The fact checkers in the press have spoken on a key Republican Party claim: that President Obama has gone around the world “apologizing for America.” Here are the speeches in question. And here are the checks:
Politifact.com: Obama’s remarks never a true ‘apology’. The claim is rated false.
Washington Post fact checker: Obama’s ‘Apology Tour.’ Four Pinocchios, which means a whopping lie.
Factcheck.org: Romney’s Sorry ‘Apology’ Dig. “We’ve read through the speeches as well. We’ve come to the same conclusion: Nowhere did we see that the president ‘apologized’ for America.”
Yesterday, Republican Congressman Peter King was on CNN with Soledad O’Brien. He mentioned “the apology tour.” O’Brien, well aware of the fact checkers’ verdict, decided to challenge him. First you watch, then we talk:
Several things happened during this exchange that I want to point out to you.
* Soledad O’Brien mentions the factcheck.org verdict. King said he doesn’t care what factcheck.org says. If King really doesn’t care at all about a clear cut fact-checking verdict, honest journalism must in a sense do battle with Peter King, or abandon the fact check as a defensible form.
* King says that “any logical reading of that speech” leads to the conclusion that Obama was apologizing for America’s sins in the Middle East. If he really means that, then this isn’t a case of competing arguments but of logic vs. its natural opposites.
* King says that by “any common sense interpretation of those speeches, the President is apologizing…” Again, we’re not in the realm of clashing interpretations but of sense vs. the crazy. The fact checkers are the crazy. The polarization temperature at this point: max.
* King asks O’Brien: “How else could it be interpreted?” (Which is a great, table-shifting question.) And she answers: “A nuanced approach to diplomacy is how some people are interpreting it.”
Here the drama turns a little, and we have to pay closer attention. So far, this. (I paraphrase):
Soledad O’Brien Could you tell me where you found that apology because I’ve read this stuff [holds up her papers] and I don’t see it.
Peter King: Cairo and other speeches.
O’Brien: Well, fact checkers in the establishment press say it isn’t true.
King: I don’t care. On any logical, common sense, plain reading of the words, it’s apologizing for America.
O’Brien: That’s why I asked you: where do you see that? The apology part. [holds up papers again]
King: (turning tables) How else could it be interpreted?
O’Brien: It could be interpreted as nuanced diplomacy. That’s a logical reading to lots of people.
King: “I don’t interpret it that way and I think more importantly our enemies don’t interpret it that way.”
O’Brien: “Well, I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case. I think that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
King: “I think it is and that’s where we have an honest difference of opinion.”
Notice how King switches from… the fact checkers are out of their minds, any logical reading of Obama’s words shows that “apology tour” is correct, it’s just common sense!… to…
“Well, we have an honest difference of opinion.”
And this gets to one of the most important sub-themes of the 2012 campaign. What does a wise press do when confronted with public actors who feel entitled to their own facts? I think Soledad O’Brien of CNN is starting to answer that.
The clip shows these elements in her style: If you interview people on television for a living, you and your team over-prepare. You anticipate points where a Peter King may feel entitled to his own facts. You know your material (and his) cold, so you aren’t worried about the interview spinning out of control. You smile more as the struggle heightens. You interrupt when a dubious claim is first introduced, and each time it is re-asserted. The tone you maintain is a plea for evidence. You have your mark-up of the documents with you. You have your pen. You wave them, which is theatrical. But you also read from them, and send through the lens an evidentiary calm.
If you do all this well, the clash of absolutes may cool into conflicting interpretations right on your show, a more livable zone for sources, journalists and citizens. Soledad O’Brien makes political television slightly realer-er when she comes ready to fight on air for a documented fact. Peter King didn’t back down or change his mind. But he shifted modes. From: what planet are you and your so-called fact checkers on? It’s obvious to anyone who can read that Obama apologized for America. To a point closer to…
Okay, he didn’t apologize or say I’m sorry. There was no apology in the diplomatic sense. But I read those speeches differently; to me and to my party they sound like an apology.
Not there, but closer is what he came. I agree it’s not much. But it’s not make culture war on the press when you get fact-checked, either. The difference was made by O’Brien’s tough and graceful intervention.
Bring that difference forward into an operating style and maybe CNN can re-build its franchise in news.