The Bullpen

The media's shameful exploitation of political soundbites

If you listened only to cable-news bobbleheads, you'd think President Obama is a clueless economic neophyte and Mitt Romney hates firefighters

Paul Brandus

It was a week where the politicians stepped in the you-know-what. And it was a week that showed one side of how the media works — the dumb and lazy side.

Where to begin? You had Bill Clinton's spokesman issuing a statement saying that what the former president meant to tell CNBC was that his views on extending the Bush tax cuts are, in fact, aligned with President Obama's. Earlier, Clinton had inadvertently made it seem like he was supporting the Republican position that taxes should not be raised on high-income earners. "I'm very sorry about what happened," he told CNN. "Upper-income people are going to have to contribute to the long-term debt reduction." But too late. Republicans and anyone else eager to undermine the president had already gotten two days of fodder out of Clinton's remarks. The clarification got little play from the news media.

Then on Friday morning, President Obama did the rhetorical equivalent of hitting an iceberg, when at a mini-news conference in the briefing room he uttered six very damaging words: "The private sector is doing fine." Republicans pounced.

Sadly, the media seems to prefer playing up that which is dramatic or boneheaded while paying scant attention to the bigger picture.

"Is he really that out of touch?" Mitt Romney asked. "Has there ever been an American president who is so far from reality?"

For the GOP, Obama's boneheaded comment is the gift that keeps on giving. Swing-state TV viewers, heads up: You're going to hear those six words, oh, about a zillion times between now and November. The first ad is already out.

The president moved to contain the self-inflicted damage, starting with an Oval Office photo op around 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon:

"Listen, it is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine… There are too many people out of work. The housing market is still weak and too many homes underwater. And that's precisely why I asked Congress to start taking some steps that can make a difference."

Once again, too late. Obama's earlier comment, by then five hours old — an eternity in our ever-shrinking news cycle — had bounced around cable TV and Twitter (complete with the hashtag #doingfine), giving Republicans first-mover advantage. Obama's clarification, like Clinton's, got less attention than the original gaffe, and seemed to vanish quickly. It also didn't help the White House that Obama's clarification came late on a gorgeous Friday afternoon.

But let's take a closer look at Obama's comments. Note that he originally said the private sector was doing fine, but in his clarification, he said "It is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine."

Indeed it is not. Twenty-three million Americans are jobless or underemployed, a record 48 million are on food stamps, and household income stands at 1996 levels. Does anyone truly think Obama's not aware of this? The spark for much of this misery, by the way: The 2006 housing bust — now in its seventh year.

On the other hand: As of Monday, the stock market (as measured by the S&P 500) is up 96.3 percent since the March 2009 low. Corporate profit margins, notes The Economist, "are higher than at any time in the past 65 years." So guess what? Your investments, including your retirement funds, are probably in, uh, finer shape today than they were four years ago, when the market crashed (unless you panicked and sold on the way down). In case you forgot, the crash — that's the word — took the S&P down a staggering 57 percent in just 17 months (October 2007: 1,565 to March 2009: 666). Talk about not doing fine.

No one knows this better than Romney himself, one of the richest men to ever run for president, who derives the bulk of his income from investments — which are taxed at the low Bush-era rates that Obama extended for two years back in 2010. No doubt his portfolio has come roaring back over the last few years.

Taken in isolation, Obama's original comment was foolish.

But the broader context seems lost — if not outright ignored — by the media, which as we've seen from the original Clinton and Obama comments, seemed to prefer playing up that which was dramatic ("Clinton breaks with Obama on taxes!") or boneheaded ("Obama says things are fine!") while paying scant attention to the clarification or bigger picture. But that's the way politics, the media, and the news cycle works.

This loose lips syndrome has hurt Romney too, by the way. In criticizing Obama's original comments (which said municipal cutbacks were decimating the ranks of teachers, cops and firefighters), Romney went too far:

"[Obama] says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin?" Romney said while campaigning in Iowa. "The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."

So Romney is against cops, firefighters and teachers, eh? Now it was the Obama campaign's turn to pounce. Since all of this played out late on a Friday, few noticed, and even fewer took note of Team Romney's clarification, which landed in inboxes at 10:27 at night. It broadened the context of Romney's comment, in which he said that voters agree with the overall point of the Wisconsin recall election: That increasing government employment and raising taxes to pay for it isn't the way to economic prosperity. The Romney walkback got little play over the weekend.

Thus, presidential politics 2012 style: Bonehead comment. Rival attack. Clarification. Repeat. Clinton, Obama, and Romney are, of course, at fault for saying such dumb things in the first place, but much of the media is also to blame for fanning the flames and pandering for viewers and pageviews by playing up the drama and not the substance of the matter at hand. They serve the voters poorly in this election year.

 Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.


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