The Post and the Times disagree: Late Tuesday evening, as Libya burned, the Romney campaign issued a statement:
''It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
Question: To what “first response” from the Obama administration did this statement refer? On Thursday morning, it all depended on which major newspaper you happened to find yourself reading!
In the New York Times, Baker and Parker reported that Romney’s statement referred to the very first tweet from the Cairo embassy. That tweet was issued several hours before violence or protests began:
BAKER AND PARKER (9/13/12): Mr. Romney came under withering criticism for distorting the chain of events overseas and appearing to seek political advantage from an attack that claimed American lives. A statement he personally approved characterized an appeal for religious tolerance issued by the American Embassy in Cairo as sympathy for the attackers even though the violence did not occur until hours after the embassy statement. Mr. Romney on Wednesday said the embassy statement, which was disavowed by the administration, was ''akin to apology, and I think was a severe miscalculation.''In the Times, there was little doubt. The Romney statement on Tuesday night referred to the embassy’s initial tweet, which was issued “hours before protests in Cairo and the attack in Libya began.” This meant that Romney’s statement contained a bungled chronology when it complained that this “first response” failed to “condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions.”
Mr. Obama fired back later in the day, accusing his opponent of politicizing a national tragedy. ''Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,'' he told CBS News for its ''60 Minutes'' program. ''And as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that—that, you know, it's important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts, and that you've thought through the ramifications.''
The harsh exchanges had their origins on Tuesday night as Mr. Romney's team was following the increasingly volatile developments in the Middle East. The embassy statement, issued hours before protests in Cairo and the attack in Libya began, had tried to mollify Muslims upset at an American-made anti-Islam video. ''We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,'' the statement said.
For Mr. Romney, whose 2010 book, ''No Apology,'' assailed Mr. Obama for what he saw as trying to placate America's enemies, the embassy statement rankled. When aides showed it to him, they said he reacted strongly to the notion of ''hurt'' religious feelings. In his mind, they said, the Obama administration was aligning itself with those who would do harm to the United States. Already on the defensive for not mentioning Afghanistan in his convention speech and losing some ground in recent polls, Mr. Romney saw an opportunity to draw a stark contrast.
The attacks had not occurred when that first tweet was issued.
In the Times, Romney had made a mistake. But in the Washington Post, the basic facts seemed to be different. In his front-page news report, Philip Rucker lightly suggested, but never said, that there was a problem with the chronology in Romney’s Tuesday night statement. But uh-oh!
In an accompanying graphic attributed to three other writers, the Washington Post plainly said that Romney’s statement on Tuesday night referred to the second tweet from the Cairo embassy. That tweet reaffirmed the embassy’s original statement—and it occurred after the violence had begun.
We can’t find this graphic on-line. (A different graphic is now being offered.) But we’re looking at Thursday morning’s hard-copy Post, and the graphic’s attribution is explicit. The graphic unmistakably says that Romney’s Tuesday night statement referred to the embassy’s second tweet. This meant that he had not made a chronological error. (Presumably, the logic was that the embassy’s second tweet was its “first response” to the violence.)
In the Times, the Romney statement had made a mistake; it had bungled the basic chronology. But in the Post, the chronology differed—and no mistake had occurred.
A similar dichotomy appeared Wednesday night on cable “news” channels. On MSNBC, liberals were constantly told about Romney’s chronological error. On Fox, the alleged error was barely mentioned.
No one seemed to make any effort to say how they knew their account was correct. But citizens heard very different facts, depending on where they were looking.
Increasingly, this is the way our press system works. We’re not calling this bad or wrong. Once again, we’re just saying!