Media figures are falsely claiming that Obama is "backtracking" on his comments regarding a planned Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. But the president's statements on the issue have consistently emphasized, as Obama put it, a "commitment to religious freedom" and the legal right to build an Islamic center on a privately-owned site.
Last week, Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier told Greg Sargent that the AP's fact-check pieces are consistently among the wire service's most popular features.
In response, Politico's Ben Smith raised some concerns about the practice:
The rise of a formal fact-checking establishment has been, by and large, a very good thing for politics. ...
And there seems to be a market for it: Ron Fournier tells Sargent that AP is doing more and more of it in part because it's popular. That may be in part because readers like simple stories cast in black black-and-white, as fact checks often are.
But the practice, and the presumption of absolute authority, can itself easily be misused politically, and I think it's worth adding a note of caution on two levels. First, just because it's labeled "fact check" doesn't render an article any less vulnerable to error and spin. Further, much of politics is made of arguments about policy and values that aren't easily reduced to factual disagreements.
Smith's concerns strike me as reasonable: The structure many media organizations impose on their fact-checking pieces is often problematic. In particular, the labels many media fact-checkers apply are highly questionable and misleading. Take this PolitiFact assessment of Jeff Sessions' statement that Elena Kagen "violated the law of the United States" in her handling of military recruiters at Harvard:
So did Kagan violate the law when she banned military recruiters from using the Office of Career Services for that one semester?
First off, the law didn't say universities may not bar military recruiters. It said certain types of federal funds may not go to those schools if they bar the recruiters. There's a big difference.
It's certainly fair to say Kagan tested the law, but it's another thing to claim she violated the law. Kagan barred military recruiters from using the Office of Career Services only after a Third Circuit court ruled the Solomon Amendment was "likely" unconstitutional. And she reversed course even before the Supreme Court ruled against the universities -- so she didn't willfully flout the law after the Supreme Court made the law unmistakably clear.
Some may argue that the Third Circuit decision didn't affect Massachusetts, which is in the First Circuit, and that the Supreme Court was decisive in its reversal of that circuit court decision. So one could also argue that Kagan didn't comply with what the law required, but we think it's a stretch for Sessions to say Kagan "violated the law of the United States at various points in the process." There was at least some legal ambiguity -- for a time -- about Harvard's obligation. And, we note, no money was ever denied to Harvard. And so we rate Sessions' comment Barely True.
In short, PolitiFact said Kagan didn't really violate the law, then declared the statement that she did so "Barely True." That's an interesting definition of "barely true."
PolitiFact also gave a "barely true" to George Will's statement that Utah Senator Robert Bennett voted for TARP, the stimulus, and an individual mandate for health care -- despite concluding that Will was "incorrect that Bennett voted for Obama's stimulus bill, and it was inaccurate for him to suggest that Bennett cast a vote for an individual mandate." So, PolitiFact found that one of the three things WIll said was true and two were not -- and gave him a "Barely True." Sounds more like "mostly false" to me -- but PolitiFact doesn't have a "mostly false" classification, so they leave the impression that Will's statements were more accurate than they really were.
But that isn't a problem with fact-checking. It's a problem of execution. The problems Smith identifies aren't inherent to fact-checking; they are the product of the journalists responsible for conceptualizing and writing the fact-checks, not of fact-checking itself.
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.
Smith suggests the popularity of the AP's fact-checking pieces stems from the public's fondness for "simple stories cast in black black-and-white." I'm not so sure that's the case. I think it may stem less from the public's appetite for simplistic "Mostly True" graphics and more for its appetite for clearly-written explanations of the key issues of the day, rather than the endless passive-voice prognostication and horse-race journalism that makes up so much of today's political news content. It may be the substance and clarity that readers crave, not the overly-simplistic, label-friendly branded "Fact Check" pieces.
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. I suspect that a news organization that made that -- rather than assessments of how the claim will "play" -- a central value would see at least some of the readership benefits that the special branded features apparently bring. And I'm certain it would result in better journalism and a better-informed readership.
In his May 9 "Playbook," Politico's Mike Allen claimed President Obama was "poised to name" Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court and purported to characterize "what critics will say" about the nomination. However, the "critics' " arguments that Allen presented rest on baseless accusations, stereotypes and distortions of Kagan's record.
Fox News' Dana Perino and Byron York of The Washington Examiner channeled Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) criticism of Democrats for reportedly planning to pursue immigration reform legislation before a climate change bill. But last month, Graham himself reportedly called for President Obama to "step it up" on immigration reform efforts.
Politico's Ben Smith & Jonathan Martin argue that the importance of the tea party "movement" has been exaggerated by the news media. Their lede reminds me of something I've been meaning to address:
2009 was the year when many journalists concluded they were slow to recognize the anti-government, anti-Obama rage that gave birth to the tea party movement.
2010 is the year when news organizations have decided to prove they get it.
And get it. And get it some more.
It seems like reporters have been saying forever that the media had previously failed to pay sufficient attention to the tea partiers (or, more broadly, voter anger at government/Obama/Washington) -- but that they get it now.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, for example, says (or writes) this every few weeks.
Kurtz, March 22, 2010: "[T]here was no lack of journalistic shortcomings. When anger erupted at those town hall meetings last summer, much of the media wrote them off as a spectacle. Reporters were slow to recognize the growing public anger at Obamacare and what "tea party" enthusiasts viewed as out-of-control federal spending.
Kurtz, March 15, 2010: "The media initially ignored or downplayed the tea party protests, and now have had to acknowledge that it's a legitimate, if unfocused, force."
Kurtz, January 25, 2010: [M]uch as journalists were slow to recognize the significance of the 'tea party' movement last summer, most didn't treat this [Massachusetts Senate] race as a serious contest until the final 10 days."
The received wisdom that the media didn't pay enough attention to angry conservatives in 2009 is presumably a key factor in the increased coverage they've been given recently.
But is it true that the media dropped the ball last year?
The credibility of that notion actually takes a hit due to how long it has been around. See, way back in April of 2009, Kurtz was already asserting that the media wasn't paying enough attention to the tea party protests. Here's Kurtz on April 12, 2009:
CNN and MSNBC may have dropped the ball by all but ignoring the protests.
But the protests Kurtz was referring to hadn't even happened yet -- he was talking about the tax day protests organized by Fox News that were still three days away at the time. Just how much media attention should have been devoted to protests that had not yet occurred?
And it just isn't true that the media was "slow to recognize" the significance of what was happening last summer -- the August congressional recess, in particular, was dominated by wall-to-wall news coverage of angry conservatives yelling at town hall meetings.
It isn't that the media didn't cover the protests enough. It's that they didn't cover the protests (or the health care debate, or darn near anything else) well enough -- and, in doing so, they made it inevitable that overheated and false rhetoric would come to dominate public discourse.
The New York Times Magazine's Mark Leibovich profiles Politico's Mike Allen, touting his -- and Politico's -- success in driving the daily conversation among the political and journalism elite. Leibovich paints a rich portrait of Allen's thoughtful gestures toward friends and sources and his hyperkinetic workaholic tendencies. But in more than 8,000 words, he devotes little more than passing attention to questions about the quality of Politico's journalism. Tellingly, Leibovich doesn't quote or refer to a single media critic or journalism professor -- his entire portrait of Politco appears to be based on his own observations and conversations with political operatives and reporters. It is a piece about the author of Politico's "Playbook," written by a self-described member of the Playbook "community," and reliant entirely upon interviews with other members of that "community."
An astonishing 6,585 words into the profile, Leibovich finally raises a key question:
Harris and VandeHei have clearly succeeded in driving the conversation, although the more complicated question is exactly where they are driving it.
But Leibovich doesn't linger long on that question -- and hardly applies it to Allen, the subject of the profile, at all. If Leibovich is right about how influential Mike Allen and his Playbook are in setting the agenda in the nation's capital (and I'm not prepared to argue against that premise), Leibovich's decision not to explore this question is a glaring omission. Leibovich writes that the Playbook is "the cheat sheet of record for a time-starved city," but pays no attention the question of whether it should be -- whether, for example, Allen compiles and writes his Playbook in a way that points its Very Important Readers toward thoughtful analysis of important policy questions and ground-breaking investigative pieces, or toward horse-race journalism, dime-store political analysis, and gossip.
There's an odd assumption among many political reporters that Republican attacks on Nancy Pelosi are some sort of silver bullet in the GOP's campaign attack arsenal. Time's Jay Newton-Small, for example, writes today:
In 1994, the GOP had Gingrich, an outsize personality whose Contract with America manifesto gave congressional Republicans a simple and accessible platform around which to rally voter discontent. This time, there's no clear-cut, dynamic leader to spearhead the charge and challenge Obama the way Gingrich challenged Clinton. On the other hand, in 1994 no one knew who Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley and Democratic Senate majority leader George Mitchell were. These days, the faces of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are plastered all over GOP attack ads.
But Republicans have been attacking Nancy Pelosi for three election cycles now, with little evidence it has ever helped them win a single campaign. Yet again and again, the media assume it'll work this time, apparently forgetting the last time Republicans made a show of attacking Pelosi. And the time before that. And the time before that ...
Maybe it will work this time. But shouldn't reporters be a little more skeptical after all those failures?
(And just for the record: Despite Newton-Small's suggestion that the "Contract with America" was a key to the GOP's 1994 victory, it was rolled out just a few weeks before election day and had very little to do with the GOP's gains that year. Yes, 1994 -- not, as the Tea Party Patriots would have it, the 1980s. You'd think a group backed by Dick Armey's FreedomWorks would know that ...)
Yesterday, an RNC aide sent reporters an email listing a bunch of mundane DNC expenditures -- money spent on hotels and travel, mostly -- in an apparent attempt to draw some sort of equivalence between staying at the Hilton and visiting a sex club. As Time's Jay Newton-Small put it, the DC expenditures are "very milquetoast" and "none of them were particularly controversial."
Naturally, Politico's Jonathan Martin posted the list -- the entire list -- under the over-heated headline "RNC drops oppo on DNC high-falutin' expenditures." Because, as you may know by now, Politico really is just a GOP bulletin board. Martin breathlessly explained:
RNC spokesman Doug Heye just blasted out raw oppo detailing the fact that the other guys also drop some cash for fancy purposes (mostly to stroke donors).
Writes Heye above the research goodies: "I thought you might find the list below of DNC expenditures of interest."
Wow, "Blasted out raw oppo" really makes it sound impressive, doesn't it? But it was just a list of payments to hotels. Not many "research goodies" there. And Heye's I-thought-you-might-be-interested line? Was that really quote-worthy? Basically, Heye sent around a whole big pile of nothing, and Politico's Jonathan Martin tried desperately to hype it into something.
It gets worse.
Politico then followed up with an article about the email, in which reporter Andy Barr listed several of the "research goodies" the RNC provided, just in case anyone missed Martin's blog post. For example: "During the past year and half, the DNC has paid $4,464 to the limousine service Carey International." That should just about lock up a Pulitzer, don't you think?
Interestingly, Barr vouched for the accuracy of the RNC's email, writing "the data the RNC presents is accurate." Why is that interesting? Because Time's Newton-Small wrote that "the RNC couldn't provide the Federal Election Commission links to each of the searches and the DNC disputed at least one item: the catering charge at the Elysian which wasn't at the Bahamian beach resort but, rather, the Elysian Hotel in Chicago." Barr didn't address that discrepancy.
Gee, you don't think Politico's Andy Barr affirmatively vouched for the accuracy of the RNC email without first checking the information himself, do you? Because that would be dishonest and wrong.
Believe it or not, there was a time when reporters didn't simply re-print opposition research without checking into it first -- particularly when the research in question is as mundane as a list of car companies and hotels. And when affirmatively proclaiming the accuracy of partisan political attacks without actually looking into them would get a reporter in some hot water.
Media have falsely claimed President Obama, members of his administration, and certain congressional staff are "exempt" from the recently enacted health care bill. In fact, the bill subjects the White House, members of Congress, and their staffs to the same reforms and requirements as the rest of the American people.
Early this afternoon, the Politico's Chris Frates posted a breathless story about a "memo obtained by POLITICO" that had been "sent Thursday to Democratic staff" in Congress.
Frates' story -- which coupled the memo with Republican allegations that "Democrats were playing a shell game" with the cost of health care reform and the so-call "doc fix" -- said nothing about where he got the memo and in no way suggested that there were any doubts about its authenticity.
Any reasonable reader would have assumed that since Frates simply wrote that the memo had been sent to "Democratic staff," a Democrat had leaked it to Politico.
As it turns out, that's apparently not what happened.
An earlier post in this spot detailed what was purported by Republicans to be an internal Democratic memo regarding the upcoming health reform vote Sunday. Democratic leadership has challenged the authenticity of the memo. POLITICO has removed the memo and the details about it until we can absolutely verify the document's origin.
So only now, after its story has been challenged, is Politico acknowledging that its source for the memo was unnamed "Republicans." That detail appeared nowhere in Frates' original story.
This is particularly significant since Politico also appears to be acknowledging that it posted the story without having "absolutely verif[ied] the document's origin."
In other words, two days before one of the biggest votes in recent memory, Politico published this article based only on Republican sources -- a fact it failed to disclose -- and without confirming that it was accurate. Moreover, they apparently rushed it up just in time for Rush Limbaugh to talk about it on his radio show, which he did. At length.
This has now become an issue not about whether the memo is real, but about the Politico itself.
As the right-wing American Spectator's Phil Klein wrote on Twitter, "Even were it to turn out to be real at this pt, they've just said that they dont verify stuff b4 posting."
Just how predictable is it that Republicans would peddle the idea that attacking Nancy Pelosi is their silver bullet -- and that Politico would dutifully write it up? Take a look at some previous headlines:
GOP pushes Pelosi as boogeywoman (11/1/08)
GOP ready to link Obama to Reid, Pelosi (7/29/08)
GOP slams Pelosi in new ad campaign (5/23/07)
At least once, though, Politico has realized that the GOP hasn't exactly been successful with this strategy in the past. That November 1, 2008 article reported:
For more than two years, Nancy Pelosi has played a starring role in Republican attacks on Democratic congressional candidates.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) warned of the liberal horrors of a Pelosi regime in the runup to the 2006 elections, and so far this year Republicans have tried to use the current House speaker against Democratic challengers in House races in Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.
It didn't work in 2006, and it's not working this year, yet many Republicans continue to use Pelosi power as the ultimate threat to American governance.
And yet here's Politico, once again reporting that Republicans plan to run against Pelosi -- and failing to note that the GOP has tried this repeatedly, without success.
Politico hypes a classic dog-bites-man story:
Wait: Republicans are attacking Nancy Pelosi? You don't say.
This passage is typical of the article:
Still, GOP challengers are convinced the anti-Pelosi campaign is a winner given the strong opinions that many voters hold about her leadership.
I know I'm repeating myself here, but: No. GOP challengers say they are convinced the campaign is a winner. What else would you expect them to say? "Yeah, we don't know if this will work, but we figure it's worth a shot"? Come on.
Incredibly, Politico never got around to mentioning that Republicans announce a plan to run against Democrats by attacking Nancy Pelosi every few months -- and every time congressional elections role around, it doesn't' work.
If you're going to call yourself "Politico," shouldn't you have some ability to put political strategy in context?
You might think it's impossible to out-do Politico when it comes to granting political operatives anonymity so those operatives can lob partisan attacks at the other team that they'd be unwilling to put their name behind. (Here's a recent example.)
But it turns out Politico is a bunch of amateurs compared to Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller, which has decided to cut out the middle man entirely. Rather than typing up some GOP operative's (anonymous) attack on the Democrats, then dashing off a few paragraphs as filler, Daily Caller took a much more efficient approach: It ran a column equating Eric Massa And Mark Foley -- a column written by someone identified only as "Mr. GOP, a former House leadership staffer, [who] is writing under an assumed name to protect his identity."
Aside from the obvious absurdity of granting a political operative an anonymous column to hype a scandal in the other party, you have to love the circularity of the Daily Caller's explanation for why "Mr. GOP" wanted that anonymity. He's "writing under an assumed name to protect his identity"? Gee, you don't say? Why else would someone write under an assumed name? The real question isn't why "Mr. GOP" wanted to "protect his identity" -- it's why The Daily Caller wanted to.
Politico rushes to hype the Weekly Standard's baseless speculation that the White House tried to win Rep. Jim Matheson's support for health care reform by nominating his brother to a judgeship, under the header "Some Republicans criticize judge pick."
But Politico could only come up with one such Republican, Rep. Michele Bachmann. By contrast, Politico had two Republicans who praised the nomination, including one who directly debunked the conspiracy theory.
And, of course, Politico didn't mention that The Weekly Standard, where this baseless allegation originated, has a history of making dubious claims about White House efforts to win health care votes.
Instead, Politico concluded: "As pressure mounts on Democrats to pass reform, look for Republicans to pounce on anything that looks like a backroom deal because those previous deals were key to helping sour the public on reform."
Yeah -- and look for Politico to help them do so, no matter how shaky the ground from which the Republicans are pouncing.
If you were writing an article headlined "Republicans cast doubts on Senate parliamentarian," would you wait 16 paragraphs before mentioning that the Senate Parliamentarian was elevated to the job when Republicans fired his predecessor for ruling against them? Would you omit any mention of the fact that, having done so, Republicans then threatened to fire him?
If not, you just aren't cut out for Politico, which reports:
Senate Republicans are waging a pre-emptive strike against the Senate's parliamentarian - a hitherto little-known official who could determine the fate of the Democrats' health care reform efforts.
In interviews with POLITICO, several Republican senators and aides cast Parliamentarian Alan Frumin - a 33-year veteran of the Senate - as someone who is predisposed to side with the Democrats if they attempt to use the reconciliation process to pass parts of their bill.
The Senate GOP's previous behavior towards Senate parliamentarians, including Frumin, would certainly seem to undermine their "pre-emptive strike." Maybe that's why Politico glossed over it?