Supplemental: Counting the threats against Obama!

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2014

The Post and the Times diverge:
On the front page of today’s New York Times, Peter Baker reports a concern in the black community—a fear that the Secret Service doesn’t especially care whether President Obama gets attacked.

At the end of Baker’s report, Representative Emanuel Cleaver is quoted saying that’s bunk. Along the way, we were struck by these assessments about the number of threats which have been made against Obama:
BAKER (10/3/14): [W]hen Mr. Obama took office in January 2009, the Secret Service recorded an alarming surge in threats against him. The threat level since then has actually fallen back to a rate more typical of previous presidents, officials said, but potential racial animosity persists in risk calculations by the Secret Service as it seeks to protect Mr. Obama.

[...]

The Secret Service did detect a spate of threats around the time Mr. Obama won the presidency and took office. But without providing numbers, the agency flatly denied reports that he had received three or four times as many as other presidents and added that they eventually subsided. “After his first election, there was a spike in his numbers,” [Secret Service spokesman Ed] Donovan said. “They’ve leveled out and they’ve been consistent and similar to his predecessors.”
We were surprised, and not surprised, by those official denials. Here’s why:

We were surprised because of what we’ve been reading in the Washington Post. In last Sunday's lengthy, front-page report, Carol Leonnig reported this assessment: “President Obama has faced three times as many threats as his predecessors, according to people briefed on the Secret Service's threat assessment.”

That was hazy, anonymous sourcing, which doesn’t mean the assessment was wrong. This morning, the agency (and the Times) seem to be pushing back against that claim.

“[T]he agency flatly denied reports that he had received three or four times as many as other presidents,” Baker reports in the Times—although he doesn’t explain where the claim which is being denied came from.

Why were we unsurprised by today’s denial, which may or may not be accurate? Because we remembered what Mark Sullivan, the former Secret Service director, said in 2009, under oath.

Sullivan testified before a congressional committee in December 2009. At the time, Jason Horowitz did the reporting for the Post:
HOROWITZ (12/4/09): Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) wanted to know whether Obama faced a greater threat to his security than past presidents.

Sullivan said that published reports claiming that Obama faced a 400 percent increase in death threats were incorrect. “I'm not sure where that number comes from,” he said. The number of threats against Obama, he said, “are the same level as it has been for the last two presidents.”
Were those statements accurate? We don’t know. But they were made under oath, by a named source.

We were surprised by Leonnig’s recent report, which could of course be accurate. A lot of people are very concerned about this question, for an array of reasons. As a matter of basic journalism, shouldn’t Leonnig have squared her new anonymous claim with the old, on-the-record denial which appeared in her own Post?

The Post’s report says that Obama has received three times as many threats. In the Times, the agency says the number is the same as it was for Bush and Clinton.

Those are wildly divergent reports. This strikes us as one more point of concern about what’s going on.

17 comments:

  1. I think it is generally destructive when paranoid beliefs in the African American community that have little basis in fact are perpetuated by authorities that make it seem the assertions are factual. The idea that there are more threats supports the belief that most whites are racist and hate black people. The idea that the secret service doesn't care similarly supports the belief that most whites are racist and hate black people. It also raises the fear that anyone black who does become successful will be hunted down and destroyed because white people do not want to see anyone black succeed.

    As long as these beliefs are widely held among African Americans, there can be little racial dialogue and the racial divide in our country will remain difficult to heal. What is gained by our press when it widens instead of narrowing that divide? Who benefits when white and black people fight each other instead of joining forces in common cause?

    This is not a trivial mistake. Listen to discussions among callers on the radio. One group on the right thinks Obama is lying to them about the extent of Ebola infection in the US, something that is being spread for reasons no one actually states -- what does he gain? Another group on black call-in shows is claiming that Obama and his family are not being protected because the black man can never prosper and has to be pulled down. On the left stations the talk is mostly about whether war has been properly declared by Congress. The contrast in the topics of interest across the various stations is stark. The divergence isn't only about facts at hand but also about what is important to discuss.

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