Jewish World Review March 28, 2012/ 5 Nissan, 5772
Eavesdropping on diplomacy and politics
By Martin Schram
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Collisions keep happening at every intersection of the news media, policy and politics. This week, live mikes and videocams made us eyewitnesses -- and, mainly, earwitnesses -- to two accidents that were unrelated yet rather familiar.
One occurred at a global nuclear summit in South Korea, where President Barack Obama committed the sort of blunder he should have known he must avoid. Obama quietly told Russia's outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev, that he could be more "flexible" regarding the controversial Europe-based missile defense after the 2012 election. Before Obama could even say "oops," he'd joined a pantheon of world leaders whose attempts at quiet diplomacy were boomed 'round the world, courtesy of the media's ever-ready microphones and cameras.
The other accident -- perhaps more of a political opportunity created by a journalist -- occurred at a campaign stop in Wisconsin. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum got a gift from an unwitting New York Times reporter who asked a bungled question with a CBS News camera rolling. Santorum seized the moment, performed as a conservative victim and lambasted the liberal media -- just as the unembarrassable Newt Gingrich did in using a South Carolina debate question about philandering to blast his CNN questioner, the key to his only primary win outside his home state of Georgia.
First, in Seoul, Obama chose a public setting with Medvedev to pass a private message to Russia's incoming president, Vladimir Putin, on the missile-defense system that Moscow opposes. The mikes picked up Obama in mid-message.
Obama: "On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it's important for him to give me space."
Medvedev: "Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you ..."
Obama: "This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility."
Medvedev: "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir."
While Obama's message just stated the politically obvious, Republicans understandably voiced outrage that Obama would tell this to Russia's leaders, but not America's voters. Then again, Republican icon Ronald Reagan never mentioned while seeking re-election during the Cold War that he'd soon negotiate with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev a plan to eliminate all (yes, all) U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons. But Reagan later did just that.
Apparently, Obama, who'd been famously overheard by a live mike as he and French President Nicolas Sarkozy complained about Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, hasn't quite learned his lessons.
Meanwhile, back on the U.S. campaign trail, Santorum has regularly said that Mitt Romney would be the worst Republican candidate to oppose Obama because Romney's Massachusetts health plan was a blueprint for Obama's health-care reform. In Racine, Wis., he'd just said: "Pick any other Republican in the country. ... He is the worst Republican in the country (pause) to put up against Barack Obama."
Later, New York Times reporter Jeff Zelany called out a question: "You said that Mitt Romney was the worst Republican in the country. Is that true?"
Replied Santorum: "What speech did you listen to?"
When the reporter pressed, Santorum seized the moment: "Stop lying! I said he was the worst Republican to run on the issue of 'Obamacare.' And that's what I was talking about!"
Actually, Santorum hadn't mentioned Obamacare this time. But Zelany's question was imprecise, omitting the rest of Santorum's quote that Romney was the worst Republican "to put up against Barack Obama."
As the reporter continued asking, Santorum said: "Quit distorting my words. If I see it, it's ..." (Santorum used a barnyard vulgarity.) As the reporter kept asking who Santorum was accusing of distorting, the candidate said: "What are you guys in the business of doing, reporting the truth? Or are you here to try to spin and make news? Stop it."
The next day, on Fox News, Santorum declared: "If you haven't cursed out a New York Times reporter during this campaign, you're not really a Republican." And Santorum emailed supporters asking for $30 -- beneath this unsubtle headline: "I am Ready to Take on the New York Times."
Our job as journalists on the campaign trail is to foil those who seek to distort and deceive the public -- without becoming their foil. It is never easy. But it shouldn't be that hard.
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