July 31, 2008—At this pivotal moment in American history, the major U.S. news media is back to its old game of drawing sweeping character judgments about a presidential candidate based on misleading “quotes,” a sickening replay of other recent elections.
The latest example of this wearisome gamesmanship was a column by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who distorted a reported quote from Sen. Barack Obama at a closed Democratic caucus and used it to prove Obama was a “presumptuous nominee.”
Milbank’s colleague from the Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial page, Jonathan Capehart, then took the point a step further on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show, citing the misleading quote to establish that Obama is an “uppity” black man.
Yet, the true meaning of the Obama quote at the core of Milbank’s snarky column appears to have been almost the opposite of how Milbank used it.
Milbank wrote: “Inside [the caucus], according to a witness, [Obama] told the House members, ‘This is the moment . . . that the world is waiting for,’ adding: ‘I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.’"
However, other people who attended the caucus complained that Milbank had yanked the words out of context to support his “presumptuous” thesis, not to reflect what Obama actually was saying.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, said Obama’s comment was “in response to what one of the [House] members prefaced the question by,” a reference to the crowd of 200,000 that turned out to hear Obama speak last week in Berlin.
According to Clyburn, Obama “said, ‘I wish I could take credit for that, but I can't. Because it's not about me. It's about America. It's about the people of Germany and the people of Europe looking for a new hope, new relationships, as we go forward in the world.’ So, he expressly said that it's not about me.”
A House Democratic aide sent an e-mail to Fox News saying, “Lots of people are reading the quote about Obama being a symbol and getting it wrong. His entire point of that riff was that the campaign IS NOT about him.
“The Post left out the important first half of the sentence, which was something along the lines of: ‘It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It’s about America. I have just become a symbol ...’”
So, it appears that Obama’s attempt to show humility was transformed into its opposite – what is fast becoming a powerful attack theme against him, that he is too big for his britches, that he is coming across, as Capehart put it, as an “uppity” black man. [Capehart himself is black.]
But the out-of-context quote was only part of Milbank’s case. Virtually everything in the column was viewed through the lens of trying to prove Obama’s arrogance.
When Washington police and the Secret Service block off roads for Obama’s motorcade, that was not simply prudence in the face of extraordinary security concerns for Obama’s life; it was proof that Obama already sees himself as a head of state.
When Obama had a phone conversation with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, these weren’t just routine matters for a U.S. Senator or the presumptive nominee of a major party; they were further evidence of Obama’s “uppity” behavior.
Milbank wrote that Obama “ordered up a teleconference with the (current President's) Treasury secretary, granted an audience to the Pakistani prime minister. ... Then, he went up to Capitol Hill to be adored by House Democrats in a presidential-style pep rally.
“Along the way, he traveled in a bubble more insulating than the actual President's. Traffic was shut down for him as he zoomed about town in a long, presidential-style motorcade, while the public and most of the press were kept in the dark about his activities.”
Milbank groused, too, about the tight security that the police put around Obama’s movements on Capitol Hill.
“Capitol Police cleared the halls -- just as they do for the actual President. The Secret Service hustled him in through a side door -- just as they do for the actual President,” Milbank wrote.
While Milbank portrayed these security steps as further evidence of Obama’s hubris, there is no reason to believe that Obama had any say in the decisions of his security detail to protect the candidate.
One has to wonder: Doesn’t Dana Milbank have any idea of the physical danger that surrounds the first African-American to have a serious chance to be elected President of the United States? Does Milbank really want to heighten the political pressure on Obama to take more chances with his personal safety than he already does?
Do Milbank and the Washington Post want to feed the irrational hatred that already swirls around Obama by portraying him as an “uppity” black man with the obvious subliminal message that might send to some angry white guy, like the fellow who went on a shooting rampage because he hated “liberals”?
Presumably, Milbank and the Post don’t want to add to the danger that Obama faces. It’s more likely that they simply couldn’t resist their reflexive disdain for people whom they consider challengers to the Washington Establishment.
Many people who know Obama personally say he is anything but the egomaniac that Milbank and others are trying to depict. One longtime political observer told me he was surprised at how unassuming Obama was, that he had yet to be spoiled by the self-importance that is a disease among Washington politicians – and journalists.
Milbank and many of his Post colleagues delight in cutting down to size outsiders who threaten their insider world. Just last Saturday, Milbank mocked a House Judiciary Committee hearing on George W. Bush’s abuses of presidential power.
To read the column, you would never know that there actually is a strong case for believing that President Bush violated a significant number of international and domestic laws, the U.S. Constitution, and honorable American traditions, like George Washington’s prohibition against torture.
Instead, it was time to laugh at the peaceniks. Milbank opened by agreeing with a put-down from Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, calling the session “an anger management class.” Milbank wrote: “House Democrats had called the session ... to allow the left wing to vent its collective spleen.”
Milbank then insulted Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who has introduced impeachment resolutions against Bush, by calling the Ohio Democrat “diminutive” and noting that Kucinich’s wife is “much taller” than he is.
What Kucinich’s height had to do with an issue as serious as abuses of presidential power was never made clear. What Milbank did make clear, through his ridicule and insults, was that the Washington Establishment takes none of Bush’s crimes and abuses seriously.
Indeed, for Milbank and his neocon Post editors, mocking critics of the Iraq War is nothing new.
In 2005, when the Democrats were in the minority and the Republicans gave Rep. John Conyers only a Capitol Hill basement room for a hearing on the Downing Street Memo’s disclosures about “fixed” intelligence, Milbank’s column dripped with sarcasm.
“In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe,” Milbank wrote. “They pretended a small conference room was the Judiciary Committee hearing room, draping white linens over folding tables to make them look like witness tables and bringing in cardboard name tags and extra flags to make the whole thing look official.”
And the insults – especially aimed at Conyers – kept on coming. The Michigan Democrat “banged a large wooden gavel and got the other lawmakers to call him ‘Mr. Chairman,’” Milbank wrote snidely. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Mocking the Downing Street Memo.”]
The new themes mocking Obama also have a precedent in the treatment of Al Gore when he ran for President in 2000. Much of the Washington press corps openly disdained Gore as a “know-it-all” and longed for the restoration of the “adults” who were supposed to return with George W. Bush.
In that climate, major news organizations, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, saw no particular need to quote Gore accurately or to challenge the apocryphal stories about him, like the invented Gore quote: “I invented the Internet.”
The Post and Times added to the frivolity when reporters for these two premier newspapers mangled a quote by Gore about his role in the Love Canal toxic-waste clean-up, making Gore seem as self-absorbed as Milbank now makes Obama.
The Love Canal quote controversy began on Nov. 30, 1999, when Gore was speaking to a group of high school students in Concord, New Hampshire. He was exhorting the students to reject cynicism and to recognize that individual citizens can effect important changes.
As an example, he cited a high school girl from Toone, Tennessee, a town that had experienced problems with toxic waste. She brought the issue to the attention of Gore's congressional office in the late 1970s.
"I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing," Gore told the Concord students. "I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the first hearing on that issue, and Toone, Tennessee -- that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."
After the hearings, Gore said, "we passed a major national law to clean up hazardous dump sites. And we had new efforts to stop the practices that ended up poisoning water around the country. We've still got work to do. But we made a huge difference. And it all happened because one high school student got involved."
The context of Gore's comment was clear. What sparked his interest in the toxic-waste issue was the situation in Toone -- "that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."
After learning about the Toone situation, Gore looked for other examples and "found" a similar case at Love Canal. He was not claiming to have been the first one to discover Love Canal, which already had been evacuated. He simply needed other case studies for the hearings.
The next day, the Washington Post stripped Gore's comments of their context and gave them a negative twist.
"Gore boasted about his efforts in Congress 20 years ago to publicize the dangers of toxic waste," the Post reported. "Gore said his efforts made a lasting impact. 'I was the one that started it all,' he said."
The New York Times ran a slightly less contentious story with the same false quote: "I was the one that started it all."
The Republican National Committee spotted Gore's alleged boast and was quick to fax around its own take.
"Al Gore is simply unbelievable -- in the most literal sense of that term," declared Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson. "It's a pattern of phoniness -- and it would be funny if it weren't also a little scary."
The GOP release then doctored Gore's quote a bit more. After all, it would be grammatically incorrect to say, "I was the one that started it all." So, the Republican handout fixed the grammar to say, "I was the one who started it all."
In just one day, the key quote had been transformed from "that was the one that started it all" to "I was the one that started it all" to "I was the one who started it all."
Instead of taking the offensive against these misquotes, Gore tried to head off the controversy by clarifying his meaning and apologizing if anyone got the wrong impression. But the fun was just beginning.
The national pundit shows quickly picked up the story of Gore's new exaggeration.
"Let's talk about the 'love' factor here," chortled Chris Matthews of CNBC's Hardball. "Here's the guy who said he was the character Ryan O'Neal was based on in ‘Love Story.’ ... It seems to me ... he's now the guy who created the Love Canal [case]. I mean, isn't this getting ridiculous? ... Isn't it getting to be delusionary?"
The next morning, Post political writer Ceci Connolly highlighted Gore's boast and placed it in his alleged pattern of falsehoods.
"Add Love Canal to the list of verbal missteps by Vice President Gore," she wrote. "The man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie 'Love Story' and to have invented the Internet says he didn't quite mean to say he discovered a toxic waste site." [Washington Post, Dec. 2, 1999]
That night, CNBC's Hardball returned to Gore's Love Canal quote by playing the actual clip but altering the context by starting Gore's comments with the words, "I found a little town..."
"It reminds me of Snoopy thinking he's the Red Baron," laughed Chris Matthews. "I mean how did he get this idea? Now you've seen Al Gore in action. I know you didn't know that he was the prototype for Ryan O'Neal's character in ‘Love Story’ or that he invented the Internet. He now is the guy who discovered Love Canal."
Matthews compared the Vice President to "Zelig," the Woody Allen character whose face appeared at an unlikely procession of historic events. "What is it, the Zelig guy who keeps saying, 'I was the main character in ‘Love Story.’ I invented the Internet. I invented Love Canal."
The following day, Rupert Murdoch's New York Post elaborated on Gore's pathology of deception.
"Again, Al Gore has told a whopper," the Post wrote. "Again, he's been caught red-handed and again, he has been left sputtering and apologizing. This time, he falsely took credit for breaking the Love Canal story. ... Yep, another Al Gore bold-faced lie."
On ABC's "This Week" pundit show, there was head-shaking amazement about Gore's supposed Love Canal lie.
"Gore, again, revealed his Pinocchio problem," declared George Stephanopoulos. "Says he was the model for 'Love Story,' created the Internet. And this time, he sort of discovered Love Canal."
The Love Canal controversy soon moved beyond the Washington-New York power axis.
On Dec. 6, The Buffalo News ran an editorial entitled, "Al Gore in Fantasyland." It stated, "Never mind that he didn't invent the Internet, serve as the model for 'Love Story' or blow the whistle on Love Canal. All of this would be funny if it weren't so disturbing."
The next day, the right-wing Washington Times judged Gore crazy.
"The real question is how to react to Mr. Gore's increasingly bizarre utterings," the Times wrote. "Webster's New World Dictionary defines 'delusional' thusly: 'The apparent perception, in a nervous or mental disorder, of some thing external that is actually not present ... a belief in something that is contrary to fact or reality, resulting from deception, misconception, or a mental disorder.'"
Yet, while the national media was excoriating Gore, the Concord students were learning more than they had expected about how media and politics work in modern America.
For days, the students pressed for a correction from the Washington Post and the New York Times. But the prestige papers balked, insisting that the error was insignificant.
"The part that bugs me is the way they nit pick," said Tara Baker, a Concord High junior. "[But] they should at least get it right." [AP, Dec. 14, 1999]
Finally, on Dec. 7, a week after Gore's comment, the Postpublished a partial correction, tucked away as the last item in a corrections box. But the Post still misled readers about what Gore actually said.
The Post correction read: "In fact, Gore said, 'That was the one that started it all,' referring to the congressional hearings on the subject that he called."
The revision fit with the Post's insistence that the two quotes meant pretty much the same thing, but again, the newspaper was distorting Gore's clear intent by attaching "that" to the wrong antecedent. From the full quote, it's obvious the "that" refers to the Toone toxic waste case, not to Gore's hearings.
Three days later, the New York Times followed suit with a correction of its own, but again without fully explaining Gore's position.
"They fixed how they misquoted him, but they didn't tell the whole story," commented Lindsey Roy, another Concord High junior.
Even after the half-hearted corrections, the false Love Canal quote continued to ripple through the national news media, with many newspapers repeating the erroneous version and drawing harsh conclusions about Gore’s “delusions.”
The “Lyin’ Al” theme was exploited by the Bush campaign, which questioned Gore’s fitness for the presidency. Public concerns about Gore’s honesty – and even his sanity – helped keep the race close enough for Bush to claim the White House despite losing the popular vote by about half a million ballots.
[For more details, including how the press distorted the “Love Story” issue and the Internet quote, see our book, Neck Deep.]
Now, eight years later, the Washington Post is back in the lead, misusing a quote to establish another powerful theme, this time against Barack Obama, that he is an “uppity” black man.
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This story was published on July 31, 2008.