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.