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Damn the Context, Full Speed Ahead!

NewsBusters and the Media Research Center get all huffy when conservatives are taken out of context -- but they have no problem doing the same thing to President Obama.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 8/15/2012

The Media Research Center -- and, in particular, its NewsBusters blog -- has a passive-aggressive relationship with putting words in their proper context: It will demand that the words of conservatives be placed in context, but not only does it happily quote, say, President Obama out of context and declare any attempt to put them back in their true context as liberal bias.

A couple examples of the former: Noel Sheppard used a Feb. 20 NewsBusters post to complain that "America's media collectively cherry-picked from a 41 minute speech to completely misrepresent what [Rick] Santorum actually said" when he attacked President Obama's "phony theology." And in a Jan. 9 post, Ken Shepherd scolded Politico for not taking the full context of Mitt Romney's remarks about liking "being able to fire people" seriously, huffing, "But context be damned, apparently."

But such context-damning and cherry-picking is perfectly fine at the MRC when it comes to quoting Obama.

In a Jan. 1 NewsBusters post complaining about a list of "political misstatements" posted by Politico, Graham complained that Politico "made excuses for Obama." How? By accurately noting that Mitt Romney and Rick Perry were wrong to claim that Obama called Americans lazy, because "Obama was talking about an institutional problem, not about Americans themselves." That's right -- Graham really is arguing if telling the truth about Obama equals making excuses for him.

A Jan. 30 post by Kyle Drennen blatantly took Obama out of context, accusing him of an "aloof flub" and a "gaffe" by, in Drennen's words, "telling a woman her husband's long-term unemployment was 'interesting' to him." In fact, the full context shows that Obama said it was "interesting" that an engineer would be unemployed for so long because "there's a huge demand around the country for engineers" and that " the word we're getting is that somebody in that kind of high-tech field, that kind of engineer, should be able to find something right away."

In a June 11 MRC TimesWatch item, Clay Waters bashed New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes for committing the offense of explaining the full context of Obama's statement that "the private sector is doing fine." He huffed that " "Calmes actually provided 'context' to bolster Obama's argument for him" and that "Calmes felt the need to explain what Obama really meant," going on to portray Calmes' accurate representation of the full context at " spin on Obama's behalf."

That's right -- proper context is "spin" at the MRC, at least when the person whose context is being provided is Obama.

Nowhere was the MRC's double standard on context more egregious than when following the right-wing talking point of taking Obama's statement "If you've got a business, you didn't build that" out of context to portray him as a socialist. The MRC followed orders so slavishly, in fact, that it defended taking Obama out of context with excuses that it would denounce and ridicule if they were invoked to defend taking a conservative out of context.

The MRC set the template for the out-of-context attack in a July 18 MRC item by Geoffrey Dickens complaining that the networks didn't report how "Obama insulted job creators everywhere, last Friday, by charging: 'If you've got a business, you didn't build that, somebody else made that happen.'" That, of course, is because what Obama said was not news -- if you don't pull it out of context, that is.

A July 19 post by Tom Blumer denounced the Associated Press for putting Obama's statement in its original context of talking about the roads, bridges and other infrastructure that makes it possible for customers to get to those businesses:

Geez, Steve [Peoples, AP writer], what part of "you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen" didn't you understand?

Note well that Peoples didn't write: "Obama said that his intended point was ..." He asserted as an indisputable, established fact what Obama's "intended point" was. You don't know that, pal -- no matter how many other Obama speeches you quote.

Actually, it's quite clear from Obama's words what he intended to say, and indeed did say. But Blumer was too invested in dishonestly taking that statement out of context that he just couldn't help but parrot the right-wing talking point du jour. He continued his rant:

Not "somebody else created the infrastructure (with your taxes) which made pursuing your dreams more possible." Not "somebody else educated your employees (with your taxes) which made leveraging your talents possible." And even if the President was right -- and of course, he's not -- the "progressive" tax system which already takes a disproportionate percentage of income from high earners squares the deal.

In Obama's warped world, you didn't close the sale; "somebody else" did. You didn't screen, vet, hire, and motivate employes; "somebody else" did. You didn't organize and manage your work flow, vendor, and customer relationships; "somebody else" did. On a more personal level, you didn't orchestrate the complex elements (incuding government red tape) of building of your new home; "somebody else" did.

No amount of "context" can paper over the fact that in Obama's world successful people don't have a right to claim credit for their success. The government and the collective deserve all of it, and how dare you think otherwise? There's no room for, or even acknowledgment of, "individual initiative" in the president's "you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen" remark.

Blumer is simply lying. In fact, Obama did acknowledge "individual initiative" in his remarks, which Blumer carefully excised form his criticism.

Having been caught taking Obama's statement out of context, it was time for the MRC to scramble. Their ingenious solution? Declaring that context doesn't matter. That's what Matthew Sheffield argued in a July 21 NewsBusters post, insisting that putting Obama's words in their proper context makes them equally offensive to the out-of-context version:

President Obama's “you didn't build that” remark about business entrepreneurs touched a nerve on the Right, and sent liberal journalists and bloggers scrambling to explain away his gaffe by asserting that, “in context,” his statements weren't bad at all.

While it is true that Obama's remarks are frequently referred to in a short-hand manner, in their full form, his comments are just as insulting, if not more so. And no amount of media spin can make them otherwise.


No, the liberal media's effort to defend the president by putting his remarks “in context” doesn't help Obama at all, because his “you didn't build that” statement was, in context, even worse than if read as a standalone sentence.

Sheffield's source for this responsibility-evading claim is the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein. Sheffield omits Klein's pedantic observation that "Obama’s defenders argue the 'that' in 'you didn’t build that' refers to 'roads and bridges.' I’m not so sure we can make that assumption, given that 'business' is the noun that directly precedes the pronoun 'that.' -- which tells you just how hard one must strain to make Obama's in-context arguments a bad thing.

On top of that, Klein's grammar-police argument is debunked by, yes, putting Obama's words in their full context. Slate's David Weigel writes:

Watch (again, can't believe I'm saying this) the body language. Obama is gesticulating to count off the various ways people have been helped -- great teacher, American system. At 0:44, he says "somebody invested in roads and bridges," and gyrates his arms as if mapping out said roads and bridges. "If you've got a business," he says, making one more gyration, "that -- you didn't build that." The extra "that," a false start, is not captured in transcripts. It really looks like "that" refers to the stuff that business-builders utilized on the way up, not the businesses themselves. Obama switched up, mid-sentence. These things happen.

The fact that Sheffield is making the argument that context doesn't matter after days of the MRC taking Obama out of context is nothing more than an attempt to change the subject from the fact that context obviously does matter.

Despite the grammar argument being discredited, the MRC's Clay Waters rehashed it in an Aug. 10 TimesWatch post. Berating a New York Times writer for accurately pointing out that Obama "was talking about roads and bridges, a point that was ignored" by his right-wing critics, Waters responded: "Really? If Obama really was talking about 'roads and bridges,' a plural phrase, why did he follow up with the word 'that,' which is singular?"

Such desperate grasping exposes the utter hypocrisy of the MRC's position. They know they're unfairly taking Obama out of context, they know it's a double standard, but they don't care because doing so furthers its right-wing agenda. It's cynicism in service of political expediency.

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