Saturday, August 23, 2008

Joseph Biden According to the Associated Press

The Associated Press account of Barack Obama's selection of Joseph Biden as his running mate is likely to raise more eyebrows over the handling of the story than over the selection itself. It was written by Liz Sidoti and Nedra Pickler; and it reminded me of the hint of irony I always seem to get when I see that the Associated Press prefers the term "writers" to "reporters." There always seems to be the suggestion that creative writing counts for more than reporting; but, given what passes in this country for news these days, why single out the Associated Press? After all, considering some of the things that spring up as their text progresses, Sidoti and Pickler should at least be awarded points for getting the most out of their lead sentence:

Barack Obama named Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware as his vice presidential running mate early Saturday, balancing his ticket with a seasoned congressional veteran well-versed in foreign policy and defense issues.

Two paragraphs later, however, things get a bit more interesting:

Biden, 65, has twice sought the White House, and is a Catholic with blue-collar roots, a generally liberal voting record and a reputation as a long-winded orator.

This is how Sidoti and Pickler decided to introduce Biden's Senatorial career (with more objective details to follow)—with a sentence that pushes almost as many buttons as it has words, even if it is unclear whether or not there is a pattern to the buttons. The button they missed, however, was the one about Obama and Biden being two of the Senatorial "Gang of Four" (the other two being Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd), all of whom, often to the distress of their party's leadership, had decided that it was better to spend time on the campaign trail than to spend it doing the people's business in the Congress. Given the way things are going, there could be any number of confrontations between the Executive and Legislative branches of the government between now and Election Day; and the last thing we need in such times are AWOL Senators when debate and vote are likely to really matter.

Far more interesting, however, is the way in which Sidoti and Pickler mangled the most critical point of friction between Obama and Biden:

He had stumbled on his first day in the race, apologizing for having described Obama as "clean." Months later, Obama spoke up on Biden's defense, praising him during a campaign debate for having worked for racial equality.

This was not an episode to be reduced to one word. Since I wrote a post about the aftermath of Biden's "stumble," I can use it to reconstruct the entire phrase, which described Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." As anyone who followed the backlash to this remark recalls, the inflammatory word from this phrase was not "clean" but "articulate." Writing in the Sunday "Week in Review" section of The New York Times, Lynette Clemetson declared that the use of this word "calls out for a national chat, perhaps a national therapy session." The two sentences that Sidoti and Pickler chose were thus misrepresentative and dismissive.

There are a lot of things that we as voters are going to want to know about Biden. Most of these things will arise from quality reporting (as opposed to writing). Shall we assume that we should not expect to find them from the Associated Press?

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