Checking the foundation of ‘We Built It’

In many Virginia papers, coverage of McDonnell's convention speech is a let-down

VIRGINIA — The Republican National Convention may be happening in Tampa, but the theme for the gathering’s opening Tuesday night—“We Built It”—was Virginia-made, and one of the speakers espousing that line was the commonwealth’s governor, Bob McDonnell.

Unfortunately, the way that misleading theme and McDonnell’s speech were covered by Virginia newsrooms fell mostly flat. Let’s do some deconstruction.

“We Built It” has its origins in a now-infamous July 13 campaign stop in Roanoke by President Obama, in which the president in three rambling paragraphs made the point that successful businesses depend on support from other sources, including public investment. Here’s the key part of the relevant passage, which has by now been reported many times across the nation:

Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

That’s part of an argument about the sources of success and the responsibilities people owe that represents a real and meaningful disagreement between the political parties. But anyone who has turned on a television in Virginia and other swing states in the last month has heard anti-Obama ads featuring a truncated and misleading portion of his remarks—“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that”—used as part of an argument to portray the president as anti-business and anti-entrepreneurship. That same line of attack was invoked by McDonnell in his primetime address to conventioneers Tuesday night. Here’s how the speech was reported in the lede of Olympia Meola’s story in Wednesday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Gov. Bob McDonnell stepped to the national stage Tuesday night to tout the economic successes of Republican governors and to make the case for Mitt Romney, who he said would lead a change to an “opportunity society.”

“We need a president who will say to a small businesswoman: ‘Congratulations, we applaud your success, you did make that happen, you did build that!’ ” said McDonnell, who was followed onstage by a business owner from Fairfax County.

“Small businesses don’t come out of Washington, D.C., pre-made on flatbed trucks,” McDonnell said. “That coffee shop in Henrico County, that florist in Virginia Beach, that bakery in Radford Virginia, they were all built by entrepreneurial Americans with big dreams—not a big-spending government with a wide-open wallet full of other people’s money.”

Campaign rhetoric in this vein has been debunked many times over the past six weeks, with journalistic fact-checkers practically playing a game of whack-a-mole. But politicians’ persistence in repeating the attack in the face of those factchecks leaves journalists with some questions: Do you allow a candidate or surrogates to repeat a false claim up high, then place it in context further down in a story? Do you focus on some different element altogether? Do you push back more aggressively? How much pushback can you give on deadline, anyway?

The Times-Dispatch article opted for the “more context, further down” route. The opening was followed by three paragraphs of speculation on McDonnell’s political future and a bit on the “personal references” he wove into the address, before some attempt was made in the seventh paragraph to challenge the “build it” comments:

It’s a play off the “you didn’t build that” remark President Barack Obama made July 13 during a campaign appearance in Roanoke.

Republicans have hammered Obama over the comment, but Democrats accuse Republicans of taking the president’s remark in Roanoke out of context. They say Obama was noting that government helps create the climate in which successful businesses thrive.

The comment came in this passage of Obama’s speech: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”

This is the same tack the Times-Dispatch took in a previous report involving GOP use of the “build it” attack line, so it seems to represent an institutional decision. Is it a good one? Well, providing the full quote is better than not providing it. But the passage could be much clearer and more forceful. For one thing, there’s the gap between the misleading claim and the context. Then there’s the problem that, as CJR’s Anna Clark recently noted, presenting the pushback in the form of a complaint from the other party is a signal that the issue is a partisan dispute—not a factual one.

In Norfolk, meanwhile, an article by The Virginian-Pilot’s Julian Walker took a similar approach, but provided even less in the form of “build-it” pushback:

“As speakers before and after did, [McDonnell] pounded the message that President Barack Obama is contemptuous of small businesses and dismissive of their success.

“We need a president who will say to a small businesswoman: ‘Congratulations. We applaud your success, you did make that happen, you did build that in America,’‚ÄČ” he said, drawing applause.

“Big government didn’t build America. You built America,” he added. “Small businesses don’t come out of Washington, D.C., premade on flatbed trucks.”

Since July, Republicans have criticized remarks Obama made at a Roanoke campaign stop where he suggested entrepreneurs didn’t grow their businesses in a vacuum but instead enjoy success partly because of access to public infrastructure that many contributed to.

That last graf offers a fair summary of Obama’s remarks—and again, the president’s speech outlined a real difference between the parties that has substantive policy implications. But what was missing here was a clear statement that McDonnell’s line of attack drew its rhetorical appeal from a weeks-long misrepresentation of Obama’s words.

At least the V-P’s story didn’t actually repeat the misleading version of Obama’s statement. That’s what a bare-bones, context-free Associated Press story on McDonnell’s speech that was picked up by The Roanoke Times and other outlets across the state did:

McDonnell’s speech kept with Tuesday night’s convention theme, taunting President Barack Obama for his line in a speech delivered in Roanoke in July when, in making the point that government aids private business, he said, “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”

The saving grace for the Times was that its online version of the AP story had a link to the paper’s extensive coverage of Obama’s July 13 visit to Roanoke—in which, interestingly, reporter Mason Adams didn’t find the “build that” line remarkable enough to merit mention.

The Virginia papers’ mild treatment of the “build that” message is especially striking when juxtaposed with the sterner response Wednesday from Glenn Kessler, author of The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” blog. Kessler decided to give Romney campaign’s use of the line four Pinocchios, up from three, reasoning that repeated use of the misleading claim was especially egregious:

Obama appears to be making the unremarkable point that companies and entrepreneurs often benefit in some way from taxpayer support for roads, education and so forth. In other words, he is trying to make the case for higher taxes, and for why he believes the rich should pay more, which as we noted is part of a long Democratic tradition. He just did not put it very eloquently. So we believed Three Pinocchios was a reasonable compromise, given the ungrammatical nature of Obama’s phrasing.

However, in light of the GOP’s repeated misuse of this Obama quote in speech after speech, we feel compelled to increase the Pinocchio rating to Four. (Warning to Democrats: You will get the same scrutiny of out-of-context Romney quotes next week. It’s really a silly thing on which to base a campaign.)

Kessler, of course, is no beat reporter: It’s his full-time gig to offer in-depth analysis of campaign rhetoric.

But at this point, more should be expected of a typical newsroom, even one working on deadline—especially when you know the theme in advance, and especially when a line of attack has been in the news for weeks. As The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta recently argued, factchecking is the responsibility of all news organizations, and one way to meet that challenge is with “basic, simple, brief factual boilerplate” deployed after every recitation of a political lie. And at the very least, an alert copy editor can provide a link online to previous reports and include a box in print summarizing highlights of a speech and offering counterpoints to claims.

When a campaign repeatedly makes a baseless claim, it becomes an old story for political junkies and for the reporters who cover the race. But we need to do a better job of serving our casual readers, and in ensuring the accuracy of what we report.

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Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.