Dana Milbank and the Awesome Powers of Selective Quotation

Once again, we see how the responsible, professional journalists in the traditional media operate with respect to context and interpreting the meaning of a quote. Under the title “President Obama continues hectic victory tour,” Dana Milbank writes the following (emphasis mine):

Barack Obama has long been his party’s presumptive nominee. Now he’s becoming its presumptuous nominee.

Fresh from his presidential-style world tour, during which foreign leaders and American generals lined up to show him affection, Obama settled down to some presidential-style business in Washington yesterday. He ordered up a teleconference with the (current president’s) Treasury secretary, granted an audience to the Pakistani prime minister and had his staff arrange for the chairman of the Federal Reserve to give him a briefing. Then, he went up to Capitol Hill to be adored by House Democrats in a presidential-style pep rally.

Along the way, he traveled in a bubble more insulating than the actual president’s. Traffic was shut down for him as he zoomed about town in a long, presidential-style motorcade, while the public and most of the press were kept in the dark about his activities, which included a fundraiser at the Mayflower where donors paid $10,000 or more to have photos taken with him. His schedule for the day, announced Monday night, would have made Dick Cheney envious:

11:00 a.m.: En route TBA.

12:05 p.m.: En route TBA.

1:45 p.m.: En route TBA.

2:55 p.m.: En route TBA.

5:20 p.m.: En route TBA.

The 5:20 TBA turned out to be his adoration session with lawmakers in the Cannon Caucus Room, where even committee chairmen arrived early, as if for the State of the Union. Capitol Police cleared the halls — just as they do for the actual president. The Secret Service hustled him in through a side door — just as they do for the actual president.

Inside, according to a witness, he told the House members, “This is the moment . . . that the world is waiting for,” adding: “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”

As he marches toward Inauguration Day (Election Day is but a milestone on that path), Obama’s biggest challenger may not be Republican John McCain but rather his own hubris.

Some say the supremely confident Obama — nearly 100 days from the election, he pronounces that “the odds of us winning are very good” — has become a president-in-waiting. But in truth, he doesn’t need to wait: He has already amassed the trappings of the office, without those pesky decisions.

The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder reported last week that Obama has directed his staff to begin planning for his transition to the White House, causing Republicans to howl about premature drape measuring. Obama was even feeling confident enough to give British Prime Minister Gordon Brown some management advice over the weekend. “If what you’re trying to do is micromanage and solve everything, then you end up being a dilettante,” he advised the prime minister, portraying his relative inexperience much as President Bush did in 2000.

On his presidential-style visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem last week, Obama left a written prayer, intercepted by an Israeli newspaper, asking God to “help me guard against pride and despair.” He seems to have the despair part under control, but the pride could be a problem.

Let’s take a look at those lines I’ve bolded:

“Inside, according to a witness, he told the House members…” Um, what witness? Does this witness have a name? Even more to the point, there is this tradition in journalism, it’s called, “confirming” a quote or a claim.

Which brings us to the second set of bolded lines:

“The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder reported last week that Obama has directed his staff to begin planning for his transition to the White House. …”

Funny that Milbank should mention Marc Ambinder to boost his case that Obama is a self-important, presumptuous, preening peacock. Because Marc — a political blogger at The Atlantic — actually has a post up today about Dana Milbank’s Obama quote. I can understand why Milbank didn’t mention that — Marc took the extraordinary step of calling Obama’s campaign office and asking about the accuracy of the quote:

Writing a Messiah Watch could get me kicked off the bus here, but onward! Dana Milbank teed this up, quoting Obama’s boast to Democratic members of Congress:

“I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions,” he said.

Slam dunk, right?

Well, actually…

I asked the Obama campaign about the quote, and they provided some context that makes this particular utterance more digestible.

It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It’s about America. I have just become a symbol…” Obama said, according to the campaign.

Well, well. That’s the horse of a different color you might talk about back home, right?

Oh, and about those president-like Secret Service arrangements:

The Capitol Police and the Secret Service, not the Obama campaign, closed the halls for Obama to pass yesterday. If you’re inclined to think Obama presumptuous for this, then John McCain is also on your list; last week in Columbus, the police department there gave him full intersection control during rush hour. Oh, and that was David Cameron to whom Obama “gave some management advice,” not to Gordon Brown, although Brown could probably have used it!

“Ah, journalism,” sighs Matthew Yglesias, another political blogger:

So it seems that Barack Obama said something like:

It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It’s about America. I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.

One could dispute that theory, but it’s not a particularly remarkable thing to say. You have a candidate who was greeted enthusiastically in Europe saying that the enthusiasm was about something larger than him — about the United States and about the values Barack Obama and millions of other Americans cherish and hope will once again govern the country.

But Dana Millbank wanted to write an article about how “Barack Obama has long been his party’s presumptive nominee. Now he’s becoming its presumptuous nominee.” So he wrote:

Inside, according to a witness, he told the House members, “This is the moment . . . that the world is waiting for,” adding: “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”

And now for hours the press and the GOP have been in a frenzy about Obama’s arrogance. Because he tried to say something humble about why he was greeting by hundreds of thousands of people when he gave a speech.

If you want journalism, beware of journalists. Double-check everything with the bloggers.

3 Responses to “Dana Milbank and the Awesome Powers of Selective Quotation”

  1. Hold_That_Tiger says:

    Of course the Press have become hyper-critical of Obama….Obama refuses to feign Humble unlike most Politicans. Obama’s cool cerebral quality and ability to shake off most of the canards that the opposition has thrown at him flummoxes the regular Press corps, although I find it notable that members of the Press that travel exclusively with Obama seem to defend him against some of the more outrageous claims such as the assertion that he worked out in perferance to visiting the wounded troops in Germany. Dana Milbank was really tough on Hillary Clinton during the primary and now has shifted criticism to Obama…I am still waiting on a tough Press examination of McCain (but so far I wait in vain, as no MSM journalist deems it fit, in view of McCain’s charge that Obama is “indifferent” to the troops, to point out that McCain has consistently voted NO on increasing funding to the Veteran’s Administration and the GI Bill…votes that can impact returning troops, especially the wounded soldiers, far more than Obama’s missing a single meeting with the troops in Germany.)

  2. Xanthippas says:

    Gosh, I wonder where this “Obama is an arrogant elitist” meme came from? Certainly not from the right-wing, right? I mean, who could imagine that members of the media could be led around by right-wing bloggers and pundits, right?

  3. gcotharn says:

    It is great fun to see Dana Milbank’s shoddy standards and principles – so often unfairly targeted against politicians on the right – now targeted against the top politician from the left. I ought not enjoy the schadenfreude so much, yet I do. 🙂 I trust a carnival barker more than Dana Milbank.

    As to the comments about Obama and feigning humble and being arrogant… I look, and I see Obama and his campaign bringing this on themselves. It’s not the biggest deal, since the McCains were always going to be accusing Obama of something, or actually a lot of somethings. I’m just saying Obama is not innocently removed from the “arrogant and disdainful elitist” meme, as Jay Cost described in an article you guys might appreciate. Do you really think all those Pennsylvania Hillary voters were racist? Most of them were not racist. They just looked at Barack and saw an elitist they could not relate to. An excerpt from Mr. Cost’s essay:

    Bill Clinton had a great [meta narrative] in 1992: generational change can invigorate a tired government and grow a sagging economy. Clinton’s outfit consistently reinforced this narrative. From the campaign theme, to the selection of Al Gore as running mate, to “It’s the economy, stupid” – it made sure people knew his core claim.

    Obama’s narrative should be similar to Clinton’s. It’s tailor-made for a year like this and a man like Obama. But that is not the Obama campaign’s message. Its message often seems to be: this great man will unify a divided America around himself.

    This is not entirely bad. A message of unity could be effective, even though it is tricky to sell in a partisan campaign. The trouble comes with the part about Obama himself. His campaign’s emphasis on his greatness is creating three political problems.
    […]
    If Democrats are wondering why Republicans have taken to sarcastically calling Obama “The Messiah,” this is a good indication. On nearly every page [of BarackObama.com], we are greeted with a picture of an illuminated Obama issuing a challenge from the clouds: if you believe this special man can change Washington, rally behind him.

    This is a shaky foundation for a voting coalition. Most voters will be skeptical that Obama is so grand. So, why should they vote for him?

    If he is going to issue a challenge to voters, it should be something like: if you don’t like George W. Bush and if you are upset about the economy, vote for Obama. Cue Fleetwood Mac. Drop balloons.
    […]
    Early in his candidacy, Obama’s narrative was very different. He was a candidate mobilizing the public into a social movement for the sake of the common good. This was a good message – but because of his campaign’s grandiose rhetoric and imagery, it has been displaced. Obama no longer seems like the mere mobilizer, working to unite people around the common good. Instead, he often seems like the point of the mobilization itself.

    He should return to that initial narrative.

    I agree with Mr. Cost.

    Dana Milbank has done what he frequently does: he sniffs the oncoming media common wisdom, runs ahead of it so he can be first to put the oncoming common wisdom into a column, then supports his thesis with magic editing and even overt lies. Welcome, Barack, to George W. Bush’s world.

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