WASHINGTON (Dec 1, 2008)—Visit most any university-level journalism class across the country, and you’ll undoubtedly hear a lesson about taking quotes out of context.
It is a lesson aspiring reporters are taught early on in the curriculum—be accurate when quoting a source and don’t mischaracterize a source’s quote to fit the story you want to write.
Why then did news organizations like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal abuse a straightforward statement made by President-elect Barack Obama about farm policy last week?
When asked how he would trim wasteful government spending, Obama cited a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about fraudulent farm payments being given to unqualified individuals.
This report doesn’t attack farm policy or legitimate farm policy beneficiaries, just the way that the USDA has administered policy by sending payments to the wrong people in some cases.
“If this is true, it is a prime example of the kind of waste I intend to end as president,” he said.
Obama never vowed to gut the recently passed farm bill or exclude full-time farm families from benefits. In fact, the President-elect tirelessly campaigned on his support of a farm safety net and he strongly supporting the 2008 farm bill-a bill that tightened restrictions on farm payments to make it even harder for bad apples to game the system.
But The Washington Post, a known critic of the farm bill, tried to put words in Obama’s mouth and depict his statement as a reversal of stance on farm policy.
On the Post’s website, it summed up the statement this way: “With the announcement, Obama joins a long and largely defeated line of presidents and officials who’ve tried to kill farm subsidies.”
Not to be outdone The Wall Street Journal wrote, “The President-elect singled out farm subsidies for the rich.” They continued, “Having written 40,000 or so editorials against this corporate welfare over the years, we’d love to see a Democrat join the fight.”
Neither outlet felt compelled to point out that Obama was saying illegal farm payments were a waste, not that farm payments were a waste-an important distinction as a newly-elected president is setting his policy agenda.
The silver lining to this whole fiasco may be the fact that Obama’s benign statement received so much attention that real reforms will be forthcoming and that the USDA will disseminate taxpayer funds in a more responsible manner.
As president, Obama has the power to change the way the USDA operates by putting management controls in place to stop abuse.
And in doing so, farmers will likely be among his biggest cheerleaders. Stamping out waste like the GAO found would finally weed out the illegal subsidy recipients that have given all farm programs a bad name.