Mitt Romney was stunned when a top aide showed him an Associated Press story in which his comments about Palestinian culture were portrayed as aggressive and denounced as racist.
“I’ve said this many times,” said Romney, who had just arrived in Poland on Monday after making the comments in Israel. “How did this happen?”
Romney asked whether anyone from the wire service “called us before they went with the story.” The answer was no.
The AP story was not inaccurate—the Republican candidate had indeed uttered the words indicating that the Palestinians’ poverty could be blamed on their culture—but the way in which it was assembled has left Romney advisers fuming and convinced they were treated unfairly.
Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top strategist, told The Daily Beast that the AP “manufactured” the incident. “It’s just extremely irresponsible and unprofessional…They wanted to create a story, and in doing so, they violated fundamental journalistic principles.”
Sally Buzbee, the AP’s Washington bureau chief, dismisses the criticism, saying her reporter Kasie Hunt did an exemplary job. “The story was accurate and fair from minute one because he said it,” Buzbee says. “I was proud of her that she realized he had said something a little newsworthy.”
The episode, which produced another round of negative headlines for Romney’s foreign trip, underscores how context—or the lack thereof—can mark a dividing line between non-news and media uproar.
Hunt filed a story on Romney’s remarks at a Jerusalem fundraiser. The other pool reporters covering the event—including staffers for The New York Times, Bloomberg News, and Reuters—did not report on the comments.
An early version of Hunt’s story, labeled “Non-Urgent,” said that “Mitt Romney told Jewish donors Monday that their culture is part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the nearby Palestinians.” The story contained only a paraphrase, then quoted Romney as citing the “dramatically stark difference” in per capita domestic gross product figures between Israel and the Palestinian territories. (Romney’s erroneous numbers understated the gap.)
Hunt’s report did not mention Romney’s next sentence: “And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.”
Romney often makes that point in his stump speech, about the impact of culture on the economy of these four countries and others, and wrote about it in his book. In complaining that the AP made the fundraiser remarks appear aimed solely at the Palestinians, Stevens says: “We’re talking about two sentences.”
But Buzbee says it was the addition of Israel and the Palestinians to the usual litany that made Romney’s remarks news. And it could easily be viewed as provocative for Romney to have made the statement in Jerusalem. He made no mention of Israeli trade restrictions on the Palestinian areas.
Hunt made no attempt to seek comment from Romney press aides, either on the ground or during a subsequent 4 1/2-hour flight to Poland, where Stevens sat near reporters for part of the trip. Buzbee’s explanation? Hunt “didn’t know whether it was going to cause a big flurry or not.”
When they landed, Hunt saw on her BlackBerry that another AP reporter had gotten a sharp reaction from Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Erekat accused Romney of having made “a racist statement.” The controversy exploded at that point.
This is the nub of the dispute. The AP “could not have given Erekat a correct quote to respond to because they didn’t have it” with its reporter in the air and unreachable, Stevens told me. “The greatest sin here is that this was not a breaking news story. They could have waited three or four hours and gotten the story right.”
In the context of today’s rapid-fire news cycle, though, a presidential candidate’s comments can easily amount to breaking news. The question is whether the initial story was incomplete.
Once the campaign plane landed in Warsaw and those on board learned of Erekat’s accusation, Hunt walked across the tarmac and twice asked Romney staffers for comment, according to Buzbee. “It took them a fair amount of time to get us any information about what they thought, and any specifics about why they thought his comments were mischaracterized,” she says.
In subsequent rewrites, Buzbee says, “we definitely beefed up the context” and added a fuller explanation of Romney’s comments and his campaign’s objections to the AP’s report. That, she says, is common practice for the wire service.
If Erekat was reacting to a partial account from the AP that omitted the other countries and made Romney seem to single out the Palestinians, the wire service clearly played a role in the ensuing uproar. And if the original remarks were newsworthy enough to report, they were newsworthy enough to seek immediate comment from the Romney camp.
“It reflects a slipping standard of journalism and market forces where there’s so much more pressure to have a story that will break through,” Stevens says.
At the same time, whatever his team’s complaints about journalistic process, Romney himself touched off the firestorm with a public speech observed by reporters—a speech he undoubtedly thought would appeal to Jewish voters back home.
Romney seemed to bristle at coverage of his trip, telling Fox News’s Carl Cameron: “I realize that there will be some in the Fourth Estate, or whichever estate, who are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy, to geopolitics, to the threat of war, to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today, to a nuclearization of Iran. They’ll instead try and find anything else to divert from the fact that these last four years have been tough years for our country.”
But the candidate has exasperated his traveling press corps by providing so little access, even as their news organizations are spending tens of thousands of dollars to follow him around the world. Romney took all of three questions from these reporters on his trip to Britain, Israel, and Poland. “I can’t help feel a bit like the press is a modified petting zoo,” wrote Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren.
Romney aides note that he took 150 questions on the trip in television interviews with Van Susteren, Brian Williams, Wolf Blitzer, and others. Perhaps the candidate is more comfortable in TV sit-downs, feeling that his words cannot be edited.
But Romney gives his press corps little to report beyond official appearances, which tends to magnify any unscripted moment, as when an aide told reporters shouting questions at the candidate in Poland to “kiss my ass.” A growing sense that Romney is stiffing the print press may be fueling the flaps that came to define his trip.