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TPM Mangles Reporting on Presidential Comments

March 15th, 2012 · 1 Comment

Earlier today, at Talking Points Memo, Benjy Sarlin authored Obama Mangles U.S., World History In Energy Speech. While Sarlin’s article provides some interesting nitpicking about President Obama’s excellent speech, a basic point: Sarlin mangled the reporting in a way that boosts the strength of his points via rather questionable journalism. 

Sarlin’s nitpicking focuses on a Presidential quip about a former President and a comment re the Flat Earth society.

Let’s take these in term. From the President’s speech

One of my predecessors, Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone, “It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?” (Laughter.) That’s why he’s not on Mt. Rushmore — (laughter and applause) — because he’s looking backwards. He’s not looking forwards. (Applause.) He’s explaining why we can’t do something, instead of why we can do something.

See the word that I underlined. It appears in both the speech draft and in the transcript ‘as given’. In other words, the speechwriters inserted a caveat about Hayes’ Luddite tendencies when it came to telephones and the President respected it in his comments.

Sarlin takes President Obama to task since, according to Nan Card, curator of manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Ohio, this apocryphal story is essentially the opposite of the truth — in fact, according to Card, Hayes embraced new technology.

“He really was the opposite,” she said. “He had the first telephone in the White House. He also had the first typewriter in the White House. Thomas Edison came to the White House as well and displayed the phonograph. Photographing people who came to the White House and visited at dinners and receptions was also very important to him.”

Card is aware of story leading to the “reportedly” but hasn’t been able to authenticate it.

Minor problem with Sarlin’s interesting attack on Obama? The word “reportedly” never appears in it. You have to go to the commentators, who are taking him to task, to find out that Sarlin chose to leave out a highly relevant part of the President’s commentary.

That TPM didn’t include the “reportedly” is skewed journalism. Sarlin could have attacked it as a sign that the President’s team knew that they were on shaky ground, for example, but to not include the word is a direct indication of a decision to report only a partial truth.

Is anyone surprised that the RWSM is gleefully quoting and leveraging Sarlin’s mangled reporting on the issue?

To provide a context for responding to Republicans who attack President Obama over this quote, from The Atlantic:

While the Hayes library can’t figure out where this rumor got started, … it was popularized by President Reagan, who repeated the same anecdote Obama told Thursday in speech for the National Technology Awards in 1985. “In the years that followed, the line was widely cited, although rarely attributed.”

Ronald Reagan’s speech‘s opening paragraph for that 1985 speech.

You know, one of the last times that this grand old mansion played host to an event concerning technology was back in ’76-1876. President Rutherford B. Hayes was shown a recently invented device. “That’s an amazing invention,” he said, “but who would ever want to use one of them?” He was talking about a telephone. I thought at the time that he might be mistaken.

Notice that Ronald Reagan didn’t say reportedly …

As for the other mangled attack on the President’s of historical references, here are the President’s comments that just proceeded the Hayes’ quip

Lately, we’ve heard a lot of professional politicians talking down these new sources of energy. They dismiss wind power and solar power. They make jokes about biofuels and electric cars. They were against raising fuel standards because apparently they like gas guzzling cars better. We’re trying to move towards the future, and they want to keep us stuck in the past.

Of course, we’ve heard this kind of thinking before. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they probably would have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. Maybe they would have agreed with one of the pioneers of the radio who apparently said, “Television won’t last. It’s a flash in the pan.” Or one of Henry Ford’s advisors who was quoted saying, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only…a fad.”

Sarlin attacks the use of “Flat Earth Society” with this paragraph:

In fact, historians have long contended that the notion Europeans widely believed the Earth was flat, let alone 15th century Spanish scholars, is a myth developed centuries later

Rather than taking words out of the President’s mouth, in this case Sarlin puts them in there. Where does Obama put in “widely believed”? It isn’t as Obama said “just like 99% of Europeans …” even though that line does play right into American culture and common understanding of history. The “Flat Earth Society” reference works and is something that the American people will understand.. In fact, if there were simply a small number of Flat Earthers arguing against Christopher Columbus that makes the President’s analogy even stronger, since the majority of Americans support clean energy investments despite massive investments in fossil-foolish propaganda.

All in all, it is Sarlin who merits the “mangled” and not the President.

NOTE: About the speech, see President equates Republican clean-energy opponents to Flat Earth Society

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Tags: 2012 Presidential Election · President Barack Obama · truthiness

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 winner // Mar 15, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    Well written and thorough takedown. Maybe you can grab some of the readers fleeing TPM in droves now that it’s transformation to a crap rag is complete.