Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Gray Lady Blushes

David Yamada of Universal Hub caught a small fry in the clash of headlines offered by the Boston Globe and the New York Times about President Obama's hour and a half personal appearance at the Republican congressional retreat yesterday. The news event was the same. The news article was the same. It was written by the same two people. The two papers are owned by the same corporation.Yet, as Yamada points out, the headlines are "vastly different."

Forget the ridiculous clashing headlines of the same New York Times and Globe reports. It's the full news report itself, written by Peter Baker and Carl Hulse, that is unbelievably insipid, incompetent, and biased. They have presented a completely false sense of the nature of yesterday's extraordinary meeting between Obama and all of the Republicans in Congress. The proof is in the videotape.

As James Fallows says, "It's the most interesting thing you can watch today." The full videotape is available here. The transcript is here. Various slices of the Q. and A. are here ... and almost everywhere else on the web -- except Fox News, of course.

Thankfully, historians will have the actual videotapes and transcripts to rely upon, rather than Baker and Hulse's deeply misleading account.

First, the lede was inexcusably deceptive. A lede is supposed to give the reader an accurate -- not necessarily a "fair and balanced" -- summary of the news event. Their lede ("President Obama denied he was a Bolshevik, the Republicans denied they were obstructionists and both sides denied they were to blame for the toxic atmosphere... .") sounds more like typical, discreditable "politics-as-horse race" clap-trap.

Second, they completely wimp out on the historic nature of the event, a shameful thing for "the newspaper of record." What Baker and Hulse write ("The encounter at a Baltimore hotel was unlike ... very many other presidencies") is proof they didn't understand, and therefore could not truthfully report on, the context of this event. It wasn't "unlike... many other presidencies." It was utterly unique. Such a direct, unscripted, confrontation between a sitting president and the entire minority party of Congress has NEVER been televised, or a transcript issued, to the public in all of our nation's history. Not ever. Period.

Have Baker and Hulse not even read Richard Neustadt's "Presidential Power," the bible of executive-congressional relations? That, and every other similar book and article on the subject of how presidents and congress relate to one another, negotiate, attempt persuasion, bargain, and exercise their constitutional powers instantly went out of date yesterday.

Third, the Baker and Hulse report on its face was heavily biased. It supplies precisely the undeserved gloss Republicans might have wished for. Exhibit A: "Just to make the point that they have been more than the party of no, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio... handed [Obama]a booklet called “Better Solutions” compiling a variety of Republican ideas that they said the president had ignored or resisted over the last year."

Do they mention this was the same 27-page full-color handout ginned up in January, referencing every single bill introduced by any G.O.P congressman -- most during the BUSH years -- which the Republican sponsors were never serious enough to bring to the floor of the House when they had a majority? No. Are Hulse and Baker even-handed enough to quote Obama's reply that he'd read their "stuff" and needed more from experts to suggest it would work? No.

Fourth, Baker and Hulse mention only in summary that "Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas challenged him on the spending plan he will unveil next week." This, of course, is the episode that's getting the widest play elsewhere -- for reasons anyone depending on the New York Times report wouldn't know: because it reveals Hansarling's scripted 'question' to be nothing more than a partisan recital of past and projected budget numbers that have no relationship to reality. Or, as Obama replied (and Hulse and Baker ignore), Hansarling offered nothing but "an example of how it's very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that we're going to do, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign." Hansarling had his facts completely wrong. Obama called him on it.

As readers of this blog will know, we are not particularly an Obama partisan. We disagree with many of his policies and legislative tactics. For present purposes, however, an even larger concern is intellectual honesty and factual accuracy in journalism.

Yesterday's meeting between Obama and his Republican congressional critics was a completely unprecedented event and the Baker and Hulse report blew it, big time. The Gray Lady should be blushing with shame.

Here's one excerpt that everyone's talking about:

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