Kasich, out of context

After HuffPost's story makes the Ohio governor's words appear inflammatory, an update won't do

OHIO — A side story with an Ohio connection at last week’s GOP convention set off a brief crossfire in the political blogosphere—but even as the tempest was spurred by some slipshod online coverage, one of the state’s leading newspapers offered some tough words to set the record straight.

The episode was another example of how the speed of social media has changed the way the media reports, with implications for how politics is conducted—and how standards of accuracy and corrections policies have not always kept pace.

The story began at an Aug. 29 forum hosted by The Huffington Post, NBC News, and Microsoft at which Ohio Gov. John Kasich spoke of the need to boost entrepreneurship in the inner city and within the African-American community. According to an account by NBC’s Matt Rivera, the panel was striking for its “civil conversation” and “distinctly nonpartisan tone.”

That didn’t last, for reasons Joe Vardon described the next day in The Columbus Dispatch. Vardon pointed out that Kasich has addressed this theme often in Ohio; this time, the governor made his point by invoking Jay-Z, the rapper-turned-business mogul who grew up in the Brooklyn projects. As Vardon tells it:

Here’s what Kasich said:

“I was reading a great article about Jay-Z, who’s got a tiny little ownership of the [Brooklyn] Nets, and he’s running the whole God-darn place now. People like that, who have shown that they can come from the streets, and have a tough beginning and then be able to become incredible entrepreneurs, we’ve got to get that into our schools and the inner cities where we can show kids that, hey, you can be what you want to be.”

But The Huffington Post’s original report, posted not long after the event, said Kasich “said African-Americans need to be convinced that they can ‘come off the streets’ and become small-business owners.” The report made no mention of Jay-Z or the context of Kasich’s statement and had 2,400 comments by 4:30 p.m.

The site later rewrote its report—and headline—to reflect Kasich’s full quote and its appropriate context. The Dispatch posted the full context of Kasich’s statement about 3 p.m.

Only one word in Kasich’s brief quoted phrase (“come off” rather than “come from”) was misquoted in the original HuffPost account—and, according to the screenshot here, the headline (“John Kasich: African Americans Can ‘Come From The Streets’ & Own Small Businesses”) had the phrase accurately. But the effect, especially with other context removed, was that, as Vardon wrote in his lede, the governor “had his words twisted yesterday to seem like he’d made a racially charged statement—which he didn’t.”

By 5:08 p.m., HuffPost had published a rewritten report and changed the headline to this—“John Kasich: ‘We Have To Convince African Americans that They Can Start & Own Businesses.” (Kasich uttered that line just before the Jay-Z remark quoted by Vardon.) The brief article, which doesn’t have a byline, was last changed on Aug. 31. The current version includes both video and Kasich’s full comments from that section of the program, in which he goes on to say:

And Arianna, I think it’s critical, because if you take a look at the people who’ve been left out of prosperity around our country. It’s terrible. And we’re having set-aside programs in Ohio and I’m telling my staff, I said look, if you don’t give African Americans particularly an opportunity to share in the economic pie, we’re just nuts.”

“It creates more division, it creates more poverty, more anger.”

No other media outlet picked up the story, but it set off some political sparks on the blogs. A diarist at the left-leaning Daily Kos (working with an accurate quote from Kasich) declared the governor’s comments worthy of outrage. A conservative Ohio blog charged HuffPost with “a deliberate smear.” And a lefty Ohio blog said there was nothing especially wrong about Kasich’s rhetoric but nothing wrong with HuffPost’s original account, either.

But there was something wrong with HuffPost’s initial account, as Arianna Huffington herself somewhat acknowledged. Vardon’s story reports that Huffington “said the site’s initial report was created by a worker who misinterpreted a reporter’s tweet,” presumably this tweet by Jon Ward. The problem—beyond the fact that the site apparently had one employee assembling articles based on another staffer’s tweets, which sounds like an invitation to error—is that while HuffPost did update its story to clear up the misrepresentation, it did not post a correction. The story is marked as “updated,” but there’s no indication that the initial item distorted Kasich’s words in a way that made them sound more inflammatory. (My own inquiry to HuffPost on Friday about details of the error and the need for a correction was not answered.)

HuffPost has emerged as an influential news organization, and one that, despite its progressive leanings, is widely respected enough to co-host events at a Republican gathering. It’s done that by mixing traditional reporting with a flair for social media and the relentless pace of the digital age. But the site could bolster its credibility with some more old-fashioned approaches: a more careful handling of dicey material, and a clear correction, not simply an update, when it gets something wrong.

As we bear down on election day, bloggers will continue to speak their political minds. It’s up to media outlets—new and old alike—to keep audiences apprised of the full story.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.