AP’s Obama ‘Fact-Check’ Does Not Meet the ‘Gotcha’ Threshold

This AP “fact check” (2/24/09) of President Barack Obama’s speech is, as usual, a sad effort. You really need to have some threshold for calling “gotcha,” and some of these–maybe all of these–really don’t measure up.

Obama says, “Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market,” and AP‘s Calvin Woodward and Jim Kuhnhenn retort, “This may be so, but it isn’t only Republicans who pushed for deregulation of the financial industries.”

But Obama didn’t say–or suggest–that they were. Nor is he the sort of politician who routinely pretends that his party can do no wrong, and all problems are the other guys’ fault. To falsely attribute a sentiment to someone so you can “debunk” is simply unethical journalism; it’s much more misleading than anything AP found in Obama’s speech.

Obama says, “It’s a plan that won’t help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford, but it will help millions of Americans who are struggling with declining home values.” And AP says: “If the administration has come up with a way to ensure money does not go to home buyers who used bad judgment, it hasn’t announced it.”

Well, actually, there will be requirements in the mortgage bailout plan that attempt to target it at more diligent borrowers. AP could have described how this would work, and people could have decided for themselves how effective those tests would be at screening out irresponsible borrowers. Or AP could have made an argument that the rules would be inadequate to achieve Obama’s stated goals. Either of those would have been informative.

But instead the wire service rejects Obama’s statement on almost philosophical grounds, since no public policy is ever going to make fine moral distinctions perfectly. That’s not really a very helpful observation to make about a policy.

Obama says, “We have already identified $2 trillion in savings over the next decade.” AP comes back with, “Obama only has a real say on spending during the four years of his term.” Really? So the decisions made by George W. Bush in 2001 have no impact on the choices Obama will have in his first two years? And Clinton’s 1993 actions didn’t affect what Bush could do? That’s not how the federal government works–in reality, budget and revenue choices have consequences for years to come.

Sometimes Woodward and Kuhnhenn seem to be calling for qualifications that would appear absurd in any politician’s speech. For example, after Obama lists the goals he says his budget will achieve, AP all but snorts: “First, his budget does not accomplish any of that. It only proposes those steps.” As if Obama should have followed with: “Of course, that may not happen. Congress may vote down my budget and reject my programs, and we may accomplish nothing.” Does AP seriously expect any politician to talk like that?

I edit a magazine of media criticism for a living; it’s pretty common for our articles to include examples of media figures saying something that we say isn’t true. None of the examples from Obama’s speech that AP cites would be strong enough to make it into Extra!–except maybe the catch about where the automobile was invented.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.