Saturday, July 11, 2009

MEDIA MATTERS sets the record straight!

Media Matters: Did you hear the one about the sleazy Obama photo? Don't buy it.

At 2:45 p.m. on Thursday, a member of the right-wing message board Free Republic posted a Reuters photo that the news wire captioned as "U.S. President Barack Obama (C) and France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (R) take their places with junior G8 delegates for a family photo at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy." The Free Republic member invited other members to submit alternative captions for the photo, resulting in dozens of sexually suggestive replies, some using racist epithets.

Thirty minutes later, Internet gossip Matt Drudge promoted the same photo with the headline "Mr. President!" Drudge later revised his headline to read "Second Stimulus Package!"

About two hours later, at 5:12 p.m., the Fox News website The Fox Nation posted the picture along with the headline "Another Stimulus?" It later revised the title to read "Busted?"

Just minutes after Fox Nation's mocking of the photo, ABC News' Jake Tapper posted the photo with the headline "When In Rome...?"

Around 4 a.m., almost 12 hours after he first posted the photo, Tapper posted this message on Twitter: "that foto of POTUS seeming to be sneaking a leer is misleading, im told - video shows the moment was completely innocent." He also updated his blog post by adding "Actually, not so much" to the headline and including video of the incident. Tapper wrote in the updated post, "On first glance, the snapshot appears to show President Obama caught in a moment of less than lofty analysis. But upon looking at the video, the moment might seem to appear quite innocent -- one of those times when a picture can be misleading. The president was on a higher step and was stepping down -- so he looked down to assure his footing as the woman was walking up the stairs." He concluded: "Although: not everyone agrees. Judge for yourself."

Drudge subsequently included a link to Tapper's blog post with the headline "ABCNEWS: NO HE DIDN'T ..."

A classic example of how the right-wing noise machine works was unfolding before the American people. A non-story starts on a right-wing website and works its way into the mainstream. It usually involves Drudge, the fedora-wearing boy who cries wolf (almost daily) on the Internet, and mainstream news outlets follow his lead, offering up under-researched and factually inaccurate story lines.

Had the mainstream media done their job -- you know, checking the video to get the context from which the photo was taken -- they would have clearly seen that Obama was attempting to navigate high steps, while reaching back to help someone behind him do so as well. As Fox News host Greta Van Susteren said after airing video of the event, "Yes, a still picture can lie. And this one does."

Of course, the next morning after Van Susteren's show, the Fox & Friends crew went right back to trashing the president with lascivious speculation that was contradicted by easily accessible fact.

News segments that set the record straight are unfortunately the exception and not the rule. Fox's Van Susteren, ABC's Good Morning America, and MSNBC Live should be commended for pushing back in segments about the faux controversy. Perhaps their colleagues could learn a thing or two from their example. After all, journalists and news outlets checking the facts before running with a "story" is the least we should expect.

Other major stories this week:

Looks like these networks need to gather better intelligence

Eight weeks ago, a controversy erupted after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed during a press conference that the CIA did not inform her and other members of Congress of its past use of waterboarding. Her statement was purportedly contradicted by CIA Director Leon Panetta, who later issued a statement that said, "It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress."

In the days that followed, Pelosi was attacked repeatedly in the press as having besmirched the integrity of the agency in order to defend herself politically, with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough leading the charge. Pelosi was "lying" and "changing her story," he said on May 15, adding, "You don't accuse the CIA of lying. Especially when they're not lying." Three days later, he was even more vocal: The speaker had "been caught in a lie, and I think she really, for the sake of herself and her political future -- she needs to shut up."

The situation changed this week after Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) released a letter on July 7 stating that Panetta admitted in a closed hearing that the CIA had not fully informed Congress on other classified matters. But rather than apologize for his earlier remarks, Scarborough seemed to pretend they had never happened, saying simply that Pelosi, whom he called "a friend of mine from Congress" had "caught a lot of grief." Soon enough, however, MSNBC national security analyst Roger Cressey began the cycle of recrimination again, accusing Democrats of "refighting issues from five years ago."

Economic coverage could have been stimulated by the facts

This week, the economic stimulus bill -- signed by Obama as the first major act of his administration -- failed. At least, according to the obituary it received in the press.

The trouble started when Vice President Joe Biden commented during an interview that the administration had "misread how bad the economy was." The statement, which lent itself to exaggeration, was immediately pounced on by CNBC's Larry Kudlow and Fox's Sean Hannity and Van Susteren, who declared the stimulus "a misreading of the solution to the economy," a "screw-up," and "based on a house of cards," respectively.

Scarborough and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo soon rang further alarm bells about the national debt, in the process falsely claiming that the administration had justified its spending policies by predicting an economic growth rate of 4 percent "over the next decade." In fact, the administration's plans were not based on such a prediction; instead, it assumed a growth rate of 3.2 percent growth in 2010 and 2.6 percent from 2015 through 2019.

The dubious analysis continued when Stephen Moore claimed the following day, "The one thing this administration won't do is cut taxes." Though Moore is "senior economics writer" for The Wall Street Journal, he somehow missed that the stimulus included $288 billion in tax cuts. Van Susteren didn't correct him, although ABC's Claire Shipman at least tried to politely set the record straight the next day on Hannity. She almost got a second sentence in before being drowned out by misinformation.

On this particular issue, however, Fox was to be outdone. MSNBC's Contessa Brewer was shocked -- shocked -- that the government was taking action to address the economy. Her impartial, journalistic assessment deserves to be quoted in full:

Ah, the nagging problem of a faltering economy and millions of out-of-work Americans. And the government's solution? First, taxpayers shell out $700 billion in TARP funds. And then, a sweeping stimulus that costs $787 billion. Oh, and then there's the minimum trillion-dollar health reform in the works. And now talk of another stimulus bill? What?

Contessa Brewer: this week's winner of the Rick Santelli Award for Sage Financial Analysis.

While Fox's Andrew Napolitano raged against the very idea of more stimulus funds -- which he deceptively referred to as a "third bailout" -- both Hannity and CNN's Kiran Chetry were busy suggesting that the contents of the first bill had been doled out as political favors. As proof, they both cited a USA Today article that had actually said the opposite. Specifically, it stated: "Investigators who track the stimulus are skeptical that political considerations could be at work." Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that Fox & Friends felt comfortable reporting on an alleged connection between a campaign contribution to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and a stimulus-funded contract -- without noting that Hoyer's office had already denied any involvement in the awarding of the money.

But it was MSNBC's Mike Barnicle who best illustrated what's wrong with the overwhelming majority of current economic punditry. On Wednesday, he asked his Morning Joe co-hosts incredulously, "What are they doing with the [stimulus] money?" Then on Thursday, he reflected on the detrimental nature of America's "amazingly impatient culture" where people can't stop asking, "Where's the money?" Simply put, this kind of schizophrenic analysis is still overwhelming logical thought, much to the detriment of the viewing public.

BOB HERBERT The Human Equation


Vice President Joe Biden told us this week that the Obama administration “misread how bad the economy was” in the immediate aftermath of the inauguration.

Puh-leeze. Mr. Biden and President Obama won the election because the economy was cratering so badly there were fears we might be entering another depression. No one understood that better than the two of them. Mr. Obama tried to clean up the vice president’s remarks by saying his team hadn’t misread what was happening, but rather “we had incomplete information.”

That doesn’t hold water, either. The president has got the second coming of the best and the brightest working for him down there in Washington (think of Larry Summers as the latter-day Robert McNamara), and they’re crunching numbers every which way they can. They’ve got more than enough data. They understand the theories and the formulas as well as anyone. But they’re not coming up with the right answers because they’re missing the same thing that McNamara and his fellow technocrats were missing back in the 1960s: the human equation.

The crisis staring America in its face and threatening to bring it to its knees is unemployment. Joblessness. Why it is taking so long — seemingly forever — for our government officials to recognize the scope of this crisis and confront it directly is beyond me.

There are now five unemployed workers for every job opening in the U.S. The official unemployment rate is 9.5 percent, but that doesn’t begin to tell the true story of the economic suffering. The roof is caving in on struggling American families that have already seen the value of their homes and retirement accounts put to the torch.

At the present rate, upwards of seven million homes can be expected to fall into foreclosure this year and next. Welfare rolls are rising, according to a survey by The Wall Street Journal. The National Employment Law Project has pointed out that hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers will begin losing their jobless benefits, just about the only thing keeping them above water, by the end of the summer.

Virtually all of the job growth since the start of the 21st century (which was nothing to crow about) has vanished. If you include the men and women who are now working part time but would like to work full time, and those who have become so discouraged that they’ve stopped actively searching for work, you’ll find that 16.5 percent of Americans are jobless or underemployed. Nearly everyone who is fortunate enough to have a job has a spouse or a parent or an in-law or a close friend who is desperate for employment.

Anyone who believes that the Obama stimulus package will turn this jobs crisis around is deluded. It was too small, too weakened by tax cuts and not nearly focused enough on creating jobs. It’s like trying to turn a battleship around with a canoe. Even if it were working perfectly, the stimulus would not come close to stemming the cascade of joblessness unleashed by this megarecession.

I’d like to see the president go on television and, in a dramatic demonstration of real leadership, announce a plan geared toward increasing employment that is both big and visionary — something on the scale of the Manhattan Project, or the interstate highway program or the Apollo spaceflight initiative.

My choice would be a “Rebuild America” campaign that would put men and women to work repairing, maintaining, designing and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure in the broadest sense — everything from roads and schools and the electrical power grid to innovative environmental initiatives and a sparkling new mass transportation network, including high-speed rail systems.

One of the ways of financing such an effort would be through the creation of a national infrastructure bank, which would provide federal investment capital for approved projects and use that money to leverage additional private investment.

There was a time when Americans could think on such a scale and get it done. We used to be better than any other nation on the planet at getting things done. It would be tragic if the 21st century turns out to be the time when that extraordinary can-do spirit disappears and we’re left with nothing more meaningful and exciting than lusting after tax cuts and trying to pay off credit card debt.

The joblessness the nation is experiencing is crushing any hope of a real economic recovery. With so many Americans maxed out on their credit cards and with the value of their homes deep in the tank, the only money available to spend in most cases is from paychecks. The best and the brightest in Washington may have a theory about how to get the economy booming without dealing with the employment crisis, but I’d like to see that theory work in the real world.

PAUL KRUGMAN NYTimes 'Stimulus Progress'

The Stimulus Trap

As soon as the Obama administration-in-waiting announced its stimulus plan — this was before Inauguration Day — some of us worried that the plan would prove inadequate. And we also worried that it might be hard, as a political matter, to come back for another round.

Unfortunately, those worries have proved justified. The bad employment report for June made it clear that the stimulus was, indeed, too small. But it also damaged the credibility of the administration’s economic stewardship. There’s now a real risk that President Obama will find himself caught in a political-economic trap.

I’ll talk about that trap, and how he can escape it, in a moment. First, however, let me step back and ask how concerned citizens should be reacting to the disappointing economic news. Should we be patient and give the Obama plan time to work? Should we call for bigger, bolder actions? Or should we declare the plan a failure and demand that the administration call the whole thing off?

Before you answer, consider what happens in normal times.

When there’s an ordinary, garden-variety recession, the job of fighting that recession is assigned to the Federal Reserve. The Fed responds by cutting interest rates in an incremental fashion. Reducing rates a bit at a time, it keeps cutting until the economy turns around. At times it pauses to assess the effects of its work; if the economy is still weak, the cutting resumes.

During the last recession, the Fed repeatedly cut rates as the slump deepened — 11 times over the course of 2001. Then, amid early signs of recovery, it paused, giving the rate cuts time to work. When it became clear that the economy still wasn’t growing fast enough to create jobs, more rate cuts followed.

Normally, then, we expect policy makers to respond to bad job numbers with a combination of patience and resolve. They should give existing policies time to work, but they should also consider making those policies stronger.

And that’s what the Obama administration should be doing right now with its fiscal stimulus. (It’s important to remember that the stimulus was necessary because the Fed, having cut rates all the way to zero, has run out of ammunition to fight this slump.) That is, policy makers should stay calm in the face of disappointing early results, recognizing that the plan will take time to deliver its full benefit. But they should also be prepared to add to the stimulus now that it’s clear that the first round wasn’t big enough.

Unfortunately, the politics of fiscal policy are very different from the politics of monetary policy. For the past 30 years, we’ve been told that government spending is bad, and conservative opposition to fiscal stimulus (which might make people think better of government) has been bitter and unrelenting even in the face of the worst slump since the Great Depression. Predictably, then, Republicans — and some Democrats — have treated any bad news as evidence of failure, rather than as a reason to make the policy stronger.

Hence the danger that the Obama administration will find itself caught in a political-economic trap, in which the very weakness of the economy undermines the administration’s ability to respond effectively.

As I said, I was afraid this would happen. But that’s water under the bridge. The question is what the president and his economic team should do now.

It’s perfectly O.K. for the administration to defend what it’s done so far. It’s fine to have Vice President Joseph Biden touring the country, highlighting the many good things the stimulus money is doing.

It’s also reasonable for administration economists to call for patience, and point out, correctly, that the stimulus was never expected to have its full impact this summer, or even this year.

But there’s a difference between defending what you’ve done so far and being defensive. It was disturbing when President Obama walked back Mr. Biden’s admission that the administration “misread” the economy, declaring that “there’s nothing we would have done differently.” There was a whiff of the Bush infallibility complex in that remark, a hint that the current administration might share some of its predecessor’s inability to admit mistakes. And that’s an attitude neither Mr. Obama nor the country can afford.

What Mr. Obama needs to do is level with the American people. He needs to admit that he may not have done enough on the first try. He needs to remind the country that he’s trying to steer the country through a severe economic storm, and that some course adjustments — including, quite possibly, another round of stimulus — may be necessary.

What he needs, in short, is to do for economic policy what he’s already done for race relations and foreign policy — talk to Americans like adults.

What Happened in Vegas


The reason the Republicans lost so many Senate seats last November is now becoming clear. No one had any time to think about the campaign. They were too busy worrying about Senator John Ensign’s sex life.

Last month Ensign, a Nevada Republican, called a press conference to confess that he had had an affair with a former staff member. That was when we learned, to general surprise, that Ensign had been widely regarded as a possible future presidential candidate. Also, that he is currently the only veterinarian in the U.S. Senate.

Nobody paid a great deal of attention. Really, there are only so many randy Republicans we can keep track of at once. But lately, the Ensign saga has become more and more fascinating. Every social conservative in Washington seems to have been involved.

Most of the juicy details have been supplied by Doug Hampton, Ensign’s former chief of staff, who says his wife, Cindy, a bookkeeper for Ensign’s political action committees, was seduced by the senator while they were guests at the Ensign home over the Christmas holidays in 2007. Hampton, 47, gave a long TV interview in Las Vegas this week — a disjointed account of betrayal in which he concluded at one point: “All of those tentacles were birthed because John needed things to go down like this.”

It’s actually a good thing that adultery knocked Ensign out of the presidential contest because it appears that he would not be the kind of leader who surrounds himself with the best and the brightest.

The senator says the affair went on until August 2008. Doug Hampton’s version is that it lasted only a few months, followed by a long period of complicated drama in which the remorseful Cindy was pursued by the Love Veterinarian.

Ensign was, at the time, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which was supposed to be working to elect candidates in 2008. In Washington, he lived with some other conservative Christian lawmakers in a building known as the “Prayer House.” Both members of the N.R.S.C. and residents of the Prayer House were brought into the drama. Hampton, in his version of events, seems to remember Ensign’s friends as being particularly concerned with making sure that the cuckolded aide got generous compensation for his suffering.

One of Ensign’s roommates, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, was described by Hampton as being particularly vocal about the importance of cash contributions to “make these folks whole.” Coburn denies this, although he won’t say exactly what advice he gave to his erring colleague. Coburn told Roll Call that he talked to Ensign as a “physician and as an ordained deacon” and that he will therefore have the right to keep mum even if he’s dragged into court or a Senate committee hearing.

This makes me sort of hope that some kind of investigation takes place just so Coburn, who’s an obstetrician, can explain how exactly doctor-patient confidentiality figures into this.

Hampton says Ensign’s friends convinced the senator to write Cindy a good-bye letter, then bundled him off to the FedEx office to make sure it got mailed. Then, he claimed, Ensign called Cindy and said: “The letter’s coming. ‘Doug’s ratted me out. Don’t pay attention to the letter.’ ”

Let’s hope this part of the story isn’t true. I’d hate to think that a person who says things like “Doug’s ratted me out” is in the U.S. Senate. Or even giving rabies shots to beagles in Las Vegas.

We hardly need to point out that Ensign was one of the people who demanded that President Bill Clinton resign over the Lewinsky affair, that he votes against financing for education and contraception services to combat teenage pregnancy and that he supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In the world of politics, hypocrisy is a hard market to corner, but lately the Republicans have been making a Microsoft-like effort to do it.

Both of the Hamptons lost their jobs, and Doug was shuttled off to a Las Vegas-based airline, run by a friend of Ensign’s, where he is now vice president of government affairs. Unappeased, he hired a lawyer to demand that Ensign make financial amends for “evil and completely unjustifiable acts by one of our country’s top leaders.” He also tried to leak the story of the affair to Fox News, apparently under the theory that out of all the media, Fox would be most excited by the opportunity to humiliate a powerful conservative Republican senator.

While Ensign refused to respond to what small and negative minds might regard as blackmail, the senator’s parents gave the Hamptons $96,000. Ensign’s father is a retired casino mogul, and the senator’s lawyer said the money was given “out of concern for the well-being of longtime family friends during a difficult time. The gifts are consistent with a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family to the Hamptons and others.”

Truly, this puts a whole new spin on the term “family values.”