The clash of absolutes and the on-air fact check

Sep.
18
Soledad O’Brien makes political television slightly realer-er when she comes ready to fight on air for a documented fact. Yes, I have a clip to show you.

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.

33 Comments

  1. Sam says:

    Great post. I think the difference between “Obama apologized” and “To me, Obama’s speech sounded like an apology” is absolutely massive.

    Political rhetoricians are always searching for the line between what can be safely asserted as fact (without prompting ridicule or incredulity) and what needs to be qualified as an impression, possibility or interpretation.

    The location of this line is in a circular relationship with the relevant popular narrative/s (in this case, the narrative that Obama is ashamed of American military power/aggression), meaning that the line is moved by the narrative while the location of the line also affects the narrative; however, the line can also be moved by journalistic push-back, i.e. an expression of incredulity in response to a factual assertion, as we saw on this occasion.

  2. The over-preparation, the advance knowledge of the subject’s talking point, the notion that the true starting point for the interview occurs only after that talking point has been established, the use of third-party citations, previous contradictory statements and original source material to rebut and interrogate that talking point — and, yes, theatricality — were all hallmarks of Tim Russert’s interviewing style.

    Interestingly, Soledad O’Brien was an NBC News anchor when Russert was still alive, before moving to CNN (granted, his influence did not rub off on all his NBC proteges: David Gregory lacks his predecessor’s preparatory discipline; Gwen Ifill his contradictory confidence; Katie Couric his political obsession).

    Sometimes an interviewer’s failure to challenge talking points is excused by citing considerations of booking: that politicians will not agree to appear if they expect to be grilled too closely. Russert’s record — and the politician’s native vanity — belie the booking explanation.

    Back in the day, to have survived the forensic cross-examination that Russert prepared was a badge of courage for an aspiring Beltway politician. He was ready for primetime! They called it the Russert Primary.

  3. RaflW says:

    King also makes an absurd claim, which I realize Ms O’Brien would have a hard time hammering in edgewise in King’s onslaught of words. T
    he GOP is also trying to pretend that Abu Ghraib never happened. Watch the clip again. King asserts that the US had never done anything to Muslims that need warrant an apology.
    Ask G.W. Bush about that. In 2004 he certainly seemed aware that US forced made a serious insult to Muslims and more-or-less apologized for it.
    But if you ask King, that must never have happened, because he baldly asserts we as a nation have never done anything bad. Ever.
    Only children ever really imagine a world that starkly perfect.

  4. MrJohnGalt says:

    Silly Soledad tried to forced the dems trivial semantic talking point about whether the exact phrase “I’m sorry” appeared in Obama’s speeches and Rep. King handed her head back to her on a platter.

    He’s right to ignore Factcheck, a liberal house-organ of the Annenberg Foundation on whose board Obama and terrorist Bill Ayer both sat. If Factcheck were factchecking my comment, they’d probably point out that there was no actually video evidence that Soledad’s head was physically cut off and put on a platter. That’s how stupid and dishonest they are.

    • Michael says:

      There’s a reason there’s no fact-check organization that’s acceptable to any Republicans: Facts don’t matter to them. At all. Facts are anti-Republican (remember the “reality-based community” that Rove ridiculed?) which is why you don’t post any in your comment.

      As a conservative, this is why I could never call myself a Republican — the party has been ruined by liars.

      Also, using “JohnGalt” in your handle leads me to believe that you’re 19.

    • kevo says:

      Whew Mr. Galt! You provide an overabundant amount of balderdash. How deep are the canyons of your mind?

      Me thinks to you reality hath a liberal bias! Outside of its entertainment value, your thoughts seem unhinged, and lonely! -Kevo

    • Mark Devlin says:

      Those interested in the bias of the fact checkers themselves may be interested in WeCheck, http://wecheck.org my new wiki-based fact check. It’s early days yet but I hope that by providing a central repository for factual information that anyone can contribute to, we can get closer to the truth.

      • abigail beecher says:

        This is hilarious!

        Liberals in the media famously hear “dog whistles” about racism by The Other (i.e. the word “chicago”—there are black people there!!!! and peanut butter sandwich, WTF, etc.) but when they or their side operate all dog whistles are off the table and the actual word must be uttered in order to qualify and pass muster with “fact checkers”.

        As such MoDo’s inane rant that contained all the traditional anti-semitic code words was given a pass as does Obama shill Soledad O’Brien’s lame excuse that Obama never actually used the word “apology”.

        So in lefty journo land it’s “dog whistles” for me but absolute literal interpretation for you!

        No wonder press credibility is sinking like a stone. These press hacks need to be called out early and often and mocked mercilessly for their hackitude.

        • Rick says:

          Aaaand STILL no citations of anything Obama said that was an apology, hyper-literal reading or non.

        • zaybu says:

          What you are confusing is fact-checks with opinion-checks. King had to admit that what he was expressing was an opinion, which he is entitled to. What he is not entitled is his ‘own’ facts. As to your reference of ‘dog whistle’,that’s all about a point of view, not facts.

      • Jay Rosen says:

        This is written as if “the words aren’t there, but it still sounds like an apology…” wasn’t a concept I have in my piece. But it is.

  5. Tom says:

    While I have enjoyed seeing a greater emphasis on fact checking by the media, exchanges like this are worthless. Whenever a segment ends with let’s agree to disagree, what progress was made? As a viewer, I didn’t feel that I had learned anything new. I wasn’t under the impression that Obama was on an actual apology tour.

    Here’s the problem with your argument for more fact checking like this, Jay: These exercises become another form of he said/she said journalism. This is a drawback to this idea that you can factcheck someone into being sensible. You can’t. Instead, you end up with a combative exchange devoid of the context the audience actually needs to be informed.

    The problem here isn’t that CNN anchors lack preparation or the willingness to call someone out. The problem is the entire premise of the interview: Why is CNN interviewing Peter King about the Libya attacks when his premise is it’s a “logical result” of Obama’s policy. With THAT misrepresentation, CNN should have pulled the plug. And you, Jay, shouldn’t be confusing an example of lousy ‘political television’ with journalism.

    • robert green says:

      this comment is 100% correct. the end of this is “honest people disagree about the shape of the earth”. useless. worse than useless. peter king is a liar. he is not telling the truth at the beginning of this interview. if you are going to have him on your show and all you can do is this, you have failed as a journalist.

      i just went through this at my until very-recent job at a new journalistic enterpise, one that in theory followed your precepts jay, and i have to say that in practice the producers and bosses didn’t want to do the hard work of being prepared both in advance and FOR WHAT COMES AFTERWARDS–the accusation of bias. without an editorial position that doesn’t care about false equivalencies and bias accusations AND an incredibly bright and prepared host and producer, there will be no light shed, only heat.

    • Jazzaloha says:

      Tom,

      I think the “agree-to-disagree” ending could have been meaningful, if Ms. O’Brien did a better job of showing why she believed the President wasn’t apologizing. Had she read some excerpts and discussed whether acknowledging mistakes is the same as apologizing, I think viewers could have seen for themselves that the Republicans were stretching the truth. Of course, this wouldn’t be clear to all viewers (read: hardcore Republicans), but I think it would have been to a vast majority of the reasonable ones.

    • anon says:

      Dead on. Why perpetuate a non-story? If someone with a brain or serious influence said so, then even then, only their unaccountable stupidity would be the story!

      Oh NEWS! “Someone said something that sounded like a something… oh, I can’t tell you *how* they said it… or what they said. But something they said sounded like something else…” Who ___ cares!

      Regardless of the side of politics ‘arguing’ in this manner, if “your base” plays this sort of nonsense, your party must represent morons. May as well just say: “VOTE 1 our party… you’re morons and we’re morons – we have so much in common. Let’s embrace our intuitive knowledge of the meaning of things – even though we can’t explain them to other people, or even to each other.”

      I tell you what, I’ve got some news: O’Brien sounds like a communist! Now, I can’t actually tell you *what* he said that sounded commy, but…

  6. This passage is especially telling:

    “I don’t interpret it that way and I think more importantly our enemies don’t interpret it that way.”

    So, why is it that Republicans insist on interpreting Obama’s words exactly the way they think “our enemies” do?

  7. Genevieve says:

    More good reporting, challenging people who purposefully mislead, lie and propagandize – no matter what “side” they’re on, please!

  8. Jazzaloha says:

    I agree with Jay that the move away from a culture-war skirmish to “we just have differing opinions” is significant, if not earth-shattering.

    However, I do have some problems with Ms. O’Brien’s interview. First of all, just because President Obama didn’t use the exact words, “I apologize,” doesn’t mean he didn’t offer an apology. Her argument is the type of nitpicking that weakens the credibility of fact-checkers, imo.

    Instead of that line of reasoning, I think she should have raised a more important question–namely, is the admission of error the same as offering an apology? The President’s speeches do admit mistakes made by the U.S. as well as acknowledge some loss of prestige and power. That admission could be expressed in a way that constitute an apology, but just admitting errors or a loss of power, by themselves, do not constitute a loss of power in my opinion. Ms. O’Brien could have read some of these passages for both her viewers and Rep. King, giving him a chance to offer his interpretation. This would have given an opportunity for viewers to decide for themselves.

    Personally, I do think the President admits errors we have committed and the negative consequences of those errors, but that’s about it. (And I actually think admitting these errors is a sign of strength, not weakness!) The leap from admission of errors to an apology is quite a big one, in my opinion,and I think Ms. O’Brien could have done a better job of showing that to viewers.

  9. Spocko says:

    As much as I appreciate o’Brian doing real time work what I want to see is King getting busted being forced to acknowledge he was busted and then being told,’”so in the future are you going to stop calling it the Obama apology tour?”

    When people have no consequences to blantant falsehoods they will continue to use them. This is especially true of politicians. That is why the right worked to get Clinton under oath. That is why Bush/Cheney worked to avoid ever being under oath.

    They idea of “public shaming”‘for lying isn’t a problem for many politicians. Also, they know that if, by chance or preparation, they get busted for a lie they media will offer they chances to “clarify” and “walk back” or’ say how they “mispoke.”

    The follow through is important

    • abigail beecher says:

      “Public shaming” for lying journalists isn’t usually a problem for them either.

      When called out their usual MO is either to “stand by their story/reporting” or bury corrections where the sun don’t shine.

      When journalists behave like politicians, the public treats them with the same disdain they do politicians.

      Of course considering the revolving door for journalists to political operative and back again, this could be seen as a savvy career move.

      It appears many journalists yearn to be the next David Axelrod so better not antagonize a future employer even if the public thinks you’re a hack!

  10. [...] To Counter Lies On Live TV Posted at 12:31 on September 19, 2012 by Andrew Sullivan Jay Rosen flags a recent on-air exchange between CNN's Soledad O'Brien and GOP Congressman Peter King [...]

  11. [...] Rosen flags a recent on-air exchange between CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and GOP Congressman Peter King [...]

  12. Terry Heaton says:

    More great work, Jay.

    The thing nobody seems to get is that positions of the right BEGIN with the assumption that “the press” is liberal or a mouthpiece for the liberal agenda. Hence, the press is an enemy, and as long as fact checkers are a part of the press, their views are irrelevant. The right attempts to speak over, under, and around the press to a people — their people — who already acknowledge the liberal bias of the press. They play this he said/she said game very well, and just because the press claims not to be playing the game, the assumptive beliefs of the right draw everybody into it automatically.

    • abigail beecher says:

      Terry, isn’t it O’Brien who is playing the lame he said/he said game? It is O’Brien who is playing the part of Obama surrogate to King’s Romney surrogate and frankly I don’t see the difference between what O’Brien is doing with what David Axelrod would do in this situation.

      Please explain.

      • Terry Heaton says:

        Abigail,

        It is Mr. King’s assertion that what Ms. O’Brien is using — her “fact checking” — is, in fact, just the other side of an elaborate “he said/she said” reality. Ms. O’Brien’s assumption is that she has independently checked the claims of Mr. King and found them wanting, but he is able to draw her into the “he said/she said,” because his assumption is that she is, in fact, a part of the other side. Does that help or make sense? I’m assuming here that your query is sincere.

        Terry

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  14. Leslie says:

    The best way to settle the question as to whether President Obama’s trip was an “apology tour” would be to fact check with him, wouldn’t it? Oh, but that would just be too easy.

    • abigail beecher says:

      This is obvious since we all know Obama would never lie—it’s just those wingnuts who prevaricate.

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  16. Taylor says:

    To extend this analogy a bit…

    Soledad O’Brien = THE JUDGE.
    Peter King = THE PLAINTIFF.
    Obama (represented by fact-checkers) = THE DEFENDANT.
    Viewers = THE JURY.
    Public Opinion = THE VERDICT.

    The truth/objective reality = NOT (NECESSARILY) INVOLVED AT ALL.

  17. here says:

    here…

    The clash of absolutes and the on-air fact check » Pressthink…

  18. Peter Mullen says:

    Jay, I don’t think you would know honest journalism if it slapped you in the face. Your ‘fact checks’ are nothing more than a partisan head fake when you can’t fall back on the truth. The truth is, the NY Times is written for a very narrow and narrow minded audience and that includes you–liberal elites who are only capable of one way thinking.

  19. [...] Watchdog Jay Rosen cites Soledad O’Brien for doing the right thing. [...]