When Barack Obama decided to reject public financing in the general election, corporate media and Republican partisans made an identical attack, claiming that Obama broke a promise to take public funding. Unfortunately, this claim was demonstrably untrue: Obama hadn't made an unconditional promise to take public financing.
The New York Times (6/20/08) referred to Obama's "decision to break an earlier pledge to take public money." NPR (All Things Considered, 6/19/08) reported, "Earlier, Obama had said he would participate in public financing if his Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, did the same." NPR's Weekend Edition host Scott Simon (6/21/08) went even further, falsely asserting that Obama had admitted to "reversing his pledge to take public financing."
NBC Nightly News (6/19/08) reported that Obama "did promise to observe the limits if his opponent did." Chris Matthews on MSNBC (6/19/08) accused Obama of "breaking his principles, breaking his word." The New York Post (6/20/08) headline was "Going Barack on His Word."
On ABC World News (6/19/08), anchor Charles Gibson proclaimed, "This is a direct contradiction to what Obama said." The next day, Gibson began the evening news, "Flip-flop flack: Mounting criticism of Barack Obama for refusing public financing." According to ABC's Jake Tapper (Good Morning America, 6/20/08), "Obama's stark abandonment of a pledge he repeatedly made during the Democratic primaries has dinged his reputation as a government reformer, and it clearly gave his critics ammunition to attack his character and paint him as a Democratic flip-flopper."
That line of attack, echoing the McCain campaign's characterization of Obama's move, became particularly common: "It was a flip-flop of epic proportions," said Mark Shields on PBS's NewsHour (6/20/08), with his supposed counterbalance David Brooks adding that it was "the low point of the Obama candidacy" and "epic hypocrisy." NPR's Scott Simon (6/21/08) asserted that "Senator Obama's reversal raises fair questions about the sincerity of his campaign promises." The Washington Post's David Broder (6/26/08) wrote that Obama was "rightly criticized for rigging the system."
Even progressives fell into this trap. Rachel Maddow declared (MSNBC, 6/20/08) that his stand was "a reversal from his previous position." Salon's Joan Walsh (MSNBC, 6/20/08) proclaimed that Obama "flip-flopped on campaign finance law."
From the very beginning, the Obama campaign repeatedly stated that public financing in the general election would require a negotiated agreement that went beyond having both candidates accept the funding. In February 2007, Obama's staffers were explicit in stating that public financing in the general election was an "option" and not a commitment (Politico, 2/14/08). The New York Times (3/2/07) reported Obama's campaign saying that he would "aggressively pursue an agreement."
In response to a September 2007 questionnaire from the Midwest Democracy Network (11/27/07), Obama wrote:
My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors and stay within the public financing system for the general election. . . . If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.
No one can fairly read this answer as suggesting that Obama would accept public financing under any condition. Nevertheless, this was the "pledge" that the press repeatedly claimed Obama was breaking. As MSNBC's Keith Olbermann (a rare exception to the media parade of conformity) noted in criticizing Gibson and Stephanopoulos (6/19/08): "You guys have bigger IQs than that. Can't you read the whole paperwork?"
Obama consistently repeated his conditional pledge to reporters in Milwaukee (Politico, 2/15/08), in a USA Today op-ed (2/20/08), during a Democratic presidential debate (2/26/08) and in an interview on Fox News Sunday (4/27/08).
ABC News (6/19/08) cited an isolated December 23, 2007, Iowa speech in which Obama said: "I wrote a letter to the FEC saying if my Republican opponent is willing to abide by public financing, I would abide by public financing as well." However, since Obama's letter to the FEC made no such promise, it is difficult to claim that this comment, unreported at the time, amounted to a binding promise that overturned all of the explicitly conditional pledges made by Obama.
While the corporate press corps were denouncing Obama for breaking a pledge he hadn't made, they were devoting comparatively little attention to the legal complaints against Sen. John McCain for making a legally binding pledge to accept public financing for his primary campaign, using this promise to secure a loan and get on state ballots more easily, and then backing out of his signed commitment in order to accept unlimited private donations (Washington Wire, 2/24/08).
It is true that Obama had promised to "aggressively pursue an agreement," and one could legitimately question how aggressive his efforts were. (Obama based his claim that McCain wouldn't meet his terms on one meeting between top lawyers for the campaigns—Political Punch, 6/19/08.) However, there is a fundamental difference between a pledge to take public financing and a pledge to "pursue an agreement," and the media consistently misreported the facts.
John K. Wilson is the author of Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies (collegefreedom.org) and Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest (obamapolitics.com).