Playing telephone with a controversial quote

On Monday, we talked about an odd line that has worked its way into Mitt Romney’s stump speech: he wants to “keep America American.” I argued that the line is kind of creepy, and Steve M. noted that the same three-word phrase was used in the 1920s by the KKK. A day later, John Aravosis tied the threads together in a piece that generated a fair amount of attention.

As campaign stories go, this was largely a blip on the radar, but the history of “keep America American” was noticed by a few major outlets — the Washington Post noted that the phrase was also used by the nativist Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s — and MSNBC briefly mentioned this briefly on Wednesday morning.

And that apparently proved problematic.

The MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews, who was not involved with the original report, read an apology to the Romney campaign during his 5 p.m. program, “Hardball.”

The network, Mr. Matthews said, “reported on a blog item that compared a phrase used by the Romney campaign to one used by the K.K.K. way back in the 1920s. It was irresponsible and incendiary of us to do this, and it showed an appalling lack of judgment. We apologize, we really do, to the Romney campaign.”

The odd part of this is that no one, including Matthews, said what was wrong with the original report. Romney was quoted using a line with a troubled past, and some media outlets — the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and MSNBC — made note of this. No one called Romney a Klansman, which clearly would have been ridiculous. This was more a story about a presidential candidate using a phrase with a scandalous past.

Shouldn’t on-air apologies offer some kind of explanation as to why the original reporting was mistaken?

As it turns out, as of late yesterday, two days after the apology, the Romney campaign produced a video showing Romney had said “keep America America,” rather than “keep America American.” What we’re left with, then, is a sort of political game of “telephone” — the L.A. Times ran a quote; I highlighted the quote; Steve M. added historical context to the quote; Aravosis elevated the historical context; and some major outlets mentioned this briefly to the public.

I guess the blame goes to the L.A. Times on Monday for missing the letter “n”?