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Obama as Media Critic—and Romney's New Race-Tinged 'Welfare' Attacks | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Obama as Media Critic—and Romney's New Race-Tinged 'Welfare' Attacks

Jay Rosen’s latest posting at his popular Press Think blog, which I probed on Monday, has inspired much push back from journalists since then, so I found it amusing earlier today to find that his leading supporter might well be… Barack Obama.

The New York Times, in a major piece on Obama’s media-consuming habits (loves his iPad) and the president as strong if often silent press critic, reveals that “privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a ‘false balance,’ in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.” These happen to be two of Rosen’s prime tenets, as expressed again in that recent post, along with his dissection of what he calls the “savvy” vs. the truth-tellers.

Of course, Rosen’s latest (and, who knows, Obama’s now public agreement) has drawn a good deal of criticism this week from some of those the Rosen shoe might fit, and others, such as David S. Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix.  He defended one Washington Post reporter targeted by Rosen who had simply tried to “explain why he thinks Romney’s nonsense works. That’s exactly what he’s supposed to do in the particular corner of the media world he occupies.” That is, Obama’s pet hate, the political “horse race.” 

Conor Friedersdorf, to cite just one more example, at The Atlantic weighed in on the same Washington Post writer, suggesting his “focus” is “that rather than assessing the truth of statements made during a campaign, he or she is charged with informing readers of the fact that lots of inaccurate things get said but a price is seldom paid for saying them.” Is that enough? 

Rosen, the NYU prof and citizen journalism advocate, promises a response very soon.  But today he added a brief update at his blog, highlighting this passage in the Times piece on Obama:  "I think sometimes we in the media — particularly under the crunch of deadlines — don’t have time to work through all the issues of discerning what is fact,” said Paul E. Steiger, chief executive of ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization, and a former Wall Street Journal managing editor, “and so we say ‘he said, she said.’ ”

Backlash of a different kind arrived in recent hours, in response to the Romney attack ad and on-the-stump thrust that emerged yesterday, charging that Obama is now easing those hallowed work-to-welfare laws promoted by President Clinton and GOP leaders many years ago. I reported on it in passing yesterday, but now here’s more.

Just on a factual level, the new charges (which seemed to originate with the right-wing Heritage Foundation) —Obama trying to undermine the work ethic by granting waivers to certain states—fell apart quickly. The White House quickly denounced the meme as “dishonest” and pointed out that two of the five governors who requested the very limited waivers were Republicans. Also (surprise): Romney had backed such waivers as governor.

And this morning, PolitiFact delivered the harshest of its judgements on the ad and campaign statements —”pants on fire,” or one-big-lie. But its conclusion also, if a bit coyly, referred to what may be the most significant, and enduring, aspect of the new Romney focus: “The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance.”

What they are obliguely referring to, of course, is the old, long-lasting, portrayal of welfare by conservatives, Southern Democrats and many in the media as (1) mainly for lazy folks who won’t work and (2) mainly a program for black Americans (and other minorities). Facts never got in the way but it was a way to flame racial and class resentments. Nixon put his welfare recipients in Cadillacs and Reagan famously denounced “welfare queens.”

You still heard a lot today about “Reagan Democrats” and the battle between Obama and Reagan for their souls, but few point out that the origin of this subgroup can be traced back at least partly to Reagan’s race-tinged welfare bashing.

I was among the first to raise the new race issue yesterday—the “racist dog whistle”—but by the end of the day it was joined by many others.  Don’t miss this video of a segment on Rachel Maddow’s show last night featuring our own Melissa Harris-Perry, who pointed out, “I do think on the question of tactics, you can use African-American bodies, particularly the bodies of poor black women, as a bogey man, as a wedge…”

Oh, there’s one more example of “backlash”—or call it backlash to backlash.  With mockery of Senator Harry Reid’s claims about Romney’s taxes mounting, PolitiFact gave him the dreaded “pants on fire” label.  But James Poniewozik at Time observes that this is absurd—just as Reid cannot know for sure that his single-sourced claim is true, nor can PolitiFact know for certain that Reid is telling a “lie.” 

Greg Mitchell’s books on influential American campaigns include Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, The Campaign of the Century (on Upton Sinclair’s race) and Why Obama Won. He also blogs daily at Pressing Issues.

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