Clinton, context, and coverage — a case study

If you perused the headlines on several prominent political news sites yesterday, you were led to believe that former President Clinton, in an interview with Newsmax, expressed his opposition to President Obama’s debt-reduction plan, or at least the provisions related to tax fairness.

Newsmax’s own headline: “Ex-President Clinton to Newsmax: Raising Taxes Won’t Work”

Politico headline: “Bill Clinton: No more taxes now”

Business Insider headline: “Bill Clinton Breaks With Obama, Says No To New Tax Hikes”

USA Today headline: “Clinton: No new (Obama) taxes?”

Perhaps the most egregious was Time‘s Mark Halperin, who ran this as the lead political story yesterday afternoon. The headline, referring to Clinton as the nation’s 42nd president, read, “42: No Tax Hikes.” The blurb told readers, “In Newsmax interview, Clinton says, ‘I personally don’t believe we ought to be raising taxes … This has been a dead flat economy.'”

What did Clinton actually say? The quote from the former president is pretty straightforward: “I personally don’t believe we ought to be raising taxes or cutting spending until we get this economy off the ground.”

Notice the difference between the quote and the media’s coverage?

First, these media outlets simply chose to ignore the part of the quote in which Clinton rejected spending cuts during a weak economy. Halperin went so far as to use ellipses to take out the part in which the former president dismissed the Republicans’ priority, misleading the reader about Clinton’s position.

Second, while some outlets were eager to tell the public that Clinton’s view is at odds with Obama’s view, both presidents are taking the same approach to the issue. Clinton wants tax increases delayed until the economy is stronger and so does Obama. Reporters who spend even a couple of minutes looking at the White House plan will see that the president wants to boost tax revenue to lower the deficit, but not until 2013. In the short term, Obama wants to cut taxes, not raise them.

Clinton and Obama are saying the same thing. There’s no excuse for these media outlets telling the public otherwise.