The State of State of the Union Reporting

Some reporters must call a "certified movement analyst" to decipher politicians' expressions. Others dispense with expertise and perform this sort of analysis all by themselves.

Some reporters must call a “certified movement analyst” to decipher politicians’ expressions and gesticulations. Others dispense with expertise and perform this sort of analysis all by themselves.

The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley and the Washington Times’ Stephanie Mansfield and are definitely Do-It-Yourselfers.

Like many reporters, Stanley notes that President Bush delivered his State of the Union address Tuesday “after the worst year of his presidency” — something that, to Stanley’s eye, was “evident in his face.” Stanley saw a president who looked “solemn, his brow furrowed” and who gave “an entirely different performance from the one the president gave a year ago, when he was so cheerful and cocksure, buoyed by his re-election …”

By contrast, the Washington Times’ Mansfield saw the very president in 2006 that Stanley saw in 2005! In short, Mansfield perceived a president who was “jaunty and ebullient … beaming to the Republican faithful and savoring the day’s decisive victory [Alito’s confirmation]” which, Mansfield concludes, made it an “evening of triumph for the Bush administration.” Mansfield reports that the president and first lady — “looking trim in a pink suit — basked in the evening’s often theatrical aura” while “detractors like Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry — his face showing a heavy 5 o’clock shadow — [were] looking as if they had been forced to swallow prunes.” How’s that for face-reading? Because, as Mansfield explains further along in the piece, “although analysts dissected the substance of the State of the Union address, it is the style that matters: The body language of the president entering the chambers — who offers a handshake?” Yeah, who cares about the “substance” of a political speech, anyhow — so let’s get right back to body language.

Mansfield reports that “while much of the chamber rose to applaud Mr. Bush’s line ‘we will never surrender to evil,’ a bored-looking Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, kept his hands well apart and whispered to the person on his left” — which, Mansfield seems to be implying, confirms that Rangel himself long ago surrendered to evil.

Then there was Sen. Hillary Clinton who, Mansfield writes, “looked downright jolly as she arrived in her steely gray suit” but then “looked less cheerful during the speech, fixing Mr. Bush with a cold glare when he mentioned that his predecessor, Mrs. Clinton’s husband, had similarly used the surveillance authority that Democrats have criticized Mr. Bush for exercising against al Qaeda terrorists.”

Trouble is, Bush never “mentioned” President Clinton in this context. Here is what the president did say (emphasis ours): “I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al Qaeda operatives and affiliates to and from America. Previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have and federal courts have approved the use of that authority.”

Seems Mansfield interpreted “previous presidents” to mean “Bill Clinton.” Not a bad guess considering, as the Washington Post reports in its let’s-ever-so-gingerly-fact-check-the president’s-speech piece, “the most recent example cited by the administration” to buttress this “past presidents” claim involves “actions by President Bill Clinton” — an example which, the Post writes, “is hotly disputed by Democrats who say the current and past situations are not comparable.” Sadly, the Post never clarifies for readers whether the Clinton example is, in fact, at all comparable, leaving readers with only the he-said and the she-said.

The Los Angeles Times, too, attempts to fact-check the “past presidents” claim. “Bush did not name names,” write Peter Wallsten and Maura Reynolds, “but was apparently reiterating the argument offered earlier this month by Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, who invoked Presidents Lincoln, Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt for their use of executive authority.” But then, like a fact-check piece should, Wallsten and Reynolds point out the hole in Gonzales’ claim — specifically that “warrantless surveillance within the United States for national security purposes was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 — long after Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt stopped issuing orders.” In conclusion, Wallsten and Reynolds write, this passage “marked one of the several points in [Bush’s] speech in which he backed up assertions with selective uses of fact, or seemed to place a positive spin on his own interpretations.”

But we digress. Back to what really matters: body language. The New York Times’ Stanley, too, took in Sen. Clinton’s facial expressions during the defending-the-“terrorist-surveillance-program” portion of Bush’s speech. “The cameras panned to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who smiled sourly and shook her head,” Stanley reports, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about what Clinton’s sourpuss signified. Readers are then told that “TV cameras often seek out Mrs. Clinton because she doesn’t always control her features when Mr. Bush has the floor.” That’s a tortured way of saying “Clinton lacks a poker face” — so tortured that, when we read it, we lost control of our own features.

Once we composed ourselves, we were left to ponder the only thing we learned from any of this: the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post each took a stab at “fact-checking” Bush’s speech. Why didn’t the New York Times?

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.