The Washington Post’s ombudsman says the newspaper’s original source for a quote that was used to portray Barack Obama as a megalomaniac now disputes the Post’s negative interpretation that has spread across cable TV, the Internet and even into a John McCain attack ad.
Post ombudsman Deborah Howell also acknowledges that neither Post reporter who relied on the misleading quote spoke directly with the source, checked out its accuracy, or made any independent effort to determine the context of the remark, which was made to a closed Democratic caucus meeting on Capitol Hill on July 29.
In her column, “The Anger Over an Obama Quote,” Howell adds that she has been contacted by about 160 people, including congressional officials, who said the Post twisted the meaning of the quote by taking it out of context. But the newspaper still refuses to run a full-scale correction or a clarification or even print a letter protesting the distortion.
Howell’s column, appearing in the Post’s Aug. 10 editions, does chide the two reporters – Dana Milbank and Jonathan Weisman – for not checking out the disputed quote more carefully but her criticism is mild.
Generally, she treats the quote as a case study on the risks of anonymous sources, not a clear-cut case of shoddy journalism. She also demeans critics of the Post's handling the issue by calling them “partisans.”
“An anonymous secondhand quotation from Sen. Barack Obama at a closed House Democratic caucus meeting on July 29 caused an uproar among partisans; it is an excellent example of how the pernicious use of unnamed sources, so pervasive in Washington, can backfire on journalists and sources,” Howell wrote.
The quote – first appearing in Weisman’s online column and then as a centerpiece of Milbank’s print article depicting Obama as a delusional narcissist – had Obama saying, “This is the moment … that the world is waiting for. … I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”
Milbank twinned this seemingly self-absorbed quote with the tight security that the Secret Service has placed around Obama to depict the Illinois senator as acting like he already was President, calling him the “presumptuous nominee.”
Jonathan Capehart, Milbank’s colleague from the Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial page, then took the point a step further on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show, citing the misleading quote to establish that Obama is an “uppity” black man. [Capehart himself is black.]
The show’s host, former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough, concluded that the quote virtually disqualified Obama from the presidency.
Yet, despite the quote’s significance, Howell’s column makes clear that neither Weisman nor Milbank spoke directly to the source who sent the partial quote to Weisman via e-mail. The two reporters also did nothing to determine the context, nor did they seek clarification from the Obama camp or other participants at the Democratic caucus.
As the quote spread across cable TV and the Internet, eyewitnesses to Obama’s comments began protesting that the Post’s quote had turned Obama’s meaning inside out, that he actually was saying that the European reaction to his trip wasn’t about him.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, said Obama’s comment was “in response to what one of the [House] members prefaced the question by,” a reference to the crowd of 200,000 that turned out to hear Obama speak in Berlin.
According to Clyburn, Obama “said, ‘I wish I could take credit for that, but I can't. Because it's not about me. It's about America. It's about the people of Germany and the people of Europe looking for a new hope, new relationships, as we go forward in the world.’ So, he expressly said that it's not about me.”
A House Democratic aide sent an e-mail to Fox News saying, “Lots of people are reading the quote about Obama being a symbol and getting it wrong. His entire point of that riff was that the campaign IS NOT about him.