Brian Stelter put it best in the lead of this New York Times blog post:
Don’t just repeat it. Report it.
The background: last week blogger John Aravosis published a post claiming Mitt Romney is using a slogan that was popularized by the Ku Klux Klan back in the 1920s. The post was titled, “Romney adopts KKK slogan: ‘Keep America American’.” Here’s why Aravosis argued the use of slogan was a valid story, even if Romney was completely unaware of the link to the KKK:
In an era in which it’s apparently okay for Republicans to accuse President Obama of being a socialist, I guess we now need to ask if Mitt Romney is a Ku Klux Klansman. Not whether Romney inadvertently is using the KKK’s number one slogan from the 1920s on the stump, no, the Republicans would say, if this were a Democrat, that clearly the candidate was a closet member of the KKK. So, is Mitt Romney a closet member of the KKK? Keep in mind, that even Romney is now claiming, between the lines, that President Obama is a socialist. So why shouldn’t America be asking if Mitt Romney is a Klansman?
MSNBC and The Washington Post picked up the item. Neither outlet included a reaction from the Romney campaign about the allegation, and that’s the first reason they began to attract scrutiny and criticism for their coverage.
It wasn’t long before the Romney campaign and others cried foul, noting, critically, the candidate actually said “Keep America America.” The result was a strongly worded apology from MSNBC and a strongly worded editor’s note/apology from the Post. (Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman mentioned the MSNBC apology in this MediaWire post from last week.)
MSNBC said its report was “irresponsible and incendiary” and “showed an appalling lack of judgment.” (Watch Chris Matthews deliver the apology.) The Post said its blog post “contains multiple, serious factual errors that undermine its premise” and apologized for the fact that “the posting began by saying ‘[s]omeone didn’t do his research’ when, in fact, we had not done ours.”
(Side note: I love that the Post editor’s note acknowledges the link between the blog post’s opening line and its failure.)
Well, Aravosis is upset with MSNBC, telling the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, “It feels like Mitt Romney yelled at the head of MSNBC, and he caved. And I think it’s fair to ask MSNBC to disclose the contents of any and all discussions they had with the Romney campaign yesterday.”
Wemple also noted that in spite of its objections over not getting a chance to comment in the MSNBC or Post reports, the Romney campaign is now declining comment on the aftermath of the incident. For the record, the Post’s writer did contact the campaign — but the response was caught in the paper’s aggressive spam filter.
The Romney campaign wouldn’t respond to questions on the controversy. When I sent along the link to a Los Angeles Times story reflecting the candidate’s use of the phrase and asked for confirmation that it was an accurate report, I got nothing in response. Huffington Post got a similar treatment. Through the stonewalling, the Romney campaign signals its intent not to give its side of things but rather to flack the story out of existence through a series of no-comments.
“Don’t just repeat it. Report it.”
Getting back to Stelter’s prescriptive lead, Wemple also got a Monday Morning Quarterback comment from an MSNBC source. This person outlined the approach the channel should have taken:
“What we should have done (and what we felt showed a lack of judgment) was do some reporting on the story before putting it on air, rather than just repeat a blog item.”
Patrick Pexton, the Post’s ombudsman, agrees the Post report suffered from a lack of legwork. In a blog post about the controversy, he outlined mistakes made by the paper:
… too many reporters see the computer as their main tool of the trade. I’m old-fashioned, and I think the telephone is still the first tool of the trade if you can’t do a personal interview.
He also pointed to that old friend and foe, speed:
The errors here are pretty obvious. You remember that old saw that police and parents used to scare us when we were in high school driver education: “Speed kills.” Well, when reporting, too much speed can kill a publication’s reputation for even-handedness and fact-checking. Reporters love to be first and hate to be last, but accuracy and fairness must always triumph over speed.
I don’t think speed was much of a factor here. The link between Romney and the KKK slogan was already out there. The Post’s take on the matter linked to pieces by Aravosis and the Huffington Post. It spent more time looking at other examples of good or problematic political slogans than focusing on the Romney line. It also looked at the history of “Keep America American.” The Post reporter emailed the campaign for a comment prior to publishing, too.
I agree with Wemple that the issue itself was valid for the press to examine. A politician’s slogan is bound to attract scrutiny. Fair game.
The problem — and it’s a big one — is Romney didn’t use the same slogan as the KKK. Sure, the difference between “America” and “American” is just one letter. But the two words connote different messages. If you’re going to report someone is using a KKK slogan, they should actually be using it. The Post and MSNBC both said Romney was using the KKK slogan.
The original error was made by Aravosis. From there, the Post and MSNBC (and others) repeated the claim without checking what Romney was saying. As Stelter noted, the first step should have been to apply reporting to verify that, yes, Romney is actually saying what Aravosis claimed.
Verification before dissemination. It bears repeating.
In the end, a fair discussion about Romney’s slogan was rendered impossible by the fact that the press failed to identify what he was saying.
Regardless of the whole KKK claim, Aravosis was off the mark on another item. In his original post he wrote, “By the way, I’m waiting for the traditional media to poo-poo this and ignore it … ”
MSNBC and the Washington Post did neither, and they paid a price.