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Beyond the Beltway: How to Read the News

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

Principle 4: if a story hawks a tale of miniscule growth unrelated to the president’s policies while ignoring the larger decline caused by his policies in a swing state, then the story should be copyrighted “Obama 2012.” Mitt Romney recently spoke in the small Colorado town of Fort Lupton, sharing his views on national energy policy. The media narrative focused on the town’s recent energy growth (which is completely unrelated to Obama), thus giving the appearance of good news for President Obama in a state critical to his reelection, while simultaneously ignoring the rampant failings of the green economy President Obama has squandered billions attempting to prop up.

Principle 5: where the story is physically placed often indicates its bias. If it’s a back-page story, it’s usually good news for conservatives/bad news for liberals. In other words, go there to find good news for Mitt Romney, like the polls showing his good standing among women. Another helpful New York Times example: the nationwide Catholic litigation against Obamacare’s contraception mandate was recently carried on page A17.

Principle 6: if the mainstream media (MSM) is slow to report the story, doesn’t report a story, or doctors the evidence, the story usually disfavors MSM narratives. Examples here abound: Dan Rather’s embarrassing meltdown after the airing of fraudulent documents regarding President Bush’s National Guard service; Newsweek’s refusal to publish the bombshell story of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Principle 7: if the story has as its main thrust the victimization of (and hence necessary federal government support for) a niche voting block critical to Democratic reelection, it’s probably a puff piece supportive of liberal policies/priorities. Good examples include the litany of stories concerning poor, minority women who will no longer receive free contraception if the litigation against Obamacare succeeds; or the allegedly racist crusades against blacks and Latinos by those seeking to enforce race neutral voter ID laws in swing states.

There are undoubtedly countless more such truisms, but these suffice. In what promises to be another close race, President Obama is again counting on the country accepting at face value the media cheerleading that helped him prevail in 2008. Then as now, the media is ready to do his bidding and provide campaign narratives at odds with reality. As in Wisconsin, however, discerning voters who know how to read the news will spot the difference, and vote accordingly.

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