Presswatch

Now They Tell Us

By From the September 2009 issue

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THE BAD NEWS CAME in an Associated Press dispatch July 8 titled "PROMISES, PROMISES: Obama Tax Pledge Unrealistic." Candidate Barack Obama had promised not to raise taxes "on anyone but the wealthiest Americans." But President Obama had already violated that pledge by signing a bill in February that raised excise taxes on tobacco.

By July, the AP reported, Obama and congressional Democrats were considering a tax increase on alcohol, new taxes on soft drinks and employer-provided health insurance, and limits on the deductibility of home mortgage interest, state and local taxes, and charitable contributions. The House had already passed a bill that would impose a massive new tax on energy. The only way Obama would come close to keeping his promise not to raise taxes on families earning under $250,000 would be if Congress balked at the rest of his domestic agenda.

Goodness, why didn't anyone warn us during the campaign?

Someone did. John McCain and Republicans supporting his candidacy repeatedly argued that Obama would raise taxes. Those claims, of course, were partisan and deserved to be discounted as such. But the AP was more than skeptical. In a series of campaign "fact check" stories, the wire service asserted that it was false-by implication a lie-to say that Obama would raise taxes. One such story was titled "FACT CHECK: McCain Persists in Exaggerations":

McCain also accuses Obama of aiming to raise taxes on small businesses, which he says would cause them to cut jobs. He has recently fleshed out that point by invoking "Joe the Plumber," who told Obama on a campaign stop in Ohio that he wants to buy the plumbing business where he works, but is afraid Obama's tax plan would make that impossible.

In fact, Obama would raise taxes on small businesses making more than $250,000, but only about two percent of small businesses in the country fall into that category. And Obama is also proposing targeted tax relief for small businesses, such as a tax credit for offering health care to employees and elimination of capital gains taxes on startup businesses.

The day before the election, the AP's Calvin Woodward summed things up disapprovingly: "Altogether, facts took a beating in the campaign.... When a non-licensed plumber who owes back taxes and would get a tax cut under Obama is held out by McCain as a stand-in for average working people who should vote Republican, you know truth-telling took a back seat to myth-making."

In truth, facts took a beating in the AP's campaign coverage because the wire service, in embracing an opinionated style of reporting it calls "accountability journalism" (see Presswatch, TAS, September 2007), mired itself in epistemological confusion.

When McCain and others said Obama would raise taxes, they were not making a factual claim but a prediction-an accurate one, as it turned out. Obama's claim that he would not raise taxes wasn't a factual assertion either, but a statement of intention. To treat the latter as the refutation of the former is like saying it's false to predict the Steelers will win the Super Bowl because the Cardinals' coach says his team intends to win.

Actually, it's worse than that. Whereas it's rare for a sports team to throw a game, politicians are known to make promises in bad faith. In treating it as a fact that Obama wouldn't raise taxes, the AP was assuming his honesty as well as his ability to carry out the pledge. Thus the AP's "fact checks" perpetuated rather than debunked a campaign myth.

JUNE SAW ANOTHER EPISODE in which the media were late to deliver information about Obama- but in this case, to the president's detriment. For days after Iran's mockery of a travesty of a sham election, Obama had hemmed and hawed as critics pressed him to take a clear position. On Friday, June 19, a week after the Iranian balloting, he finally did. In an interview with CBS News's Harry Smith, Obama said:

What you're seeing in Iran are hundreds of thousands of people who believe their voices were not heard and who are peacefully protesting and- and seeking justice. And the world is watching. And we stand behind those who are seeking justice in a peaceful way. And, you know, already we've seen violence out there. I think I've said this throughout the week. I want to repeat it that we stand with those who would look to peaceful resolution of conflict, and we believe that the voices of people have to be heard, that that's a universal value that the American people stand for and this administration stands for....

But the last point I want to make on this-this is not an issue of the United States or the West versus Iran. This is an issue of the Iranian people. The fact that they are on the streets under pretty severe duress, at great risk to themselves, is a sign that there's something in that society that wants to open up.

The interview was to air in full the following week, but excerpts of it appeared on Friday's CBS Evening News. All of the above-quoted material, however, ended up on the cutting room floor. Viewers heard only the familiar refrains: "We respect Iran's sovereignty," and, "The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States."

The White House appears to have wanted to make news with Obama's new toughness. The CBS Evening News airs at 6:30 p.m. eastern standard time, and the interview excerpts led Friday's broadcast. At 6:48-after the segment had aired but before the broadcast was complete-the White House Blog posted the full exchange under the title "The President on Iran: ‘The World Is Watching.' " The following day, the White House press secretary's office issued a statement from the president reiterating what he had said in his CBS interview. Only then was it widely reported.

How could CBS have failed to notice that the president had given it a scoop? One explanation, oddly enough, is pro-Obama bias. On Saturday, the day after the interview aired, CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller posted on Twitter a series of up-to-the-minute reports on Obama's visit to an ice cream parlor. (Examples, quoting verbatim: "Malia had vanilla frozen custart in a waffle cone." "You're gonna laff: Obama & the girls actually bought Frozen Puppy pops for Bo.")

The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb reported that some of Knoller's Twitter followers took exception to such frivolity in light of the crisis in Iran. Knoller responded: "Surprised by the outrage at the ice cream outing. What is it you expect or want the US to do about Iran? Attack? War?"

The notion that Obama's critics were plumping for war was a partisan trope-and Knoller, by repeating it, was acting as a partisan rather than a reporter. If Knoller's mentality was common at CBS, it may be that the Evening News producers edited Obama's interview to conform to their own preconceived idea of his position. Fixated on the agenda rather than the news, they failed to notice the news that the agenda had changed.

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.