Still “Shocking” After All These Weeks

To students of Greek mythology, Echo is a beautiful wood nymph; to Campaign Desk, echo journalism is a vampire, and we’re here to drive a stake through its heart every time it rises from the grave.

To that end, back on February 18, we took the Associated Press to task for running a misleading headline on Deb Riechmann’s interview with first lady Laura Bush. That headline read: “Laura Bush Says Gay Marriage ‘Shocking.’” What Mrs. Bush actually said, as quoted in the body of Riechmann’s story, was that “gay marriages are ‘a very, very shocking issue’ for some people.” (The headline on a later version of Reichmann’s story accurately captured the comment.)

That, we thought, was that. But no-ohh.

Today, William Douglas of Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau delivers his version of an increasingly familiar genre (see yesterday’s Miami Herald and last week’s Chicago Tribune for other versions): the Laura Bush profile. And smack in the middle of it was this sentence, offered as an example of how Mrs. Bush “has taken a more public role” of late: “[Mrs. Bush] called same-sex marriage a ‘very, very shocking issue,’ but stopped short of saying how she felt about it.”

So here we are 40 days later, and, like the author of the initial February 18th AP headline, Douglas neglects to include the context of Mrs. Bush’s statement, leaving readers to assume Mrs. Bush is herself shocked by gay marriages (and no doubt confusing readers with the seeming contradiction in the second half of Douglas’s sentence, which has Mrs. Bush stopping “short of saying how she felt about [gay marriage].”)

Since the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau serves more than two dozen newspapers, already this out-of-context quote has ricocheted around the country, popping up in papers in several swing states, such as the Tallahassee Democrat, the Akron Beacon Journal, and the (Wilkes-Barre, PA) Times Leader, among others.

(That infuriating reborn echo, bouncing once again around the media chamber, not only caused Campaign Desk a headache, it nearly caused us to overlook the fascinating, albeit utterly pointless, survey quoted in Douglas’s piece in which unnamed “scholars” ranked the first ladies by “the degree to which each woman made a positive contribution to the country.”

(According to this survey — which, Douglas tells readers, is a “subjective” rating and “not guided by specific criteria — Laura Bush ranks 20th or “average,” three slots behind her mother-in-law who ranks “above/high average” and fourteen slots behind Hillary Clinton who rates “near great.”)

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.