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,’ ” 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.