Unless you were paying very close attention you likely missed the change in a recent Politico headline from "Obama support soft among Catholics" to "Obama slow to gain among Catholics". The change itself may seem innocent enough until you learn that it was done in response to the furiously angry efforts by the Obama campaign to change the perception of Politico readers in advance of yesterday's primaries in Catholic rich Ohio and Texas.
At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Politico’s story about Barack Obama’s problems winning Catholic voters went live.Within minutes, editor Charlie Mahtesian’s phone started ringing.The heated interaction between Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign and Politico's national political editor Saturday afternoon and evening was in many ways routine. But it was also a window into aspects of the political process outsiders do not usually see or understand.The exchanges show the speed and ferocity with which operatives inside presidential campaigns argue even the slightest nuances of stories they believe could be damaging. They also show the hectic, on-the-fly judgments that journalists make as they try to abide by standards of fairness while pushing back against dubious spin.Among a volley of staff members and surrogates for Obama’s campaign to call Mahtesian, the most combative was deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer.Mahtesian, who has written about national politics for nearly two decades, said Sunday he was taken aback by Pfeiffer’s bellicose tone."Who are you? I've never heard of you. What's your background?" Pfeiffer demanded to know, Mahtesian recalled. (T.T. - all emphasis mine)
While it may not be uncommon for campaigns to call news outlets to get their message out I find it a bit concerning that the Politico capitulated to the demands of the Obama campaign in adjusting the message. They essentially allowed the Obama campaign editorial reign, albeit minor, over their political commentary. Not only did the editors of The Politico change the headline without reference they actually added a quote near the top by a former Democratic Congressman who is campaigning on Obama's behalf to attract Catholic voters.
Former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, who has campaigned for Obama among Catholic voters in Ohio, says he sees no indications that Obama is struggling among Catholics."The more Catholics see him and learn his positions on social justice and dignity of life issues, the more they like him," said Roemer.
I see no reason to add this quote. The article already included the same substance in a statement from Joshua DuBois who is the Obama campaign’s national director of religious affairs. The addition of Roemer's comments is essentially a placed message to Catholic Democrats and Independents that may be leaning toward Hillary. It is sadly becoming commonplace for politicians and journalists to be browbeat into limiting what they can or can't say, write or even think about Barack Obama. Whether or not the topic is Mr. Obama's middle name, his ancestral Muslim heritage, his admitted drug usage, his stance on abortion or his record of accomplishment there is a coordinated effort to control all aspects of the conversation lest Americans do something so terrible as to decide for themselves. The Politico took the commonly walked route, changed their headline, inserted an Obama campaign message and then excused the whole event by claiming that it was the result of a misunderstanding between the Obama campaign and Politico editor Charles Mahtesian.
In a second interview Sunday evening, he also disputed the direct quotes Mahtesian recalled him making. He said it was clear at the time that Mahtesian thought he was challenging his credentials. In fact, Pfeiffer said, he was merely trying to understand where he fit within Politico, since the campaign had not dealt with Mahtesian previously and his name was not on the story.As it happened, Mahtesian was more open to changes in the story than Obama campaign aides initially assumed—even as he rejected the main thrust of the Obama team’s complaints.Operating first from his home and later by BlackBerry from a Washington Capitals hockey game, Mahtesian made changes to the original story.Among the items agitating the Obama campaign was the initial headline: "Obama support soft among Catholics.”Mahtesian ordered it changed to "Obama slow to gain among Catholics.”No, the difference between those would not be obvious to me at first glance, either.But the two headlines give a flavor of Saturday’s tussle.The Obama campaign was infuriated by any suggestion that the candidate was getting pummeled by Catholic voters.
I can't quite figure out what the misunderstanding between the two sides actually was. Nor can I gather what "on-the-fly" judgments John Harris is speaking about in his explanation. It sounds to me like a thin excuse for allowing the Obama camp an active role in editing one of their articles after it had already been released. Harris seems to be putting partial blame on Mahtesian for taking exception to the tone of Obama's deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer. When reading Mahtesian's account however it is clear that Pfeiffer was challenging his credentials as an editor in addition to taking him to task for having the temerity to allow his writers to interpret exit polling data without the help of the Obama campaign.
Among a volley of staff members and surrogates for Obama’s campaign to call Mahtesian, the most combative was deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer.Mahtesian, who has written about national politics for nearly two decades, said Sunday he was taken aback by Pfeiffer’s bellicose tone."Who are you? I've never heard of you. What's your background?" Pfeiffer demanded to know, Mahtesian recalled.In an interview Sunday, Pfeiffer said he came on strong because he felt that reporter David Mark’s story was flawed and because he believed—incorrectly, as he later acknowledged—that Politico was taking an inflexible position.
Just what exactly is an inflexible position? In the minds of the Obama party it apparently is one that refuses to acquiesce to their demands and tow the line of soft journalism; one that dare not speak about challenges being faced by the Obama campaign unless of course those challenges are stated in a manner acceptable to the campaign.Here is a small example of that effort from a series of e-mail exchanges between the Obama campaign and the Politico editor Charles Mahtesian.
From: Jen Psaki Sent: Sat 3/1/2008 8:20 PMTo: Charles MahtesianSubject: A few additional pointsCharlie,After reading your story here are a few additional points that we feel were overlooked and irresponsibly omitted from the story. I appreciate your efforts in changing the lead and I feel that specifically the points below deserve a look and a correction of the paragraph on the challenges in the general election and the fact that most political scientists don’t feel there is actually a Catholic gap.I appreciate your attention to this.BestJen
The emphasis in the above e-mail clip is mine. Note how disagreements with the Obama campaign are being framed as "irresponsible". This is the language of coercive pressure. Attack the messenger by attacking their credibility.For his part Charles Mahtesian didn't exactly play along.
From: Charles MahtesianSent: Sun 3/2/2008 3:39 AMTo: Jen PsakiSubject: PoliticoJen,Thanks for your note. I can appreciate your strong position on this and want to assure you it is getting a respectful hearing. As you know, we have responded to some of your concerns by fixing the headline and also by providing an additional quote from Tim Roemer, whom I spoke to after our story had been filed and posted.My general feeling is that the original headline, which I think you correctly flagged as unfair, has poisoned the campaign’s view of this piece. Absent that headline, I don’t think the reaction would have been so strong.
Mahtesian went on to make several points disputing the facts as presented by the Obama campaign. Two of them are important to me because they expose the fine line between campaign spin and fact. Keep in mind that Mahtesian presented a lengthy point by point e-mail response to the Obama camp's assertions and I am just highlighting two for brevity.
2) the fact that most political scientists don’t feel there is actually a Catholic gap.I don’t believe that’s a fact. I assume you are referring to the line in the Washington Post blog post by Father Reese here. If you can provide us with proof of his contention that, “Most scholars believe that once the number crunchers get a hold of the exit poll data and control for income, gender, age, education and issue concerns, the “Catholic factor” will disappear,” then yes, I think our story should include it.
7) The Catholic vote was tabulated in 19 exit polls. We won, tied or nearly tied (within 3 points of winning) in 7 states. This is 36% of the vote. This is hardly "only a few exceptions" as stated in the article. The premise is false.By our count, you won 4 states (Georgia; Missouri; Louisiana; Virginia), lost 14 and tied 1 (Wisconsin). We were not counting “nearly tied.”
It appears that both the Obama campaign and The Politico overreacted. The biggest concern should be the appearance of a conflict of interest when changing the "tone" of an article as opposed to adding an update with a corrective note. Another minor concern is that the change was made without note in the original article. I expect that from blogs but not such a high stature outlet. All of this is premised on the assertion that there was something to correct in the first place. In this case I find that assertion to be a bit of a stretch.Terry Trippany is the editor of Webloggin.