Watching Gov. Haley Barbour seize the national media spotlight feels a bit like seeing a bully from high school making it big. "I knew him when he was fat and mean!" one wants to say.
Like most unofficial contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, Barbour seems to be getting a pass from serious media scrutiny at the moment. His March 14 speech to the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce is a telling case in point. Barbour used the speech to attack President Obama over the economy and position himself as a Republican leader with the right answers. He repeated a number of hobbyhorses about both his record and Obama's, many of which play loose with the truth, if not ignoring it outright.
For mainstream media, though, the speech was too juicy an opportunity for classic horse-race-politics reporting to subject Barbour's claims to serious evaluation. Here was Barbour, potential GOP presidential candidate, criticizing the president in his own hometown--the audacity! At least that was the media narrative.
Barbour's not-quite-a-campaign-yet organization apparently stoked this narrative by disseminating an advance copy of his remarks to media outlets. The Associated Press,
Time.com's politics blog, Swampland, the conservative website The Daily Caller and the National Journal all ran stories citing Barbour's prepared remarks. Not surprisingly, the National Journal--which is aimed at beltway insiders--and The Daily Caller ran previews of Barbour's speech without any significant attempt at challenging his claims.
The Daily Caller quoted Barbour's remarks at length, including his hyperbolic characterization of Obama's presidency as "explosive spending, skyrocketing deficits, gargantuan debt, calls for record tax increases, government-run health care, out-of-control regulations and anti-growth energy policy."
While it may not be fair to expect a conservative publication to check Barbour's statements, the governor's allusion to "record tax increases" deserves a rebuttal. Barbour's phrase cropped up in many Republican politician's statements during the debate over extending the Bush tax cuts, with Republicans calling an expiration of the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans a "tax increase."
The National Journal's advance article zeroed in on another of Barbour's prepared jabs: "Is there anybody in this administration who ever signed the front side of a paycheck?" It failed to note, that--for better or worse--Obama's chief of staff, William Daley, is a former investment banker, and his budget director, Jacob Lew, spent time with Citigroup.
The AP, too, focused on Barbour's critique of Obama and spent no time, in its first article, debunking his claims. It repeated Barbour's characterization of the president's economic policies as "government boondoggles like taxpayer-subsidized high-speed rail or other pet projects" and "having government take control of our automakers, financial sector, health-care system and energy industry."
The AP failed to mention that Obama's health-care and financial-reform bills were far from "government control." Barbour was repeating a Republican talking point that describes the health-care reform as a "government takeover," even though the claim won the non-partisan fact-checking website PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" last year for its gross distortion of the truth.
The tactic of releasing a speech to media beforehand is hardly unusual. But while journalists--this one included--might appreciate the lead time to prepare a story, they also often pick the most bombastic statements to write their stories, avoiding the hard work of actually checking the facts.
In advance articles about Barbour's Chicago speech, the mere fact that Barbour was making the speech was the news. "In Chicago speech, Barbour hits Obama on the economy," The Daily Caller declared. "Can Haley Barbour Be the GOP's Corporate Candidate?" Time.com wondered.
Those early articles set the tone for coverage that followed. "Barbour Slams Obama on Economy and Energy," The New York Times' politics blog announced after the governor's speech. "Haley Barbour: President Obama has been 'AWOL' on Entitlement Reform," ABC News' blog, The Note, announced. Almost all mainstream media coverage of Barbour's speech cast it in terms of day-to-day horse race of politics. Politico, the political-news website, had the particularly blinkered headline, "Haley's comet crashes into W.H."
Media Matters, a left-leaning media watchdog group that targets "conservative misinformation," honed in on The Washington Post's story. The Post's Karen Tumulty dedicated the first five paragraphs of her article to repeating Barbour's attacks. She also qualified Barbour's inflammatory comments about the white Citizens' Councils to the Weekly Standard, referring to them as "a series of recent comments that have been portrayed as racially insensitive."
A later AP story did a far better job of calling Barbour's bluff. While Barbour bragged about eliminating a state budget deficit without raising taxes, he raised the cigarette tax in 2009, the AP's Liz Sidoti noted.
Sidoti also briefly mentioned the "ton of federal money" Mississippi received following Hurricane Katrina, buoying the state's economy. What she failed to say was that the state budget deficit didn't disappear completely until the 2006 fiscal year, after state sales tax receipts increased sharply with a post-Katrina spending spree.
Did anyone notice this story from Mother Jones on Barbour's stonewalling over releasing his e-mails (h/t William Patrick Butler)? It will not come as any surprise to the staff of the JFP.
Would you like to read the gubernatorial emails of Mississippi's Haley Barbour, a likely GOP presidential candidate? If so, it's gonna cost you. At least $53,460--and possibly closer to $200,000. ...
As for the estimated costs, the search and recovery fees are just the beginning. The retrieved emails, Jones adds, will have to be reviewed by attorneys in Barbour's office to determine if any might be exempt from release. ...
If Barbour's office determines it cannot mount such a legal review without impairing its ability to perform other governmental tasks, Jones writes, it will have to retain an outside law firm at a charge of at least $175 an hour. That would boost the cost of the legal review to a minimum of $87,500.
Did the state hire my dear friend and frequent bridge partner Sarah O'Reilly-Evans?
- Brian C Johnson
Brian, That's kind of a remarkable article ... You'd think Haley has something to hide ;-).