Obama’s Parking Tickets: Who Cares?

A little story about the candidate's parking tickets during his law school days got way more play than it deserved.

At 2:45 p.m. Wednesday afternoon the Somerville News, “Somerville’s Most Widely read Newspaper!”, published a scoop on its rudimentary Web site: During his first year and a half as a Harvard Law School student, Barack Obama racked up 17 parking tickets in Cambridge, Massachusetts — adding up to fines of $400 which were not fully paid off until January 26, 2007.

Forget, for a moment, that the “action” in this bit of news took place a month and a half ago: in the 2008 presidential campaign, this little story was certifiable front-page material. And so it was launched into the media echo chamber, where news value is often determined by something other than good sense.

Thus, headlines like “Obama pays parking tickets: 17 years late” and “Cleaning out the glovebox: Dem hopeful pays parking tix, taxes,” gave the impression that the story was current. The latter title came from the Boston Herald, which said that Obama “has been driving around with a dark secret for nearly two decades: A stack of Cambridge parking tickets from his student days, unpaid until after he began his run for the White House” — though Obama’s debt was actually paid two weeks before he officially launched his campaign. (A Virginia political consultant, quoted by the Herald, was spot on, however, when he said of Ticketgate, “It seems monumentally inconsequential.”)

Meantime, the Herald’s Howie Carr used the opportunity to take a number of cheap shots at Obama. “Thanks to the Somerville News, we now find out that Barack Hussein Obama is another liberal who talks the talk, just don’t ask him to walk the walk, especially if it’s a walk down Mass. Ave. to Central Square to pay off his parking fines at City Hall,” Carr wrote. Added Carr: “If you think the road’s tough, try finding a legal parking space in Harvard Square. Our next president certainly couldn’t do it. He can end the war in Iraq and ‘heal’ America, but a legal parking space on Mass. Ave. outside the law school — forget about it.”

Elsewhere, the Boston Globe ran a metro front story that set the record straight on the Cambridge parking details (Obama paid two of his tickets in 1990, leaving 15 to be paid this year and not all 17, as the Somerville News indicated), and the Obama story aired multiple times on Boston’s four major local news stations. After an early evening story Wednesday on WBZ-TV that relied on the News and Globe’s reporting, a veteran Boston anchor remarked, referring to how everything is pored over in presidential campaign coverage, “This scrutiny is just amazing.”

That’s especially so when CNN (“Parking Politics”), MSNBC (“Unpaid Parking Tickets?”) and Fox News (“No Parking”) get involved. Fox, for instance, recycled the news throughout the day Thursday, spreading misinformation as it went. Shortly after 6 a.m. one Fox host claimed “He had seven tickets in one day at one point”; actually, that was over an eight-day period. Shortly after 3:30 p.m. Fox’s Trace Gallagher told viewers that Obama’s tickets “reportedly cost him $375, plus the late fees”; the $375 paid in January included those late fees. Earlier in the hour, Gallagher referred to “Barack Obama’s car trouble in the college years” [emphasis ours]: “How more than a dozen unpaid parking tickets came back to haunt the senator.”

This is a story that never should have made it beyond local Boston TV news, if that. It’s the kind of lazy, picayune nonsense that passes as a “character issue,” but really adds nothing to our understanding of a candidate. Yet such stories tend to pile up during a campaign, often at the expense of questions and issues that actually matter. Up next: Did you “experiment” with marijuana as a college student?

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.