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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 05:30 PM ET, 06/11/2012

Jay Carney asks for it: Context! A special report

The country’s political class spent the weekend indulging in its favorite leisure-time activity: fussing over the significance of a verbal gaffe/statement of extemporaneous and embarrassing honesty that took place during the work week.

Very little need for background here: On Friday, President Obama declared, “The private sector is doing fine.”

Opponents loved it. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared that those six words expressed the degree to which the president was “out of touch.”

And so in a briefing today, White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a plea. CONTEXT!!!!! As in, please note that the president wasn’t precisely saying that the private sector was red-hot; he was merely contrasting it with the public sector, which is shedding jobs:

THE PRESIDENT: The truth of the matter is that, as I said, we’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government -- oftentimes, cuts initiated by governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government and who don’t have the same kind of flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in.
And so, if Republicans want to be helpful, if they really want to move forward and put people back to work, what they should be thinking about is, how do we help state and local governments and how do we help the construction industry. Because the recipes that they’re promoting are basically the kinds of policies that would add weakness to the economy, would result in further layoffs, would not provide relief in the housing market, and would result, I think most economists estimate, in lower growth and fewer jobs, not more.

Carney’s exact words: “You all ought to do your jobs and report on context, of course.”

Introducing the Jay Carney Contexterater, evaluating the context-drawing capabilities of various news outlets vis-a-vis “The private sector is doing fine.” (Scale: 1 = devoid of context, a wasteland stripped of conceptual signposts and landmarks. 10 = spilling over with Obama-excusing background and analysis.)

Item No. 1: Associated Press, June 10, 2012: “GOP mood toward Romney’s fall prospects brighten” by Brian Bakst.

On Friday, Obama exposed himself to GOP ridicule for an ill-cast appraisal that the “the private sector is doing fine.” He later clarified that he meant there was “good momentum” lately, but the earlier remark had already become GOP ad material. Romney released a Web ad Sunday slamming Obama for the remark by contrasting it with eight people who tell how they’ve struggled despite the recovering economy.

Jay Carney Contexterator: 4

Comments: Strong language from the normally issue-straddling Associated Press.

Item No. 2: Business Insider, June 10, “Romney Pounces On Obama “Private Sector Is Fine” Gaffe — Is He Full Of Crap?

Mitt Romney has jumped all over Obama’s comment that “the private sector is doing fine,” blasting the President in a new campaign ad that is now featured on Romney’s web site.
Did Obama open himself up to this attack?
Yes.
Saying the private sector is “doing fine” sounds a bit too sunny given the country’s overall unemployment rate and anemic growth rate.
But is Romney’s attack fair?
Not really.
First, as these charts show, the private sector is, in fact, “doing fine”--as long as “fine” isn’t confused with “well”. The private sector is growing steadily, at least, and adding jobs. And Obama’s point was that the real weakness in the economy has come from cuts in state and local government spending, which has led to job losses and shrinkage.

Jay Carney Contexterator: 7

Comments: Romney unfair — now that’s context.

Item No. 3: CNN, “Romney video goes after Obama’s comments on economy”

Obama made the remarks Friday during a press conference, arguing the private sector was doing better than the public sector.
“The truth of the matter is that, as I said, we created 4.3 million jobs over the last two, 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector’s doing fine,” Obama said. “Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy (has) to do with state and local government, oftentimes cuts initiated by, you know, governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government and who don’t have the same flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in.”
However, the Romney video only displays the lines: “The private sector’s doing fine” and “Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy (has) to do with state and local government.” The former line is repeated four times in the spot.
The ad ends with text on the screen: “No, Mr. President. We are not ‘doing fine.’ “
Later Friday, Obama walked back his assertion, saying the “economy is not doing fine.” His campaign has insisted the president’s words were being misread, and he was merely talking in relative terms.

Jay Carney Contexterator: 8

Comments: Jeez, that’s a lot of complicated analysis and data. Could we have a little less context here, folks?

Item No. 4: Fox News Sunday

OBAMA: We created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine.
The economy is not doing fine. There are too many people out of work. The housing market is still weak and too many homes under water.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: That was President Obama making a politically charged blunder and then having to walk it back less than four hours later. And we are back now with the panel. So, Mara, on the scale of one to 10, 10 being political annihilation, how big a blunder was this?
LIASSON: Six.
WALLACE: That’s serious.

Jay Carney Contexterator: 3

Comments: Wallace doesn’t appear to consider the possibility that the comment was a thoughtful, on-point observation about the relative job-producing strength of the business sector vs. the government sector.

Item No. 5: Boston Globe, “Romney, GOP pounce after Obama says ‘private sector is doing fine’ ”

President Obama made Mitt Romney’s day on Friday by declaring “the private sector is doing fine” and opening himself to the accusation that he - not the rich Republican - is the one who is out of touch with reality. Obama quickly clarified his remark, but Republicans already had their teeth in it and weren’t letting go.
“Is he really that out of touch?” GOP presidential candidate Romney asked as Obama’s initial comments ricocheted through the presidential campaign.
Seeking to head off any damage, Obama backpedaled and declared it is “absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine.” While there had been some “good momentum” in the private sector, Obama said, public sector growth lagged behind, making it imperative that Congress act on his proposals to hire more teachers and first-responders.

Jay Carney Contexterator: 6

Comments: Good lede writing by the Globe. Excellent contextual writing that makes the president look silly.

Item No. 6: Tribune Newspapers, “OBAMA’S REMARK PUTS HIM IN ‘FINE’ MESS

[A]s the president sought to recover the upper hand after recent setbacks, a rare slip-up of his own Friday threatened to undermine his effort.
In a White House news conference focused on the eurozone crisis, Obama said Congress needed to act on his jobs plan to boost hiring in state and local governments, arguing: “The private sector is doing just fine.”
Within an hour, the Republican nominee offered a blistering response.
“Is he really that out of touch? I think he’s defining what it means to be detached and out of touch with the American people,” Mitt Romney told supporters in Iowa.
Republican congressional leaders ridiculed the White House’s assertion that it is the public sector that needs government support.
“Mr. President, take it from me, the private sector is not doing fine,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Hours after his first comment, Obama tried to clarify it.

Jay Carney Contexterator: 9

Comments: Great headline. Instead of saying that the president “backpedaled,” standard shorthand for the president’s later remarks, the Tribune papers (under the byline of Michael A. Memoli of the Tribune Washington Bureau) use the precise and judgment-free language “tried to clarify it.” If Carney has any problem with this treatment, I’ll send him a nastygram loaded with “context.”

The Contexterator’s Conclusion: The media has jumped on this fracas because that’s what it does well. It provides all prerequisites for wall-to-wall coverage: 1) It’s easy to explain and doesn’t involve numbers; 2) It’s so easy to explain, doesn’t involve numbers and showcases classic political conflict; and 3) It’s ridiculously easy to explain, doesn’t involve numbers, showcases classic political conflict and requires almost no reporting.

Based on a jaunt through Nexis, there’s a lot of context being tossed about by news organizations in their writeups on the “fine” comment, often with unpleasant interpretations for the White House. Context: Not necessarily President Obama’s friend in this case.

By  |  05:30 PM ET, 06/11/2012

 
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