I think my greatest pet peeve in this industry is watching people report news without context. Context isn't just important, it's everything — especially in these days of insta-pickup by blogs and online news sites, where just a snippet of text is enough to launch a million clicks.
You'd think that in the case of this election, where the race is tight and a nasty rumor or smear can make all the difference, people might want to be a bit careful. Alas, no. Case in point: The conflagration over Bill Clinton's "Fairytale" comment, made on January 7th at Dartmouth College, before the New Hampshire primary, but exploding over the past few days as an issue of race. Yes, race — that scary third rail of politics around which everyone tiptoes — suddenly an issue around a comment made by a guy once known as "America's First Black President." Wow - he must have said something pretty bad. What was it?
Here's the quote, which was part of a larger comment on Obama's representation of his Iraq war position:
"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, numerating 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 website in 2004 and there's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since?' Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."
Wow, strong words — but unequivocally pertaining to Obama's Iraq war position. Pretty clear cut, right?
Ha, as if. Here's what it morphed into in the media: BILL CLINTON CALLS OBAMA'S MESSAGE OF HOPE AND INSPIRATION A FAIRYTALE! HE THINKS OBAMA'S DREAM FOR BLACK AMERICA IS A FAIRYTALE!
I kid you not. Some examples:
New York Times, Jan. 11th: "[Former President Clinton] described Mr. Obama's campaign narrative as a fairy tale."
The Politico, Jan 11th: "...Bill Clinton dismissing Sen. Barack Obama's image in the media as a 'fairy tale'"
BreitbartTV, Jan. 8th, which hosted the full clip yet chose to headline it in the most inflammatory (and inaccurate) way possible: "Bill Clinton Fumes About Obama: 'Biggest Fairy Tale I've Ever Seen'"
Same NYT article, quoting someone else incorrectly framing the comment: "[Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC)] saw the remark as a slap at the image of a black candidate running on a theme of unity and optimism. "To call that dream a fairy tale, which Bill Clinton seemed to be doing, could very well be insulting to some of us."
Maureen Dowd, NYT, Jan 9th: "Bill churlishly dismissed the Obama phenom as 'the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen.'"
Donna Brazile on CNN, Jan. 8th: "For him to go after Obama, using a fairy tale, calling him as he did last week. It's an insult. And I will tell you, as an African-American, I find his tone and his words to be very depressing."
Here's what I find to be very depressing: When someone's words are taken deliberately out of context and blasted across the headlines to make them sound like a racist. That, to me, is despicable. Whether all of the above sources did so deliberately isn't clear (Breitbart obviously did, the NYT and Politico ought to have been more specific and accurate, who knows where Clyburn and Brazile got their information) — but at this point, the misinformation is out there, so much so that Clinton had to call into Al Sharpton's show to explain himself. ("When did you stop beating your wife, sir?")
It's up to the media to be on top of these things — especially when they're reporting on it. For the New York Times to report that Clinton "described Mr. Obama's campaign narrative as a fairy tale" is a completely egregious error of fact. For the Politico to say that Clinton called Obama's "image in the media" a fairytale is equally egregious. Ditto Maureen Dowd saying that the fairytale in question was the "Obama phenom." (And, by the way, the fact that all three of these characterizations are different should have been the first tip-off). For Rep. James Clyburn to say that Clinton was calling the dream of unity a fairytale, for Brazile to say he called Obama the fairytale, in an "insult" that she reacted to "as an African-American" — well, now, that brings it to a whole new and very scary level.
Think about where Clinton started. Now think about where that remark has ended up. Wow, if people weren't careful about what they said about Obama before, I bet they sure will be now. I'd just like to see the media be as careful about what they say about the Clintons.
Update: God bless Frank Rich, who does get it right , referring to: "Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" rant falsifying Mr. Obama's record on Iraq." Knowing he's being strictly accurate about the first gives him that much more credibility in his assertion of the second. And for the record, I point to Obama's response to Clinton below. Also: Here's where the NYObserver mischaracterized the remarks too. One more: Alas, the otherwise wonderful Bob Herbert makes the same glib error, claiming that Clinton was talking about "Mr. Obama's effort."
"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 a year after I got to the Senate from the Illinois State Senate. I am a great speaker and a charismatic figure and I'm the only one who had the judgment to oppose this 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 UN inspectors were through. Chuck Hagel 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 co-operate with the inspectors and he was assured personally by 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, numerating 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 website in 2004 and there's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since?' Give me a break.
"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 hand out that was covered up, the press never reported on, implying that I was a crook? Scouring me, scathing criticism, over my financial reports. 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 that we didn't do better in Iowa. But you know, the idea that one of these campaigns is positive and the 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.
"Otherwise I do not have any strong feelings about that subject."