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The Enablers Of A Campaign Falsehood

Here is what President Obama said on Saturday while speaking to business leaders at the APEC summit in Hawaii when asked by a moderator about impediments to foreign investment in the U.S.:

“[T]he United States is still the largest recipient of foreign investment in the world. And there are a lot of things that make foreign investors see the U.S. as a great opportunity—our stability, our openness, our innovative free market culture. But we’ve been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades. We’ve kind of taken for granted—well, people will want to come here and we aren’t out there hungry, selling America and trying to attract new business into America.”

Here is how Rick Perry rendered that in a new TV ad that snatches out of context one line from Obama’s answer: “We’ve been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades.” "Can you believe that?” Perry says to the camera. “That’s what our president thinks is wrong with America? That Americans are lazy?”

And here is how Mitt Romney made use of the line yesterday on the stump in South Carolina: "Sometimes, I just don't think that President Obama understands America,” he said. "I say that because this week—or was it last week?—he said that Americans are lazy. I don't think that describes America.”

Okay then. As a news reporter, one has a choice. One can do what NBC's Mark Murray, Time's Michael Scherer, or the New York Times' Richard Oppel all did yesterday and today, which is to declare Republicans’ exploitation of Obama’s line as blatantly out of context and unfair.

Or one can do what Politico did, which is to write a full story headlined "Obama's 'lazy' remark catches fire," which reports, in a tone of barely suppressed glee, that Republicans have been handed a gift, a quote that is now "spreading across the campaign landscape on winged feet":

Republicans say it’s another example in a troubling trend of the president trash-talking his own country, and they warn that the video is now sitting in the vault, ready to be rolled out for campaign ads at all levels next fall. Moreover, some Democratic strategists privately concede that it was a bad moment for the president, even if it’s harder to pin the remark on other Democrats. “You will definitely see more of it,” said Carl Forti, a former top official at the National Republican Congressional Committee who is a founder of political consulting firm Black Rock Group. “It’s definitely something campaigns will use.”
Regardless of the narrow scope of foreign investment, one Democratic strategist suggested Republicans would be guilty of political malpractice if they didn’t run it on a loop. “I would bang that drum like I was in Occupy Wall Street,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity to speak freely about how to campaign against Democrats.

Lovely. Not until the bottom of the first page does the article get into detail on whether the quote was taken out of context, and even then, it puts that counter into the mouths of Democratic operatives, as if it was beyond the scope or ability of the reporters to make that judgment themselves. And why would they want to knock it down, anyway? If they do, then there’s no story, and no reason to engage in all manner of speculation, as the article proceeds to do for two more pages:

A Democratic operative who works on congressional races posited that it will be difficult for down-ballot candidates to tie the controversy to other Democrats because it’s a two-step attack. First, they would have to make voters aware of the president’s comment, and then, they would have to show that their opponent agrees with it. “Could people use it against him? Probably. Could they say, ‘Does so-and-so stand with him?’ That’s a tougher sell,” the operative said. But the operative also observed that “it wasn’t the most politic comment.”

Politico does good work. I read it more often these days than I used to. I have good friends there. But let’s be clear: this sort of story is why people hate Washington, and why they can’t stand us political reporters. The story is a purveyor of the worst sort of lazy—yes, lazy—cynicism.