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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 12:48 PM ET, 12/15/2011

Did MSNBC overapologize to Mitt Romney?

UPDATE: MSNBC has some company in apologies: The Washington Post in this piece regrets some errors in a post on the topic. Also, a correction: Video of the Romney remarks recorded by the Los Angeles Times and excerpted below indicate that Romney in that instance said, “Keep America America,” instead of “Keep America American.”

UPDATE: A source at MSNBC says, “What we should have done (and what we felt showed a lack of judgment) was do some reporting on the story before putting it on air, rather than just repeat a blog item.” The source also took some issue with the contention that the Romney campaign had called MSNBC on the matter, saying that they’ve “tried to figure out who they called (and don’t mean to dispute that they called someone), but it wasn’t anyone in senior leadership….point is, we took the action we did b/c it was bad journalism, not in reaction to a call.”

Far be it from this blogger to disagree with an outlet that kicks itself for failing to do more reporting, but really: There was nothing incorrect about what MSNBC said on air, despite the lack of independent investigation. It responsibly aggregated a story. Nice job, MSNBC.

ORIGINAL STORY: To hear Chris Matthews tell it yesterday, MSNBC went way overboard on something. Here’s what he said on his “Hardball” program on Wednesday afternoon:

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.

Matthews delivered the apology even though he had nothing to do with the offense. That was the domain of MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, who said this on air Wednesday morning:

So you may not hear Mitt Romney say, ‘Keep America American,’ any more, because it was a rallying cry for the K.K.K. group, and intimidation against blacks, gays and Jews.

Roberts wasn’t just talking off the cuff. He’d seen an account on AmericaBlog, authored by John Aravosis, that pointed out the linkage between this Romney rhetorical vehicle and the Ku Klux Klan. (The Booman Tribune had the first account). From the blog:

In an era in which it’s apparently okay for Republicans to accuse President Obama of being a socialist, I guess we now need to ask if Mitt Romney is a Ku Klux Klansman. Not whether Romney inadvertently is using the KKK’s number one slogan from the 1920s on the stump, no, the Republicans would say, if this were a Democrat, that clearly the candidate was a closet member of the KKK. So, is Mitt Romney a closet member of the KKK?

Just the sort of provocative stuff for which Aravosis is known.

Picking up on just such provocative stuff is part of the formula for cable news success. Producers are always poking around the Internet in search of something with which to poke their audiences, anything to fill a few minutes of air time with something fresh.

So how did MSNBC come to regard it as an “appalling” moment? That’s not entirely clear — the network hasn’t responded to my questions on the matter.

But it appears that managers at the cable network went berserk that such sensitive material could make it on air without pairing the revelation with a response from the Romney camp. Correct — that ain’t right.

Even so, does that warrant a fall-on-your-sword apology? Time for the Erik Wemple Blog Bipartite Apology Warrantedness Test.

Part 1: Was the allegedly offending statement accurate?

Yes, but let’s break this down into its constituent parts. First, Roberts implied that Romney had used the term “Keep America American.” Based on this story in the Los Angeles Times, that looks accurate. Roberts also linked that phrase to the KKK. Again, there’s solid ground for that conclusion.

Some accounts out there have gone further, including the AmericaBlog posting that caused this firestorm. In that piece, Aravosis alleged that a Romney campaign ad aired the phrase. That wasn’t the case — it was a speech, one in which Romney appeared to be using the phrase “Keep America America,” instead of “Keep America American.” Aravosis doesn’t have much time for that distinction: “I just had a flashback to the Clinton impeachment and haggling over the definition of ‘is.’ ”

Part 2: Was the allegedly offending statement fair?

This one is complicated. Romney’s invocation of “Keep America American” or “Keep America America” comes as he seeks presidential loftiness. In an Iowa campaign stop, for example, he said this:

We have on one side a president who wants to transform America into a European-style nation, and you have on other hand someone like myself that wants to turn around America and keep America American with the principals that made us the greatest nation on Earth. And I will do that with your help.

In the video below, he says, “We will keep America America, by retaining its character as the land of opportunity. We’ll welcome the inventor, the entrepreneur, the innovator.”

The unfortunate upshot of that moment is that Romney used a phrase deployed by the KKK eerily similar to one deployed by the KKK in proximity to a reference to immigration policy. Therefore, the reference on MSNBC was fair, even if it lacked a response from the Romney people.

Not that they would have gotten too far with the inquiries in any case. The Romney campaign wouldn’t respond to questions on the controversy. When I sent along the link to a Los Angeles Times story reflecting the candidate’s use of the phrase and asked for confirmation that it was an accurate report, I got nothing in response. Huffington Post got a similar treatment. Through the stonewalling, the Romney campaign signals its intent not to give its side of things but rather to flack the story out of existence through a series of no-comments.

Look at what Roberts didn’t say with his much-examined words. He didn’t say that Romney sympathized with the KKK, nor did he say that the candidate borrowed the phrase from the KKK. He said merely that the phrase was used by the KKK. The overlap could be the result a distasteful speech-writing accident or something just as harmless.

The rhetorical echo isn’t so much fair game as it is obligatory game. If a modern presidential candidate uses a catchphrase that was once deployed by one of U.S. history’s most hateful and divisive groups, what’s the excuse for failing to point that out? Writes Aravosis via-email: “It feels like Mitt Romney yelled at the head of MSNBC, and he caved. And I think it’s fair to ask MSNBC to disclose the contents of any and all discussions they had with the Romney campaign yesterday.”

Who knows how it went — neither side is talking about the ins and outs. What is clear is that Romney has flirted with coded and creepy nativist language on the stump. And when the consequences of his stump language emerged, his campaign appears to have complained to the one outlet that reported on it and stifled others. If MSNBC’s actions were appalling, then those actions qualify as well.

By  |  12:48 PM ET, 12/15/2011

 
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