At 2:45 p.m. on Thursday, a member of the right-wing message board Free Republic posted a Reuters photo that the news wire captioned as "U.S. President Barack Obama (C) and France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (R) take their places with junior G8 delegates for a family photo at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy." The Free Republic member invited other members to submit alternative captions for the photo, resulting in dozens of sexually suggestive replies, some using racist epithets.
About two hours later, at 5:12 p.m., the Fox News website The Fox Nation posted the picture along with the headline "Another Stimulus?" It later revised the title to read "Busted?"
Just minutes after Fox Nation's mocking of the photo, ABC News' Jake Tapper posted the photo with the headline "When In Rome...?"
Around 4 a.m., almost 12 hours after he first posted the photo, Tapper posted this message on Twitter: "that foto of POTUS seeming to be sneaking a leer is misleading, im told - video shows the moment was completely innocent." He also updated his blog post by adding "Actually, not so much" to the headline and including video of the incident. Tapper wrote in the updated post, "On first glance, the snapshot appears to show President Obama caught in a moment of less than lofty analysis. But upon looking at the video, the moment might seem to appear quite innocent -- one of those times when a picture can be misleading. The president was on a higher step and was stepping down -- so he looked down to assure his footing as the woman was walking up the stairs." He concluded: "Although: not everyone agrees. Judge for yourself."
A classic example of how the right-wing noise machine works was unfolding before the American people. A non-story starts on a right-wing website and works its way into the mainstream. It usually involves Drudge, the fedora-wearing boy who cries wolf (almost daily) on the Internet, and mainstream news outlets follow his lead, offering up under-researched and factually inaccurate story lines.
Had the mainstream media done their job -- you know, checking the video to get the context from which the photo was taken -- they would have clearly seen that Obama was attempting to navigate high steps, while reaching back to help someone behind him do so as well. As Fox News host Greta Van Susteren said after airing video of the event, "Yes, a still picture can lie. And this one does."
Of course, the next morning after Van Susteren's show, the Fox & Friends crew went right back to trashing the president with lascivious speculation that was contradicted by easily accessible fact.
News segments that set the record straight are unfortunately the exception and not the rule. Fox's Van Susteren, ABC's Good Morning America, and MSNBC Live should be commended for pushing back in segments about the faux controversy. Perhaps their colleagues could learn a thing or two from their example. After all, journalists and news outlets checking the facts before running with a "story" is the least we should expect.
Other major stories this week:
Looks like these networks need to gather better intelligence
Eight weeks ago, a controversy erupted after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed during a press conference that the CIA did not inform her and other members of Congress of its past use of waterboarding. Her statement was purportedly contradicted by CIA Director Leon Panetta, who later issued a statement that said, "It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress."
In the days that followed, Pelosi was attacked repeatedly in the press as having besmirched the integrity of the agency in order to defend herself politically, with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough leading the charge. Pelosi was "lying" and "changing her story," he said on May 15, adding, "You don't accuse the CIA of lying. Especially when they're not lying." Three days later, he was even more vocal: The speaker had "been caught in a lie, and I think she really, for the sake of herself and her political future -- she needs to shut up."
The situation changed this week after Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) released a letter on July 7 stating that Panetta admitted in a closed hearing that the CIA had not fully informed Congress on other classified matters. But rather than apologize for his earlier remarks, Scarborough seemed to pretend they had never happened, saying simply that Pelosi, whom he called "a friend of mine from Congress" had "caught a lot of grief." Soon enough, however, MSNBC national security analyst Roger Cressey began the cycle of recrimination again, accusing Democrats of "refighting issues from five years ago."
Economic coverage could have been stimulated by the facts
This week, the economic stimulus bill -- signed by Obama as the first major act of his administration -- failed. At least, according to the obituary it received in the press.
The trouble started when Vice President Joe Biden commented during an interview that the administration had "misread how bad the economy was." The statement, which lent itself to exaggeration, was immediately pounced on by CNBC's Larry Kudlow and Fox's Sean Hannity and Van Susteren, who declared the stimulus "a misreading of the solution to the economy," a "screw-up," and "based on a house of cards," respectively.
Scarborough and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo soon rang further alarm bells about the national debt, in the process falsely claiming that the administration had justified its spending policies by predicting an economic growth rate of 4 percent "over the next decade." In fact, the administration's plans were not based on such a prediction; instead, it assumed a growth rate of 3.2 percent growth in 2010 and 2.6 percent from 2015 through 2019.
The dubious analysis continued when Stephen Moore claimed the following day, "The one thing this administration won't do is cut taxes." Though Moore is "senior economics writer" for The Wall Street Journal, he somehow missed that the stimulus included $288 billion in tax cuts. Van Susteren didn't correct him, although ABC's Claire Shipman at least tried to politely set the record straight the next day on Hannity. She almost got a second sentence in before being drowned out by misinformation.
On this particular issue, however, Fox was to be outdone. MSNBC's Contessa Brewer was shocked -- shocked -- that the government was taking action to address the economy. Her impartial, journalistic assessment deserves to be quoted in full:
Ah, the nagging problem of a faltering economy and millions of out-of-work Americans. And the government's solution? First, taxpayers shell out $700 billion in TARP funds. And then, a sweeping stimulus that costs $787 billion. Oh, and then there's the minimum trillion-dollar health reform in the works. And now talk of another stimulus bill? What?
Contessa Brewer: this week's winner of the Rick Santelli Award for Sage Financial Analysis.
While Fox's Andrew Napolitano raged against the very idea of more stimulus funds -- which he deceptively referred to as a "third bailout" -- both Hannity and CNN's Kiran Chetry were busy suggesting that the contents of the first bill had been doled out as political favors. As proof, they both cited a USA Today article that had actually said the opposite. Specifically, it stated: "Investigators who track the stimulus are skeptical that political considerations could be at work." Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that Fox & Friends felt comfortable reporting on an alleged connection between a campaign contribution to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and a stimulus-funded contract -- without noting that Hoyer's office had already denied any involvement in the awarding of the money.
But it was MSNBC's Mike Barnicle who best illustrated what's wrong with the overwhelming majority of current economic punditry. On Wednesday, he asked his Morning Joe co-hosts incredulously, "What are they doing with the [stimulus] money?" Then on Thursday, he reflected on the detrimental nature of America's "amazingly impatient culture" where people can't stop asking, "Where's the money?" Simply put, this kind of schizophrenic analysis is still overwhelming logical thought, much to the detriment of the viewing public.
This week's media columns
This week's media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert takes a look at Palin, the press, and her "no más" moment, while Jamison Foser discusses Mika Brzezinski's "real Americans" elitism.
Don't forget to order your autographed copy of Eric Boehlert's compelling new book, Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press (Free Press, May 2009).
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This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Karl Frisch, a senior fellow at Media Matters. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary.