A popular story line on Wednesday had NBC and MSNBC dragging their collective heels in authenticating the tape of then-Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama talking in 1998 about the redistribution of wealth. Heck, every other outlet was hosting the video on its Web site and reporting the whole enchilada on its broadcast. Rush Limbaugh said that the network was “refusing to run real stories.”
The Obama video artifact blew into the public square on Tuesday, courtesy of the Drudge Report. A day later, however, Andrea Mitchell said on MSNBC that the tape hadn’t yet been authenticated to the satisfaction of the company.
What took NBC and MSNBC so long?
Research! An NBC News employee, as it turns out, was dispatched to Loyola University, which had the Obama tape in its archives. The NBCer watched the full tape in context — more than 100 minutes, according to an NBC source — and issued the green light around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Have a look at how NBC’s competitors handled the same challenge. When asked about that, ABC News’s David Ford passed along these words:
ABC News confirmed the authenticity and got an on-the-record response from the campaign [Tuesday] night ...
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Romney’s attack on comments Obama made 14 years ago is a sign the Republican nominee is “so desperate to change the subject.”
“Fourteen years ago, then-Senator Obama was making an argument for a more efficient, more effective government — specifically citing city government agencies that he didn’t think were working effectively,” LaBolt said. ” He believed then, and believes now, that there are steps we can take to promote opportunity and ensure that all Americans have a fair shot if they work hard. Unlike Governor Romney, he doesn’t believe that if you’re a student who applies for a loan you’re looking for a handout.”
Jake Tapper included the audio from the 1998 conference at Loyola University . . . [Wednesday] in his report on “Good Morning America.”
A source at CBS News reports that the outlet went to the Obama people for the word on the tape. The LaBolt statement served as authentication. CBS News went through the same paces with the Romney campaign earlier in the week, after Mother Jones released videos of the Republican presidential candidate speaking at a fundraiser. “CBS goes straight to the campaigns, and both campaigns were forthcoming,” says the source.
No question: When the campaigns themselves aren’t disavowing the tapes, what more is there to check? A lot more, according to NBC News. Ben LaBolt may know that it was Barack Obama’s voice in that tape; he may know that the tape’s thrust is roughly consistent with what Obama believed at the time. But he may not know whether the tape was “unedited, and not taken out of context,” in the words of an NBC source. (CNN didn’t respond to questions regarding its authentication efforts.)
Prior to achieving authentication, NBC and MSNBC reporters may discuss a video or audio on air, but the networks standards dictate that it not run the tape on air or display it on in a full-screen graphic. (MSNBC, in what appears to have been a mistake, did indeed run the tape prior to NBC authentication).
Outlets that relied on LaBolt’s statement and jumped quickly on the tape suffered no loss of credibility. The tape, after all, panned out as good and authentic.
In 999 of 1,000 cases, authentication via human sources works just fine. It’s that one failure that inspires policies of extreme caution. In August, The Post’s Paul Farhi approached Fareed Zakaria with an allegation that the CNN star had lifted a quote from someone else’s book. Zakaria responded with comments that sound a lot like confirmation:
Zakaria . . . defended the practice of not attributing quotes in a popular book. “As I write explicitly [in the book], this is not an academic work where everything has to be acknowledged and footnoted,” he said. The book contains “hundreds” of comments and quotes that aren’t attributed because doing so, in context, would “interrupt the flow for the reader,” he said.
He compared his technique to other popular non-fiction authors. “Please look at other books in this genre and you will notice that I’m following standard practice,” he said.
Zakaria, as it turned out, had indeed credited the passage he was accused of stealing.
So if NBC News wants to take a day or two to find and vet the original work, go right ahead. The good thing about 24-7 news cycles is that there’s always another one coming right up. Plus, NBC News’s thorough authentication efforts netted it an extended version of Obama’s 1998 remarks (see video at top).