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A big weekend for political journalism blunders
Mistakes happen. And, unfortunately, they happen again.
Saturday’s Politico Playbook contained an explosive scoop — that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor went to dinner in DC on Friday night with a group of leading Democrats. And there was apparently even a photo to prove it.
“SPOTTED: Speaker NANCY PELOSI, Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER, Sens. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-Minn.) and DICK DURBIN (D-Ill.) and Justice SONIA SOTOMAYOR dining together at Le Diplomate on Friday night,” read the Playbook item by Eugene Daniels. “Pic from our intrepid tipster.”
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The optics of this meal seemed be terrible on numerous levels. Justices are supposed to be above the fray of partisan politics (or at least some of them are), so Sotomayor breaking bread with Pelosi, Schumer, and company is a bad look. Even worse, hours earlier Sotomayor had participated in Supreme Court arguments remotely, citing Covid concerns. And yet here she appeared to be, out at a popular restaurant. This looked like the height of liberal hypocrisy, and right-wing media figures wasted no time getting their dunks on.
There was a big problem, however — the story turned out to be completely false. The woman in the photo that Politico identified as Sotomayor is actually Schumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall. Only the back of her head is visible in the photo Politico ran, which you can see below. (Weinshall is seated to Klobuchar’s left.)
Zachary Petrizzo of The Daily Beast reported that the publication didn’t reach out to Schumer’s office before the item ran. On Saturday afternoon, Playbook’s Twitter account posted a correction.
And Sunday’s edition of the newsletter led with an “Editor’s Note” that threw an unnamed editor under the bus.
“Politico standards require we verify this information. The editor who received the tip failed to do so in this case. We deeply regret the error,” it said.
But the damage had already been done. As I pointed out on Twitter, the false story about Sotomayor dining with Democrats continued to circulate on social media even after Politico posted a correction. Considering how people internalize fragments of information from social media without necessarily reading articles, it’s likely some who had a negative reaction to the Sotomayor “news” still haven’t figured out the story is bunk. And the Playbook item wasn’t the first time in the last month that Playbook was led astray by a tipster with dirt about prominent Democrats dining at Le Diplomate (though they caught the error before publication last time).
Considering how sloppy and incendiary it was, Politico’s mistake was probably the most egregious political journalism debacle of the weekend. But it wasn’t the only one.
The Washington Post Twitter account criticizes Biden for going to funerals
It seems like a real challenge to criticize the president for attending public funerals, but the Washington Post did its best.
A day ahead of President Biden traveling to eulogize former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at his funeral on Saturday — the latest of a number of memorials and funerals Biden has spoken at since taking office — the Washington Post published a tweet asserting this might be a bad thing.
“Not everyone thinks it’s the best use of his time,” it said.
The tweet was roundly dragged, and on Saturday the Post deleted it, posting another that said “it "inaccurately represented the scope of the story." And, in fairness, the tweet was much worse than the article, which provides a mostly benign examination of why attending funerals in person is important to Biden.
But whoever wrote the tweet did no favors to the piece’s author, Annie Linskey, who has already come under heavy criticism for a tweet she posted last year mocking Biden for visiting his wife and children’s graves (“Biden goes to church and walks through a graveyard in Wilmington as his legislative agenda is dying in Washington,” Linskey tweeted last October, along with a photo of Biden in a cemetery). She also took heat last March for reporting out whether the Bidens would euthanize their dog (“The Biden’s [sic] will not euthanize their dog Major, who bit a staff member at the WH,” her tweet said).
Though it may not have set Twitter on fire, it would’ve been just fine to just run an article about Biden and funerals without trying to jam it into a “critics say” framing. That framing is useful for reporters and editors who want to present their work as being above the fray of partisan politics, but when applied to displays of basic human decency, it makes those reporters and editors seem like ghouls.
We all mess up now and then. But there are some real problems at play here.
The Politico and Post blunders aren’t the end of the world, but they’re not exactly isolated incidents either. They both illustrate how major outlets have gotten into the habit of framing coverage of Biden and his Democratic orbit in a manner even more negative than was the norm for Trump. Barely a month ago, to cite a memorable example, Playbook tried and twist Kamala Harris’s choice of headphones into a weird hit piece.
There are other ones that could be cited from just the last few days as well. Compare and contrast, for instance, how outlets ranging from the AP to the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times disparaged last Friday’s jobs report when they lauded nearly identical jobs reports in the Trump years.
To be fair, the jobs numbers are reported relative to analysts’ monthly expectations, so 200,000 new jobs can be good and one context and disappointing in another. But the fact remains that 3.9 percent unemployment during a global pandemic, capping off a year where a record 6.4 million new jobs were created, is nothing to sneeze at. But instead of nodding toward that bigger picture, outlet after outlet interpreted Friday’s jobs report through the prism of anxieties about the future (“hiring slowed and the economy stumbled, even before Omicron threatened the labor market,” said the New York Times) or emphasized how “disappointing” it was.
These are editorial choices. And while there are obviously plenty of valid things to criticize Biden and leading Democrats for, the problem is that the Politicos of the world undermine their credibility to make them when they’re overeager to twist complete nonsense (or worse, misinformation) into hit pieces.