Sunday, September 02, 2012

They should know better

We're in the middle of the silly season for politics, with one convention down and one convention to go. Both sides will line up the programs for the events with speakers anxious to galvanize their audience into cheers and, eventually, action.

Realistically, much of the language is going to be slanted toward a particular side. We expect that out of our politicians throughout the Presidential process. Ex-candidate Michelle Bachmann often referred to the "failed stimulus," even though most could make a good case that our GNP has gone through this weak recovery better than any other Western democracy -- in part, because of the many billions pumped into the economy by the government. (The money is going somewhere, after all.).

Still, sometimes a line gets crossed. Let's bring up a couple of examples. Since the Republicans have spoken and the Democrats have not, I'll pick on them here. I no doubt could do the reverse in a week.

In his acceptance speech, Paul Ryan blamed Barack Obama for an auto plant's closing in Wisconsin, even though the plant more or less shut down before January 2009 when Obama took office. When the media pointed that fact out, loudly, Ryan said that Obama promised to lead the effort to re-tool the plant and get it operational again ... which hasn't happened. That's a rather weak defense.

Then there's the theme taken out of many speeches in which President Obama is quoted as saying that small businesses didn't make their enterprise go, that the companies had help -- which sounds like he doesn't value the work of entrepreneurs..

The problem is that while the principle matches a Republican campaign theme, the quote was taken very much out of context. I heard Mike Huckabee do it live, but there were others. For the record, here is the actual quote:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said. “There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

That brings me to the major point.

As a journalist, what are two of the worst things I can do when reporting on a story? Number one might be to get a fact wrong, which puts into question every single other piece of information in the story. Number two is to quote someone out of context, leading to charges I have deliberately misled the reader to go in a specific direction. 

Everyone I know in the business works very hard to avoid those flaws. But when they happen, and sometimes they do, the reporters are called on it ... often loudly. Since political figures are quoted more than most people, they do the most calling. 

And since politicians know the effects of such bending and breaking of the truth in such ways, you'd think they would know better. But too often, they don't. 

If you'd like to know why reporters, and voters, become cynical about campaigns, this strikes me as a good, if relatively discreet, example.

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