You Can Set Your Watch By It

Two days on, the press is still nattering about the incident that, to some reporters’ minds, vindicates the storyline they have been pushing for months (buttressed always by anonymous campaign insiders): Teresa Heinz Kerry is a liability, a loose cannon (or perhaps, as Newsweek so delicately suggested on its cover in May, “crazy like a fox.”) As the headline in today’s New York Times declared, “Heinz Kerry Comment Gains Long-Dreaded Attention.”

The “incident,” of course, is the exchange that Heinz Kerry had with a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial writer on Sunday, which culminated in Heinz Kerry telling the writer to “shove it.”

And now, in the form of the Associated Press, we get exactly what we expected: The incident distilled so far that it is taken completely out of context. In a wrap-up piece on day one of the Democratic convention, the AP’s David Espo summarized TeresaGate this way: “[Heinz Kerry] told a persistent reporter on Sunday to ‘shove it’ when he urged her to expand on her call for more civility in politics.”

That the “persistent reporter” was an editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a conservative paper that has been highly critical of Heinz Kerry for years — we expected this detail to quickly fall by the wayside. But Espo’s account is not only shorthand, it is factually challenged.

The reporter in question did not, in fact, “urge” Heinz Kerry “to expand on her call for more civility in politics.” Rather, in a rushed exchange, the reporter asked her to explain a comment she made in an earlier speech (specifically, “We need to turn back some of the creeping un-Pennsylvanian and sometimes un-American traits that are coming into some of our politics.”) Initially, the reporter misquoted Heinz Kerry, attributing to her the phrase “un-American activities” rather than the correct “un-American traits.” Heinz Kerry replied that she never said that — and stuck to her guns even after the reporter dropped the offending “activities” portion of the quote. After Heinz Kerry learned the reporter’s identity and when the reporter continued to ask about it, she instructed him to “shove it.”

The AP reduced it this to: Heinz Kerry, moments after calling for “more civility in politics,” behaved uncivilly toward a reporter who merely “asked her to expand on her call.”

Campaign Desk figured that, after being talked to death on cable news shows and flogged in day-after stories, the press’s abridged version of a moment on the campaign trail would morph into a factually incorrect version, like a game of telephone. We just didn’t expect it to happen with the punctuality of the presidential bedtime.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.