Welcome to the season of spin. As the presidential contest heats up, so does the parade of “news stories” trumpeting a carefully manicured version of President Obama and his record, making the case for a second term in an “objective” way his official campaign never could.
With two recent, lengthy pieces praising the virtues of President Obama’s handling of the drone attacks and a (formerly top-secret) cyber war against the Iranian nuclear program, The New York Times is the first mainstream news outlet to start peddling campaign propaganda as news. It certainly won’t be the last.
Lest anyone be misled by these puff pieces parading as objective journalism, below is a handy, helpful, how-to guide for separating news fact from campaign fiction. In short, here is how to read the news.
Principle 1: the presence/absence of unauthorized leaks/quotes/attribution reveals whether the story is a puff piece to support the president, or a hit job attacking him or his policies. For example: The New York Times story about the drones, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” contained plenty of on-the-record attribution from, among others, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and counterterrorism chief John Brennan. In contrast, the myriad New York Times stories during the Bush years on the terrorist surveillance and SWIFT programs, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, and Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame saga were short on facts, long on unauthorized quotes, and full of unsourced criticism.
Principle 2: if a story’s narrative doesn’t comport with the facts, it is propaganda. The first Friday of every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”) releases employment figures. Inevitably, the “news” stories cite the miniscule uptick or downtick in the jobs figures, while ignoring the larger point on the millions who have left the job market altogether since 2009. Thus, the unemployment rate in the story is reported as 8.1 or 8.2%, whereas the true figure is in double digits as a result of the lowest rate of labor market participation in thirty years.
Principle 3: if the story strengthens the attributes of a liberal politician in areas where that politician is usually perceived as weak, it’s propaganda. News stories on President Obama’s handling of the drone program, the cyber attack on the Iranian nuclear program, and the Osama bin Laden death anniversary are meant to bolster President Obama’s record on national defense, where Republicans typically have an advantage. Not until Special Forces outrage reached a critical crescendo did the president and his media admirers cease their previously verboten football-spiking on bin Laden.