Clinton’s concussion, Obama’s skeet shooting and the limits of skepticism

(Pete Souza/White House)

A note to pundits everywhere: Be careful about expressing your skepticism out loud to the general public. You may wind up looking foolish.

That’s essentially what happened in December, after former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said on Fox News that then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was suffering merely from a “diplomatic illness.” A couple of weeks later, Clinton was hospitalized with a blood clot related to this “diplomatic illness,” which was actually a concussion.

Weeks later, President Obama told an interviewer for the New Republic that he goes skeet shooting at Camp David “all the time.” The skepticism machine roared. CNN’s Erin Burnett didn’t say outright that the president was stretching the truth but managed to sow as many doubts as she could about the skeet-shooting thing. (See video below):

Last Thursday night on Fox News’s “Special Report,” Bret Baier struck this tone:

Few people are buying President Obama’s claim that he is a big fan of skeet shooting. The president was asked by the New Republic, quote, “Have you ever fired a gun?” President Obama answered, quote, “Yes. In fact, up at Camp David we do skeet shooting all the time.”

New York magazine called out the president’s phrasing, saying, quote, “that quote is how people usually talk about things with which they are not very familiar. Your grandma asks if you do Twitter.” The Washington Post looked at the president’s past statements and found no mention of skeet shooting. It labels “curious” that the White House is refusing to provide evidence that the president has ever used the shooting range.

On his eponymous program, Fox News host Sean Hannity said, “Really all the time? That’s funny because while we’ve seen countless images of the president and his buddies and his friends playing golf, shooting hoops, well, we’ve never seen him shooting a firearm. Now, I’m not the only one that finds that unusual…”

On Saturday, the White House released a photo of President Obama shooting skeet at Camp David. So those who had doubted the commander in chief’s on-the-record assertion that he’d shot skeet suddenly look a bit precipitous in their skepticism. The turn of events says a few things about how the media and politicians roll these days.

1) Skepticism must be publicized. One time-tested way for journalists to ply their craft is to put their heads down and do some reporting. Just shut up and figure some things out, then publish something when some facts are at hand.

Those were the days, huh? But when there’s air time to be filled and blog items to be written, why not just throw your skimpily informed doubts into the marketplace of ideas?

2) The media feels entitled to documentation. You can hear it in the comments of Hannity, who wonders why there are no photos. You can also hear it in the questions of CNN reporter Jessica Yellin to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney — again, where are the photos? The photographic sense of entitlement comes through, too, in the Burnett segment. At a time when every public, semi-public and private figure is sharing documentation of every social event on Facebook and Twitter, a bar is being set — either produce the photos or resign yourself to being called a fibber.

The irony of this episode is that the White House is sort of proving the premise. By issuing a photo of a skeet-shoot, it validates the modern-day expectations. Though Carney told reporters that the purpose of Camp David retreats is not to “produce photographs,” that’s precisely what materialized here. Next time, the public will be less willing to believe an alleged presidential activity that doesn’t come with a .jpg attachment.

3) Patience pays off. On MSNBC this morning, former Obama adviser David Axelrod wondered why the White House had waited a number of days before issuing the photograph. The delay, he said, “rekindled” the story. Sure, and stung the growing number of skeptics.

Also on Erik Wemple

Super Bowl blackout: CBS News nails exclusive from NFL control room