The buck never stops with Obama or the media

Jim Huffman | Visiting Fellow, Hoover Institution

We all learned in civics class, at least back when schools actually taught about government and our role as citizens in a democratic republic, that President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk reading “the buck stops here.” We also learned that The Chicago Tribune reported on November 3, 1948, that Harry Truman had lost to Thomas Dewey in the presidential election. It is clear from recent events that neither President Obama nor the members of the American media learned a thing from those two legendary bits of history. Obama passes the buck at every turn and the media repeatedly report as fact what they cannot possibly know.

Since the September 11 attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, President Obama and his administration have tried to pass the buck on a tragic security failure — first to what Oliver Wendell Holmes might have called a “puny anonymity” who produced a video barely anyone had seen at the time, then to nonexistent rioters in the streets outside the embassy, then to the State Department and finally to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The most recent passing of the buck to the CIA must be particularly galling to former President George W. Bush, who has been repeatedly accused of lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when he and everyone else with access to the best available intelligence were told that such weapons existed. Despite that huge intelligence failure, Bush never cast blame for the Iraq invasion on the intelligence agencies. It was his decision, and he stood by it, despite outrageous assertions that he lied so he could take the nation to war.

Obama’s biggest buck-passing has been with respect to the abject failure of his administration to address the economic challenges the nation has faced throughout his nearly four years in office. Bush, as we all know, is responsible and presumably will remain so (along with the wealthy) if the nation is forced to suffer through four more years of Keynesian economics and Obamacare writ large. In a world of victims in need of government help — the community organizing world from which Obama ascended — the buck never stops with the victims or their self-anointed advocates.

Meanwhile the modern American media require instant answers to every question no matter how complicated or obscure. An American ambassador is killed in Benghazi and the 24-hour news outlets must explain how it happened. Their viewers and readers want instant answers.

Never mind that even the people on the ground at the embassy had no idea what happened only minutes or hours earlier, the news outlets immediately began speculating based on conversations with their contacts in government, who in turn began speculating, perhaps along these lines:

“There have been protests in Cairo, Beirut and other Arab cities in apparent reaction to what is said to be an anti-Islamic video made by some yet-to-be-identified American guy. The attack on the Benghazi embassy must be a similar protest gone out of control. That’s our story and we’ll stick to it even if it starts looking like we got it wrong.”

Like the Obama administration, the media never really fess up to being wrong. Take, for example, The New York Times. The Times reported on the day after the terrorist assault on the Benghazi embassy that “protesters angry over an amateurish American-made video denouncing Islam attacked the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Tuesday, killing a State Department officer …” More than a month later, on October 16, The Times printed a correction, not to the report that demonstrators protesting a video attacked the embassy, but to a statement in the article that had “described incompletely an Islamic profession of faith.” No mention of the fact that the paper got it totally wrong on the central point of the original story.

Eventually the media are forced to change their story but, rather than confess that they had no idea what they were talking or writing about, they pass the buck to their sources, or they try to convince us that getting to the truth is an evolving process we readers and listeners get to witness — from pure speculation to truth right before our eyes and ears — with speculation often standing as truth long after it has been proven wrong.

Presidential passing of the buck and media reporting of speculation as fact go hand in hand. The president encourages and then relies on the speculation where it gives him political cover. The media presses administration officials to speculate so that they can satisfy their readers’ and listeners’ demand for answers.

In 1948, Harry Truman would have had none of it, and The Tribune was surely red-faced with embarrassment. Today it seems that neither the president nor the media are held to account.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.

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