A few weeks ago, I criticized a New York Times story about Sen. Bob Casey, Jr.’s expected speech at the Democratic convention partly on the grounds that the story failed to specify its nature. Would Casey address his opposition to legal abortion or some other topic, such as the economy or Barack Obama’s skills on the basketball court? The story never said.
Today I criticize an Associated Press story for a related fault. See if you can catch it. Reporter Kimberly Hefling began her story this way:
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey invoked his late father’s name Tuesday night and referred to his own opposition to abortion rights from the podium of the Democratic convention–16 years after his father was denied the same privilege.
While he spoke only briefly during the speech on the issue of abortion, it was intended to send a message: Sen. Barack Obama supports abortion rights, but accepts those like Casey who oppose abortion rights.
In 1992, Casey’s father, the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, was denied a prime-time slot to speak in opposition to abortion rights, which created a rift within the party.
“Barack Obama and I have an honest disagreement on the issue of abortion,” Casey said. “But the fact that I’m speaking here tonight is testament to Barack’s ability to show respect for the views of people who may disagree with him.”
That description might sound unobjectionable, but read closer. It is more conclusory than factual.
Hefling asserts that Casey “referred” to his pro-life views. No, he did not. Casey alluded to them. There is a difference. Casey did not say that he is pro life or an abortion foe; he said that he and Obama differ on the issue of abortion. The nature of that difference was not mentioned.
By failing to characterize Casey’s remarks accurately, Hefling’s story gives the false impression of unity between pro-life and pro-choice Democrats. Had she been more careful about describing Casey’s speech, she would have avoided this misimpression.
A reporter who got the story right was James O’Toole of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Instead of jumping to conclusions, O’Toole let his subject speak. Consider his description of Casey’s remarks Tuesday night:
A generation after his father was barred from the podium of the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. invoked his name as he depicted Sen. Barack Obama as a force for tolerance on an issue that continues to divide Democrats.
“I’m honored to stand before you as Gov. Bob Casey’s son,” the senator said as he took the stage of the Pepsi Center. Later, he urged the delegates to rally to the candidate he had endorsed before the Pennsylvania primary, calling him, “a leader who, as Lincoln said, appeals to ‘the better angels of our nature.’ ”
“Barack Obama and I have an honest disagreement on the issue of abortion,” said the lawmaker, who is an abortion foe. “But the fact that I’m speaking here tonight is a testament to Barack’s ability to show respect for the views of people who disagree with him.”
Even better, O’Toole let his subject speak again, this time via an interview with Casey. Casey’s comments were more than revealing; they contradicted Hefling’s implication that pro-choice Democrats had welcomed pro-lifers back into the presidential wing of the party’s tent:
When asked about the relative lack of intra-party unrest over the fact that Mr. Obama was reported to have at least considered several anti-abortion Democrats as running mates, however, Mr. Casey said, “Let’s be candid. I don’t think we’re at the point where our party could nominate someone who is pro-life … maybe even at the vice presidential level.”
It would be unfair to criticize Hefling unduly. Her job at the AP is to get the story right and right away. At a nominating convention, that is a tall order. But uncovering the truth demands being up to the task.
(Photo by Chad Briggs used under a Creative Commons license.)