The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza does his turn at distilling conventional wisdom this morning by asking of the Supreme Court's health care ruling yesterday: "Did Republicans lose the health care battle but win the health care war?" It's a loaded question, born of utterly predictable spin, that assumes a Republican victory regardless of the outcome. But it looks even more ridiculous when you think about the question that should be asked in its stead: We know now what Obama will run on, so what exactly is the Republican health care plan?
After the ruling was issued yesterday, Mitt Romney stood behind a podium and promised that, were he to be elected, he would repeal the law on his first day as president. The Republican National Committee blasted out talking points announcing their intention to repeat the word "tax" ad nauseam from here to November. And everyone seems very impressed that Romney claims to have raised $2 million yesterday off the ruling.
That's all well and good, but as the Post's Ezra Klein pointed out a couple of weeks ago, we're less than five months from Election Day and the presumptive Republican nominee still has not articulated a specific health care policy. That's a remarkable thing, particularly when you consider that at this point in the 2008 election cycle, then-candidate Barack Obama's detailed health care proposal had been a matter of public record for more than a year.
Maybe someday Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty will quote a critic of Mississippi governor Haley Barbour in one of her profiles of the potential Republican presidential candidate. But not today.
Last week, I noted a variety of ways in which a Tumulty article about Barbour was rather friendly -- it quoted his attacks on President Obama without including a response from a Democrat and without making any attempt to assess the validity of the (misleading at best) attack and it downplayed Barbour's praise for the segregationist Citizens Councils.
Now comes another Tumulty profile of Barbour, this one checking in at almost 1,400 words -- and once again the lack of progressive criticism of Barbour is striking. Indeed, nobody, of any political persuasion, is quoted or paraphrased even mildly criticizing Barbour. Most striking is this friendly passage about Barbour's tenure as governor of Mississippi:
What makes some Republicans see presidential timber in the self-described "fat redneck" from Yazoo City, however, is not his political genius. It is his record as a governor who beat his state's trial lawyers on tort reform, who lured industry, who balanced budgets. And more than anything else, it is the way Barbour took charge of resurrecting a state whose coastline was nearly wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina during his second year in office.
"He did a fantastic job during the crisis — and that's what we're in, a crisis," said former Iowa GOP chairman Ray Hoffmann, who has not committed his 2012 support to any possible candidate but held a dinner for Barbour at his Italian restaurant in Sioux City.
It's a little weird that Tumulty turned to an Iowa Republican for an assessment of Barbour's handling of Katrina, don't you think? More importantly, wouldn't it have been nice if she had found space to include some of the rather serious criticism of Barbour's response to Katrina that has been leveled over the past several years?
In 2007, Salon reported that Mississippi's recovery efforts benefited from receiving a wildly disproportionate share of federal recovery money -- and that observers ranging from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to former FEMA head Michael Brown suggested this was because Barbour (unlike Louisiana's governor) was a Republican, and Republicans controlled the White House and Congress during the aftermath of Katrina. But despite that disproportionate federal funding, Salon reported, recovery efforts in parts of Mississippi were surprisingly slow:
Outsiders might be surprised to learn then, that despite the plaudits, and despite the fact that Barbour's GOP connections seem to have won him a disproportionate share of relief money from Washington, post-Katrina recovery in some of the hardest-hit areas of the Mississippi coast is moving as fast as molasses in winter.
For the residents of Hancock County, Barbour and Mississippi's ability to capture the lion's share of Katrina relief dollars makes the slow progress in their area all the more demoralizing. The county's 911 system still operates out of a trailer. Damaged wastewater and drainage systems frustrate hopes of a return to normalcy; earlier this month in Waveland, 16 miles east of Pearlington, a 9-and-a-half-foot alligator was found swimming in a drainage ditch next to a bus stop at 8 o'clock in the morning. Mayor Tommy Longo says the creatures freely roam throughout devastated residential areas.
Indeed, Hancock County was one of three Gulf Coast areas recently singled out as having "severe problems" by the Rockefeller Institute on Government and the Louisiana Public Affairs Council, with the towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis flat-out "struggling to survive."
Bloomberg reported in 2007 that Barbour's friends and family benefited from Katrina recovery efforts:
Many Mississippians have benefited from Governor Haley Barbour's efforts to rebuild the state's devastated Gulf Coast in the two years since Hurricane Katrina. The $15 billion or more in federal aid the former Republican national chairman attracted has reopened casinos and helped residents move to new or repaired homes.
Among the beneficiaries are Barbour's own family and friends, who have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from hurricane-related business. A nephew, one of two who are lobbyists, saw his fees more than double in the year after his uncle appointed him to a special reconstruction panel. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in June raided a company owned by the wife of a third nephew, which maintained federal emergency- management trailers.
Meanwhile, the governor's own former lobbying firm, which he says is still making payments to him, has represented at least four clients with business linked to the recovery.
But readers of Karen Tumulty's profile of Barbour weren't given so much as a hint that there was ever any controversy surrounding his response to Katrina, instead learning only that "the way Barbour took charge of resurrecting a state" impressed Republicans, one of whom praised him for doing a "fantastic job during the crisis."
Remember when newspaper articles about one politician attacking another used to include a response to those attacks, and maybe even some assessment of their validity? Those were good times, weren't they? Sadly, those days are long gone at the Washington Post, as Karen Tumulty's report (really just a glorified transcript) on Mississippi governor and possible Republican presidential candidate Haley Barbour demonstrates.
The first five paragraphs of Tumulty's article are devoted to passing along Barbour's attacks on President Obama's economic policies, without a word of response from the White House or anyone who disagrees with Barbour. And Tumulty makes no effort to assess the validity of Barbour's attacks or put them in context for readers. She passes along Barbour's claims that Obama's economic policies have made the economy worse, but doesn't mention that, for example, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2009 stimulus package increased employment by as much as 3.5 million. Tumulty quotes Barbour accusing Obama of "call[ing] for record tax increases," but she doesn't mention that the stimulus cut taxes for 95 percent of working families.
Next, Tumulty devoted a paragraph to Barbour's economic agenda (again, no counterpoints or independent assessments included.) After a couple of paragraphs touting Barbour's political strengths, we come to this passage:
It was evident that Barbour has also moved to address another potential stumbling block to his candidacy — a series of recent comments that have been portrayed as racially insensitive.
Seated at the front of the ballroom for Barbour's speech was a table of African American community leaders. Among them was Andrea Zopp, president of the Chicago Urban League, who had initially planned to object to Barbour's appearance here, because she had been offended by an interview last year in which the Mississippi governor had seemed to defend the South's notorious segregationist Citizens Councils. [Emphasis added]
Barbour seemed to defend the Citizens Councils in remarks that were portrayed as racially insensitive? That's quite a generous description. Here's what Barbour said:
Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research highlights this odd passage in today's Washington Post:
Obama, who has overseen an expansion in spending, does not have the fiscal credibility that helped give President Bill Clinton the winning political hand in 1995 and 1996.
As Baker explains, that's a dubious assertion from a policy perspective:
One might think that whether or not President Obama has "fiscal credibility" is an assessment that readers should make for themselves. … According to the Congressional Budget Office and a wide range of private forecasters, the increase in spending that has taken place on President Obama's watch has boosted growth and prevented the unemployment rate from rising further.
It is bizarre to imply that because he acted to prevent a steeper recession President Obama lacks fiscal credibility. By the Post's logic, President Roosevelt could have established fiscal credibility by cutting the defense budget in half in 1943 in the middle of World War II. While most people might have viewed letting our military lose to the Axis powers in order to balance the budget as close to crazy, the Post no doubt would have applauded such an act of fiscal responsibility. At least it would if it applied the paper's current logic.
But maybe the Post wasn't assessing Obama's "fiscal credibility" from a policy standpoint; maybe it was suggesting that the public doesn't see him as credible. But if that's what the Post meant, the comparison to Clinton in 1995 is dubious, as a quick scan through the Washington Post's own archives demonstrates:
Last year, I wrote about some problems with the branded "fact-check" features several news organizations have been creating. Among them:
The other problem with the execution of these highly structured, branded "Fact Check" pieces is that fact-checking shouldn't be relegated to occasional, highly specialized pieces; it should be a basic part of everyday journalism. Checking the truthfulness of a politician's statements shouldn't be something a news organization saves for its "Fact Check" feature; it should be present in every news report that includes those statements. It isn't enough to occasionally debunk a false claim, as I've been saying over and over again.
What I'd like to see isn't another media organization with a branded, occasional "Fact Check" feature -- it's a news organization that commits to never reporting a politician's statement without placing that statement in factual context.
The Washington Post -- the poster child for occasionally debunking false claims -- recently revived its "Fact Checker" column, and in doing so reminds us how little the paper actually cares about checking facts. Here's today's "Fact Checker":
"A secretive government committee ('death panels') will be created to make end-of-life decisions about people on Medicare"
This claim, first made by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate, has been thoroughly debunked and was labeled "lie of the year" in 2009 by Politifacts.org. Yet it persists in the popular imagination. The September Kaiser poll found that 30 percent of seniors still believed this to be the case--and 22 percent were not sure, meaning fewer than half knew the claim was false.
Why might the false "death panels" claim "persist in the popular imagination"? Perhaps in part because the Washington Post routinely mentions the claim without pointing out its falsity. Just last week, the Post did this on consecutive days, in a January 13 article by Karen Tumulty and Peter Wallsten and a January 14 article by Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane. Both articles reported the allegation that health care reform contained "death panels," but neither so much as hinted that it was false. This has been a defining characteristic of the Post's treatment of the "death panels" claim (contrary to former Post media critic Howard Kurtz's praise for the paper's reporting on the topic.)
I can't imagine that there's anyone at the Post who doesn't know by now that "death panels" were a lie. And yet the paper routinely prints the lie without noting its falsity. The only conclusion you can draw from that is that the paper just doesn't think it has any responsibility to avoid passing falsehoods along as though they are true -- at least as long as those falsehoods come from right-wing political figures.
Let's say a stock broker tells a Washington Post business reporter "ACME Wireless, Inc. stock has increased in value each of the last four years, with no signs of slowing down. Investors should buy it immediately!" And let's say the reporter knows this to be false -- knows that, in fact, ACME's stock is in a free fall, with no end in sight, and that its entire leadership is under indictment. Would the Post print the false claim without noting its falsity? I doubt it would; I suspect the reporter or an editor would recognize that it has a responsibility not to pass along such dangerously false investment advice to its readers. Likewise, if Happy Fun Ball was conclusively shown to cause cancer in everyone who touches it, the Post wouldn't print Wacky Products Incorporated's claim that the toy is perfectly safe without noting that, in fact, it causes cancer. Nor would the paper quote Redskins owner Daniel Snyder bragging about his team's playoff victory last weekend without noting that in fact the team finished 6-10 and failed to make the playoffs.
So why does the Washington Post print Sarah Palin's lies without noting their falsity? Does the Post think its readers' ability to make informed political decisions is less important than their awareness of sporting events?
In the past week and a half, the Washington Post has run a one-sided article hyping the absurd New Black Panther Party allegations that have been promoted by right-wing media including Andrew Breitbart's web sites, an ombudsman column praising that one-sided article, an account of the Shirley Sherrod story that was written from the perspective of the conservative media who lied about her, and a "Top Secret America" package that has been criticized for failing to properly credit liberal publications that first reported key elements of the story.
The Post's NBPP article and Ombudsman Andrew Alexander's column praising it have drawn criticism:
Likewise, the Post's initial Sherrod article drew immediate criticism. I explained in detail how the article privileged the Right's lies about Sherrod -- the first half of the article was written from the perspective of the conservatives who weren't telling the truth; there was no indication whatsoever until the 13th paragraph that anyone thought Sherrod was wronged; it wasn't until the 17th paragraph that the Post admitted that Sherrod helped the farmer she was accused of not helping, etc. NYU Journalism professor criticized both the article and the refusal of Post reporter Karen Tumulty to respond to such criticism (here, here, here, and here.) The Nation's Greg Mitchell called the article "horrible," adding "Tumulty should be ashamed."
And a number of liberal journalists have criticized the Post for failing to include in its intelligence series credit for prior work:
Well, you get the point: A lot of liberals have had a lot of complaints about the Washington Post in recent weeks, and with good cause.
So what is Andrew Alexander's ombudsman column in today's Washington Post about? You guessed it -- conservative allegations that the Post committed treason by running the intelligence series.
See, much as Alexander and Marcus Brauchli and others at the Post keep insisting that they need to be more responsive to conservatives, the reality is that they jump at every right-wing complaint that comes along, no matter how bogus -- and that they rarely bother to respond to liberals.
This Washington Post write-up of the Shirley Sherrod firing waits 15 full paragraphs before even referring to the full video of her comments, which makes clear that the allegations of racism on her part are phony. Even then, the Post doesn't clearly indicate that the video debunks the allegations. And it isn't until the 17th paragraph that the Post admits "Ultimately, she did help the farmer."
In the second paragraph, the Post tells readers: "In a speech, she described an episode in which, while working at a nonprofit organization 24 years ago, she did not help a white farmer as much as she could have. Instead, she said, she sent him to one of 'his own kind.'"
Again: In the second paragraph, the Post tells readers that Sherrod said she didn't help the farmer -- and only 15 paragraphs later does the Post finally acknowledge that she did help the farmer.
Though the Post mentions Andrew Breitbart's role in the fiasco, at no point does the paper tell readers that Breitbart falsely suggested Sherrod's speech described actions she took in her current-until-yesterday job at the USDA.
Long before the Post gets around to describing the full video, it tells readers "But for some on the right, Sherrod's comments also reinforced a larger, more sinister narrative: that the administration of the first African American to occupy the White House practices its own brand of racism." And: "some of the president's allies on the left have at times reflexively seen racism as the real force behind the vehemence of the opposition against Obama's policies and decisions." (No examples or evidence are given.)
This is privileging the lie.
This is why dishonest people like Andrew Breitbart have power and influence: People and institutions that should know better, like the Washington Post, validate his smears.
UPDATE: See how the Associated Press lede puts essential information right up front?
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is standing by its quick decision to oust a black Agriculture Department employee over racially tinged remarks at an NAACP banquet in Georgia, despite evidence that her remarks were misconstrued and growing calls for USDA to reconsider. [Emphasis added]
And the AP's third paragraph includes this: "The white farming family that was the subject of the story stood by Sherrod and said she should keep her job."
That's much better than waiting 15 paragraphs like the Post did ...
UPDATE 3: Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty, who has the lead byline on the Sherrod article, tweeted exactly one line from the article. Here's Tumulty's Tweet: "sherrod: 'God helped me to see that it's not just about black people. It's about poor people. I've come a long way.'" That line appeared in the 16th paragraph of the Post article. The fact that it was the only line Tumulty tweeted suggests that she thinks it is important -- so why was it buried deep in the article?
UPDATE 4: More indications of how slanted the Post article was: The article didn't so much as hint until the 13th paragraph that anyone thinks Sherrod was wronged. The first clue that the video posted by Breitbart was not the complete video came in the 15th paragraph. Paragraphs 3-6 are devoted to describing conservatives' complaints about liberals; there is no indication that those complaints are questionable. Paragraphs 7-9 are devoted to criticisms of the Right by "some of the president's allies on the left" -- but rather than simply describing those criticisms as the Post did with conservatives' complaints, these paragraphs are devoted entirely to undermining them. Basically, the article is written from the Right's perspective, with just a little bit of truth tacked on at the end. And yet the Washington Post's ombudsman keeps insisting the paper is insufficiently attuned to the views of conservatives ...
Somehow, I missed this Washington Post article a couple of days ago:
Pelosi (D-Calif.) has become "the face of liberalism in the Obama era," more so than Obama himself, said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton.
Her infamy among conservatives is partly the product of her often-imperious manner, a rougher media culture and a superheated political climate. But it is also a backhanded acknowledgment of how effective she has been.
Keep in mind: that's a (front page) straight-news article, not an opinion column.
So, at the Washington Post, it's totally unacceptable for a journalist to privately disparage Pat Buchanan -- but calling Nancy Pelosi "imperious" on the front page of the paper is quite all right.
Speaking of the front page, what exactly justified the article's placement there? Under the header "Conservatives use Pelosi as face of liberalism in campaign ads," it simply noted that Republicans are criticizing Nancy ffdPelosi as part of their electoral strategy. In other news, the sun rose in the east today. Somehow, in more than 900 words about the GOP's strategy of running against Nancy Pelosi, the Post never got around to mentioning that they've tried that before, without much success.
The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty:
Barack Obama's presidency has not lacked for crises. But the two that have dominated this week -- a spreading environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and a failed car bombing that narrowly missed creating carnage in Times Square -- have produced a delicate challenge of management and message at a moment when the country's mistrust of government is running high.
Handled right, these two crises have the potential to restore an increasingly skeptical public's faith in Obama, much the way that President Bill Clinton's handling of the Oklahoma City bombing did in 1995. Bungled, either or both could go down as his administration's Hurricane Katrina.
So now an attempted bombing in which nobody died has potential to turn into Obama's Katrina? Yeah, right.
Later, Tumulty acknowledges that Republicans, who don't tend to be bashful about criticizing the president, have not been doing so:
Meanwhile, Republicans -- who made "Drill, baby, drill" their mantra during the 2008 election -- have largely refrained from any criticism of how the administration is handling the crisis. The exception has been the demand for more federal aid by some of the same Southern lawmakers who have often pegged Obama as an avatar of Big Government.
Similarly, Obama's handling of the failed bombing has brought little criticism from the opposition party.
A few days ago, I referenced new research into the difficulty correcting misinformation once it takes root.
Brendan Nyhan, the author of the new paper, makes an important point:
Both this paper and my previous research with Reifler indicate that corrections often fail to reduce misperceptions and sometimes make them worse. For that reason, it's essential that elites who promote misperceptions be publicly shamed in front of other elites.
This, as I have noted several times, is something the media does very, very poorly:
Reporters tend to privilege lying, rather than punishing it. In order to remove the incentives for lying, the media should shun, rather than embrace, people who have a history of spreading falsehoods. ... The primary disincentive to political figures spreading misinformation is the possibility that they will be seen as dishonest. If the media refuses to make that dishonesty clear, there will be more misinformation.
The problem is not, of course, limited to the media's treatment of political figures; it is perhaps even worse when it comes to the media's treatment of journalists and pundits.
Just this week, for example, Time magazine published an assessment of Sonia Sotomayor written by Jeffrey Rosen. The same Jeffrey Rosen whose innuendo-laden hit piece on Sotomayor for The New Republic is probably the most widely, and correctly, criticized article of the year. The same Jeffrey Rosen who wrote that hit piece despite, by his own admission, not having read enough of Sotomayor's opinions or spoken to enough of her colleagues to reach a fair assessment. The same Jeffrey Rosen who took a 14-year-old quote in which a judge referred to Sotomayor as "smart," cut off the word "smart," and portrayed the quote as an example of people saying Sotomayor is not smart. The same Jeffrey Rosen who refused to correct that obvious inaccuracy even after it was pointed out by The New Yorker, by this blog, and via email.
The proper response -- indeed, the only acceptable response -- to "journalism" such as Rosen's would be for him to be, as Nyhan put it "publicly shamed" so as to provide a disincentive to similar misinformation by him and others in the future.
But that is not how the media elite treat the media elite. And so rather than being shamed into finally correcting his dishonest description of the quote, Jeffrey Rosen is handed high-profile Time magazine real estate to write about the very person he just finished smearing. And Time's Karen Tumulty (one of the better reporters the elite media has to offer) praises it as "worth a read." Well, no, it isn't. Nothing Jeffrey Rosen has to say is "worth a read" if he refuses to correct blatant falsehoods in his work. He simply cannot be trusted.
That is how media elites treat media "elites who promote misperceptions" -- with praise. And they wonder why nobody trusts them.
Time's Karen Tumulty suggested Mitt Romney for Health and Human Services secretary, citing the role he played in creating Massachusetts' universal health care system as governor, while The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder pointed to the Massachusetts plan to suggest Romney for "White House health care czar." But neither Tumulty nor Ambinder noted that Romney rejected applying the Massachusetts plan to the entire nation, saying "[a] one-size fits-all national health care system is bound to fail."
A Time magazine article claimed that "several diplomatic sources" who worked on the Northern Ireland peace talks "say that the women's groups" with whom Hillary Clinton engaged during the process "were not nearly as pivotal to the process as Hillary's backers maintain" and that former Sen. George Mitchell was "much more involved in those efforts." But the article failed to mention that Mitchell has said that Clinton's statements regarding her role in the peace process "are generally accurate to the extent that they have been relayed to me."
In reports on a recent advertisement buy by Freedom's Watch in support of the Iraq war, media reports have failed to resolve the question of which members of Congress the ad buys are targeting, despite the apparent newsworthiness of the issue. For instance, The Washington Post suggested that the ad campaign is an attack on Democrats, a suggestion repeated by Time's Karen Tumulty; other reports have not even mentioned the issue; while still others have asserted that the ads target both Democrats and Republicans. However, according to analyses by war opponents, the buys target mainly Republicans, a charge Freedom's Watch called "propaganda by our enemies."