rattling him. But the video plainly shows that the event doesn't support that storyline."

From the 4 p.m. ET hour of the January 23 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: Let's go straight to CNN's Jessica Yellin. She's in Charleston, South Carolina. Jessica, the former president is not mincing any words. And you were on the receiving end as he lashed out. Give our viewers a sense of what is going on.

[...]

BLITZER: And after that event, he went and he spoke briefly to reporters. You were right there in that rope line. You asked him a serious question. And give us a sense of what he said in response.

YELLIN: He lashed out, Wolf. I asked him -- I'd a conversation earlier today with Dick Harpootlian, who is the former head of the Democratic Party here and now a Barack Obama supporter. And Harpootlian expressed what he called his immense disappointment with the way the Clintons have run the campaign. He said it's, quote, "reprehensible," and he even compared the way they are running their campaign to the great Republican mastermind, Lee Atwater, who was a master of finding wedge issues and dividing people against one another.

So I asked Bill Clinton to respond to these charges and whether he is playing the race card in an inappropriate way. Here's what he said.

CLINTON [video clip]: Once you accuse somebody of racism or bigotry or something, the facts become irrelevant. There are facts here. And the final thing I would like to say is, you're asking me about this, you sat through this whole meeting. Not one single, solitary soul asked about any of this. And they never do. They are feeding you this because they know this is what you want to cover.

YELLIN: Well, I'll tell you, I called back Dick Harpootlian afterwards and he said that's a classic form of dissembling, trying to take the attention off of the Clinton campaign and what they are saying. They maintain from camp Obama that this is still a below-the-belt campaign the Clintons are running. The back-and-forth does not stop -- Wolf.

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