Reporters are not mind readers, and should not pretend to be

I’ve always thought that Dan Balz of the Washington Post was less susceptible to spin and hoodwinkery than other political reporters. I must have been wrong, because he’s the one who wrote this:

the sense of grievance over this issue within McCain’s high command is deep and palpable. Those emotions led to the decision to have Davis call out Obama on Thursday with his extraordinarily provocative statement: “Barack Obama has played the race card and he played it from the bottom of the deck,” he said. “It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.”

Before all this happened, McCain advisers believed that the Obama campaign successfully pinned a racist label on Bill Clinton during the during primaries — for comments that drew protests from some leading African American politicians — and were determined not to let the same happen to McCain. Also, they take personally any suggestion from the Obama campaign that they are part of a campaign that would play the race card and are indignant about it.

Ironically, the McCain camp’s celebrity ad comparing Obama to the vapid pair of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears drew some criticism as a subtle attempt to play the race card in the same way Republicans did against Harold Ford in the 2006 Senate race with the ad that concluded with an attractive young blonde woman saying, “Harold, call me.” McCain advisers are as incensed over those suggestions as Obama advisers are over Davis’s charge.

Gee, isn’t it possible that they are just pretending to be “indignant” and to have a deep “sense of grievance” because turning the campaign into a conversation about whether Obama is being “divisive” by “playing the race card” works to their advantage? Isn’t it possible that they went negative in an attempt to provoke the Obama campaign, so that they could pretend to be outraged and therefore turn campaign coverage away from the issues and toward subjects more to their advantage? Did that ever occur to Dan Balz, or is he positive that he can see into people’s hearts and minds and know what they are truly thinking and feeling?

Since when are newspaper reporters supposed to report at face value the “emotions” that professional political operatives are feeling, no matter how “palpable” the reporter may think they are? Since when are newspaper reporters supposed to report on what professional political operatives “believe,” rather than what they say they believe? You would think that reporters would be especially careful on this point after they have spent the last week listening to those very same professional political operatives say that they believe things which are demonstrably false (such as that Obama cancelled the visit with wounded soldiers because he couldn’t bring the media with him).

Note to reporters: stick to reporting what people do and what people say. Don’t report people’s emotions or beliefs as if you know them for a fact, because you can’t. Sometimes people lie, sometimes people spin, sometimes people rationalize, sometimes people omit things, and sometimes people are just mistaken or deluded or confused, so instead of reading people’s minds, please just stick to what you can know for sure.

Especially infuriating about this “race card” brouhaha is that all the discussion about it is overlooking one major fact. This is the remark from Obama that set off the McCain campaign because he was supposedly “playing the race card”:

since they don’t have any new ideas the only strategy they’ve got in this election is to try to scare you about me. They’re going to try to say that I’m a risky guy, they’re going to try to say, ‘Well, you know, he’s got a funny name and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five dollar bills and, and they’re going to send out nasty emails.

The McCain campaign says that Obama crossed a line when he said “he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five dollar bills,” because it is a reference to race. I have seen almost zero mention of the fact that the McCain campaign posted an ad on its youtube page a month ago asking, “What will [Obama] change next?” and then replacing the faces on the statue of liberty, Mount Rushmore and the hundred dollar bill with images of Barack Obama’s face. Here is the ad:

The McCain campaign would surely argue that it’s an ad making fun of Obama for being presumptuous and arrogant, not trying to scare people about the color of his skin, and that might be true, but Obama’s remarks make a lot more sense when you know that the McCain campaign had already created an ad with the very same imagery that he was talking about. As for whether imagery like that is trying to scare people about having someone who “doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills,” that’s open to debate. Maybe Dan Balz can see into the minds of the admakers and tell us precisely what they were thinking when they made it.

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3 responses to “Reporters are not mind readers, and should not pretend to be

  1. If Dan Balz read this post, would he hit his head and say, My god, what was I thinking?…Suitable punishment: force him to read the paragraph he wrote starting with “Ironically…” out loud a thousand times.

  2. Even as experienced reporter as Dan Balz can be trapped by his belief that what he is hearing from Rick Davis of the McCain campaign is real rather than a charade. (As Michael Gazzaniga, the brain specialist, says in “Human,” “it is astounding what people will believe.” ) I watched Davis being interviewed about the latest brouhaha, and when Matt Lauer asked him repeatedly about the Britney Spears/Paris Hilton ad, he answered: “we can air whatever ad we want”.
    Basically, we have had a week of nothing but attacks on Obama. This includes today’s radio address by McCain — a weekly event — to which I have heard no answer from the Obama campain.

    What to answer and what to ignore will be one of the questions the Obama people have to confront. McCain’s concept of a “civilized campaign” is as shaky and subject to instant revision as so many of his other principles.

  3. Another mind reader, the clairvoyant Paul Krugman:

    Mr. Obama, perhaps inhibited by his desire to transcend partisanship (and avoid praising the last Democratic president?), has been surprisingly diffident about attacking the Bush economic record.

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