Aug 1 2012

You Didn’t Build That–or Say It

In election attacks, 'working' trumps true

Sometimes the problem with corporate media’s coverage of elections is the absence of factchecking. And then there are times when the problem is more fundamental than that–when reporters suspend a minimal level of critical judgment in order to allow a political campaign to set a preferred storyline.

Recent campaign coverage has focused on a supposed Barack Obama “gaffe” that was made to appear to be an attack on small business owners. This came during an Obama appearance on July 13; the quote, in the isolation preferred by the Romney campaign, was this:

If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.

What Obama said was actually this:

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. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

This is the kind of thing Obama was talking about. (Photo by Brandon Cripps.)
It would be hard to draw a rational conclusion that Obama was saying that small business owners don’t build small businesses. As FAIR’s Jim Naureckas noted (FAIR Blog, 7/20/12):

Now, if you’ve got a basic understanding of the English language, you can see that the word “that” there doesn’t refer to “business”–it refers to “roads and bridges” in the previous sentence. If you can’t see that, you really shouldn’t be in the word business.

The thrust of the Romney attack, which emerged several days after Obama said these words, was to argue that Obama really did mean what he most certainly did not.

But campaign journalists are mostly not in the factchecking business. Their main preoccupation is in cataloguing the attacks and counter-attacks in a campaign season. So the Washington Post (7/17/12) reported the story this way:

At a rally in Pennsylvania, Romney seized on a remark Obama made during a campaign stop in Virginia last week to make his case that the president is ill-equipped to fix the country’s economy.

“He said this: ‘If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,'” Romney told the 700-member crowd at Horizontal Wireline, referring to Obama. “That somebody else is government, in his view.”

A few days later (7/21/12), a letter to the editor in the Post argued that the paper should have included more of the quote: “By not clarifying and correcting the context of Romney’s quote of Obama, the article in effect supported a falsehood.” Maybe the paper should consider hiring that letter writer as an editor.

On ABC‘s This Week (7/22/12), conservative pundit George Will declared the quote enormously revealing–all the more so when host George Stephanopoulos asked him to explain it to viewers:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Explain what was in the speech.

WILL: The speech was that if you built it, you didn’t really build it.

That’s false, of course. But many outlets saw the incident as a way to talk about campaign strategy. On NPR‘s All Things Considered (7/25/12), Audie Cornish explained, “Mitt Romney’s campaign thinks it’s found a powerful weapon in a snippet from one of President Obama’s speeches.” Cornish went on to tell listeners that “in a few minutes, we’ll listen to exactly what the president said in context.” But that context would come at the end, after a report devoted to how an out-of-context comment can be turned into a campaign advantage, as Cornish discussed with reporter Scott Horsley:

CORNISH: Scott, the Romney campaign has been beating this drum for over a week now. They must feel like they’re hitting a nerve.

HORSLEY: They do, Audie. Mitt Romney started talking about this at rallies last week, and they had a really strong feedback from business owners in the audience. Some of those business people took visceral exception to the suggestion from the Romney campaign that Mr. Obama doesn’t think small business owners deserve credit for what they’ve built.

Indeed, some of the coverage seems consciously aware that the quote is being mangled–but acts as though that is not the main issue. As Time‘s Mark Halperin wrote (8/6/12):

Sustained weakness in the economy remains the president’s biggest vulnerability, and his recent remark that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that”–taken out of context and exploited by the GOP as purported proof that Obama neither understands nor respects the private sector–is resonating across much of the country with CEOs and pizza-parlor owners alike.

At the Washington Post, Aaron Blake (7/18/12) wrote that “Obama’s remark is only the latest example of the president embracing–intentionally or not–the label of a big-government Democrat.” Blake goes on to explain that “the context of the remark makes it pretty clear that he’s referring to government-funded things like teachers and roads that make entre­pre­neur­ship possible.” The lesson, though, is not that the Romney campaign is being dishonest, but that “Republicans have gotten great mileage out of labeling Democrats as big-government liberals and tax-raisers over the past few decades.”

Blake returned to the issue a few days later (7/26/12) with an article about how context wasn’t as important as whether an attack “works”–and this “you didn’t build that” attack was working.

“The problem is, the gray area is just too gray,” Blake wrote, arguing that this case was like several others in that “we’re dealing with a somewhat ambiguous quote.” But his explanation suggests there isn’t much ambiguity at all:

In the case of “You didn’t build that,” it seems logical that Obama was referring to the fact that business owners didn’t build the roads and the bridges that he mentioned in the preceding sentence. But most GOP advertising on the issue has left viewers with the impression that he was referring to small-businesses owners who don’t deserve credit for building their own businesses.

Blake’s piece ends with an odd line about how “people who don’t dissect this stuff as much as we do are going to take the pulled quotes at face value.” Which is apparently a good reason to not try to set the record straight.

That was the message of an NPR Morning Edition segment (7/25/12) about the controversy, which boiled down to the assertion that facts don’t much matter anyway. Both sides air misleading attacks, explained reporter Ari Shapiro, who went to explain that efforts to discern “the true meaning of a candidate’s comments” might be a fool’s errand, since “there is lots of evidence that people don’t necessarily seek the truth.”

The piece concluded:

So what did President Obama actually mean when he said “you didn’t build that,” or what did Mitt Romney mean when he said “I like to fire people”? Increasingly the answer seems to be: You don’t want to know.

That is a strange conclusion for a journalist to reach.

And some coverage sought to assign a deeper meaning to what would seem to be a rather petty issue. “Philosophic Clash Over Government’s Role Highlights Parties’ Divide” was the headline of a July 19 New York Times article by Peter Baker. The clipped Obama quote was now “a favorite Republican talking point.” As Baker explained:

Suddenly his critics had proof that he does not believe in individual success or the free market. Mitt Romney scrapped much of his stump speech on Wednesday to focus on the line and sent surrogates to reinforce the point. Mr. Obama’s aides said he was taken out of context, that he was referring to the value of public structures like bridges and roads in the nation’s commerce.

Those are two very different interpretations; so who is right? To Baker, that would seem to be far less important than pointing out that an out-of-context quote can actually define the presidential race:

Either way, putting aside the predictable partisan cross-fire and the inevitable Internet-fueled distortions, even in proper context the president’s remarks crystallize a profound disagreement that defines this year’s campaign.

Baker goes on to note the obvious:

Read in total, Mr. Obama’s comments make clear that he celebrates individual achievement and free enterprise while believing that they are bolstered by collective investment.

Since one presidential candidate is basing a campaign narrative around willfully misinterpreting the other’s words, perhaps the defining issue of the campaign is not the candidates’ views on government, but rather one candidate’s willingness to peddle obvious falsehoods. But putting it that way might seem biased.


NPR Ombud Edward Schumacher-Matos

Washington Post Ombud Patrick B. Pexton