Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with 

Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

Distortion report

How the Center for American Progress twists quotations
By Brendan Nyhan
October 28, 2004

The Center for American Progress and its sister organization, the American Progress Action Fund, are at the vanguard of liberal attempts to regain the initiative in the national political debate. Founded in 2003 with millions of dollars from donors hoping to more effectively counter the Bush White House and conservative groups, CAP relentlessly attacks conservatives and distributes talking points to its ideological allies.

Unfortunately, however, the group has also shown a repeated willingness to distort the facts in order to achieve its objectives. In a number of recent cases, CAP has twisted the words of its conservative opponents, misleading thousands of readers of its influential Progress Report newsletter. These tactics show that state of the art spin is increasingly indistinguishable from outright dishonesty.

Fueling myths about the Bush White House

CAP's deceptive use of quotations has already helped spawn at least two well-known myths. First, as we showed on our website (here, here and here) and in All the President's Spin, CAP distorted a statement by White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan to falsely suggest that he had claimed Iraq was an imminent threat. In the Jan. 29, 2004 Progress Report, CAP wrote, "almost exactly a year ago, it was McClellan who said the reason NATO should go along with the Administration's Iraq war plan was because 'this is about imminent threat.'" However, McClellan was actually talking about the threat Iraq would pose to Turkey in the event of a war. CAP never mentioned Turkey in the original Progress Report (though it did link to McClellan's briefing transcript).

The bogus quote fooled NBC "Meet the Press" Tim Russert, WashingtonPost.com columnist Dan Froomkin, and The New Republic's Noam Scheiber, all of whom were later forced to issue corrections. When we criticized them for their tactics, CAP responded with an elaborate rationale for their wording based on US obligations to Turkey under the NATO charter. But there was no hint of this tortured logic in their original newsletter.

In addition, CAP has played a leading role in hyping a statement Cheney made on "Meet the Press" in March 2003 in which the Vice President said, "We believe he [Saddam Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." Google shows CAP repeating it at least nine times on their main site and the Action Fund website. However, Cheney and his aides later said he misspoke, and the evidence supports their claim. The Vice President said four other times in the interview that Saddam was pursuing nuclear weapons, not that Iraq already had them, and no one else in the administration ever claimed that Iraq had a nuclear weapon. Moreover, the statement makes no sense - "reconstituted nuclear weapons" carries the implausible implication that Saddam had nuclear weapons at one point, gave them up, and then rebuilt them. Despite these contradictions, the claim continues to echo, stripped of all relevant context.

A pattern of distortion

These two examples are part of a larger pattern. For instance, the Oct. 21 edition of its Progress Report newsletter misconstrued statements made by Vice President Dick Cheney during an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. Here is part of CAP's account:

In an interview with Fox's Sean Hannity that aired last night, Vice President Dick Cheney soared to new heights of hypocrisy. Fresh off warning that terrorists would bomb U.S. cities if Sen. Kerry were elected, Cheney chided Democrats for "shameless scare tactics." He then implied insurgents in Iraq were attempting to influence the election in Kerry's favor, despite admitting he had "no hard evidence" to back up that claim. Cheney repeated over and over again how dismayed he was by the "over the top" tone of the current campaign. But in the same interview, he parroted the hypocrisy and lies that have characterized his vice presidency for four years.
HYPOCRISY: KERRY USES "SCARE TACTICS": Hannity joined the vice president in denouncing the "shameless scare tactics" of the Kerry campaign...

In reality, Cheney never used those words. Here is the Fox News transcript that CAP itself linked to:

HANNITY: The president yesterday mentioned the shameless scare tactics that are being used by the Democrats and more particularly John Kerry, who is now out on the stump, regularly saying that there's a big January surprise.
CHENEY: Right.

It was actually Hannity who "chided Democrats for 'shameless scare tactics,'" not Cheney. All Cheney said was "Right," which isn't even a clear endorsement of Hannity's statement (it could simply be an acknowledgment that Bush had said what the Fox host had claimed).

A similar distortion was published in the Feb. 27 Progress Report, which misrepresented Bush administration statements about outsourcing. It claimed that "the President personally signed a report wholeheartedly endorsing U.S. job loss to overseas outsourcing, claiming that it was a 'good thing' and just an unpreventable side-effect of free trade." This sentence is misleading on a number of levels.

First, the 2004 Economic Report of the President (the report in question [4.9 MB PDF]) did not "wholeheartedly" endorse US job loss to outsourcing. Instead, it states that outsourcing is part of free trade and has overall economic benefits, but suggests measures to help dislocated workers. In addition, the quote "good thing," which CAP implies came from President Bush or the report, actually came from former Council of Economic Advisers chairman Greg Mankiw in a Feb. 9, 2004 statement that also did not endorse job loss. Mankiw said "More things are tradable than were tradable in the past, and that's a good thing. That doesn't mean there's not dislocations; trade always means there's dislocations. And we need to help workers find jobs and make sure to create jobs here." CAP knew this, of course - they quoted him accurately on Feb. 12.

Another example comes from the June 8 Progress Report, when CAP wrote the following:

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) blustered that Reagan was "the most popular president in the modern era." But while Reagan enjoyed his share of support, Gallup polling data shows that his popularity was in line with other modern Presidents.

However, CAP unfairly truncated the quote. Cornyn actually stated that Reagan "left the Oval Office as the most popular President in the modern era." That is accurate -- Reagan did leave office with the highest approval rating of any president since Franklin Roosevelt, though Bill Clinton would later match or slightly surpass him.

And on July 1, the group significantly distorted a statement by EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt. Here is how it was presented:

The EPA announced this week that "99 million Americans...are breathing unhealthful air that can cause respiratory problems and even premature death." The air in 243 counties is polluted by fine particulates - mostly soot - which "infiltrate people's lungs to cause an array of illnesses." EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt congratulated himself for acknowledging the nation has a problem with air pollution, calling the announcement "a very good news story." But while environmental and health advocates have called on the EPA to reduce particulate emission from power plants by 90 percent in 2010, Leavitt is calling for just a 40 percent reduction by the end of the decade. Asked by reporters about his critics' calls to move faster in controlling particulate pollution, Leavitt responded, "this is faster."

But Leavitt was not calling the announcement of the problem a "very good news story," as CAP implies. He was actually stating that the move to reduce fine-particle pollution was newsworthy, as the Washington Post article CAP was citing made clear:

Once the rulemaking process is complete, state and local officials will have to devise plans to reduce the pollution. States now have three months to respond before the agency issues a final rule in November.
EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt said the announcement was "about getting our air cleaner and our standards getting tougher."
"This is a very good news story," he said."

The Center for American Progress has a clear history of playing fast and loose with the facts. The group's rhetoric may be slick, but the reality is that these tactics are not progress for our democracy.

[Email this to a friend]     [Subscribe to our email list]

Related links:
-Center for American Progress responds (Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan, 2/5/04)
-Out-of-context quote in imminent danger of hardening into fact (Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan, 2/2/04)
-Context is everything (Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan, 1/30/04)
-Unreliable quotations (Brendan Nyhan, 7/7/03)
-The conclusion of All the President's Spin

Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

This website is copyright (c) 2001-2003 by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan. Please send letters to the editor for publication to letters@spinsanity.org and private questions or comments to feedback@spinsanity.org.