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Mitt Romney And The Associated Press Are Having Themselves A Tiff

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Gosh, will Mitt Romney and the traveling press corps ever get their relationship right? Work out their kinks? Build a happy home together? Or are they destined to have some sort of epic, Brontëan affair on a windswept moor in which they lash one another forever and ever with resentment?

I don't know or care, really, but it remains amusing to behold.

The big story out of Romneyville this week is of course Romney aide Rick Gorka's admonishment of the passel of question-shouting reporters at Poland's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: "Kiss my ass, this is a holy site for the Polish people." In a David Mamet play, that would have been a laugh line. And I give Gorka credit for coming to that breaking point absolutely honestly -- the precipitating event was the Washington Post's Philip Rucker shouting, inanely, into space, "What about your gaffes?" I hope to one day ask Rucker precisely what he expected to receive as an answer to that.

Of course, what followed from there was the press corps generically defending themselves by telling the Romney camp that their aloofness had by then forced them into a desperate, defensive crouch. The Associated Press' Kasie Hunt summed up their frustrations on Twitter: "Romney trip by the numbers: Three foreign countries, and three questions from the traveling press." And the Romney campaign has since then seemingly accepted some responsibilty for their poor rapport with the corps, promising to "provide more press briefings and heightened access to the candidate in the coming days, and to make changes to the travel pool that will make it more media friendly." (This is getting somewhat repetitive.)

But Romney's staff apparently has a bit of unfinished business with the aforementioned Kasie Hunt, and it's apparently fallen to The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz to referee this holdover dispute from Romney's foreign travels:

Mitt Romney was stunned when a top aide showed him an Associated Press story in which his comments about Palestinian culture were portrayed as aggressive and denounced as racist.

“I’ve said this many times,” said Romney, who had just arrived in Poland on Monday after making the comments in Israel. “How did this happen?”

It happened like this: Mitt Romney gave a speech in Jerusalem in which he said, "And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things." He made oblique cultural comparisons between Israel and the Palestinian territories, alongside a comparison of similarly geo-adjacent nations, including the United States and Mexico, as well as Chile and Ecuador.

Hunt filed a story on the speech. For whatever reason, Hunt did not at the time seem to believe she was sitting on anything that was destined to blow up, marking the story as "non-urgent." As Kurtz goes on to explain, she was the only reporter to allude to the "culture" comments. Perhaps significantly, she did not include the comparisons to Mexico, the United States, Chile, and Ecuador.

Meanwhile, another AP reporter worked Hunt's original story and obtained a quote from an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, lighting up Romney for making a "racist" statement. Kurtz says that this is "the nub of the dispute" -- Hunt's story didn't include the stuff about Mexico, Ecuador, et al., and the Romney camp believes that this sets everything in a context that immunizes Romney from criticism from the Palestinians.

Why they think that is something of a mystery! It seems to me that getting a reaction from Palestinian officials about Romney's cultural comparison is a fairly predictable thing for a reporter to do.

Also predictable: Palestinian officials reacting angrily. It's not clear why one should expect an aide to Abbas to say, "Oh, he was comparing our arrangement to Chile and Ecuador? In that case, I'll totally let this slide." Kurtz reports that Hunt's boss at AP, Sally Buzbee, saw "the addition of Israel and the Palestinians to the usual litany that made Romney’s remarks news," and that "it could easily be viewed as provocative for Romney to have made the statement in Jerusalem."

The Romney camp's outrage over this story is more predicated on the tick-tock of the story's developments, and not on its merits. It's not clear that Romney has a case on the merits, given the fact that he wrote a piece for the National Review, essentially allocuting to the fact that he absolutely did intend to make precisely the cultural comparison that's so aggrieved the Palestinians. But it's also not clear that Team Romney has a case on the timing, either.

But the case they make is this: The original Hunt story lacked the desired context, and was nevertheless presented to the aforementioned Abbas aide -- Saeb Erekat -- for his critique. With Erekat's brushback in hand, the AP ran their story. Thus, Romney's staff is ticked off because the AP never went back to them for a response.

It's not entirely clear why they feel they were entitled to a call from the AP. After all, what the AP did, essentially, was listen to a speech and then solicit a reaction to it. But let's accept that the crux here is that the AP could not properly inform Erekat about all the Mexico and Ecuador stuff, which they think, for some reason, would have mollified him. Here's where their case against Hunt, as Kurtz reports it, breaks down:

Hunt made no attempt to seek comment from Romney press aides, either on the ground or during a subsequent 4 1/2-hour flight to Poland, where [Stuart] Stevens sat near reporters for part of the trip. Buzbee’s explanation? Hunt “didn’t know whether it was going to cause a big flurry or not.”

When they landed, Hunt saw on her BlackBerry that another AP reporter had gotten a sharp reaction from Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Erekat accused Romney of having made “a racist statement.” The controversy exploded at that point.

I'm really struggling to figure out what Hunt should have done. Let's recall that she's filed what she believes to be a "non-urgent" story on a Romney speech. Back at home, her editors discover a fault line. They follow up, and get a reaction while she's in the air. She learns about what's happened when she hits the tarmac in Poland. Presumably, at this point she needed to ... I don't know ... jump in the Associated Press' time machine, or something, to trouble Stuart Stevens about it while everyone was in the air.

Kurtz's adjudications of this contretemps leave something to be desired, as well. Here's how he calls the ball:

If Erekat was reacting to a partial account from the AP that omitted the other countries and made Romney seem to single out the Palestinians, the wire service clearly played a role in the ensuing uproar.

I know I keep repeating myself, but I'm still really mystified why anyone -- anyone in the world! -- thinks that Palestinian officials, who are party to one of the most enduring geo-political conflicts on the planet, would have given Romney a pass if only they'd known he was linking up the Israel-Palestine cultural comparison with a bunch of other nation-pairs -- none of which, by the way, are involved in an enduring geo-political conflict that colors the comparison. This whole matter of Saeb Erekat not getting the skinny on this seems to be a pointless bit of arm-waving.

Kurtz continues:

And if the original remarks were newsworthy enough to report, they were newsworthy enough to seek immediate comment from the Romney camp.

How does that work? "Mr. Romney, hi, I'm Kasie Hunt from the Associated Press. I just wanted an immediate comment on this question: those words you said in that speech ... can you confirm that you said them?"

But it's okay, because Kurtz ultimately does not plan on making up his mind on the matter:

At the same time, whatever his team’s complaints about journalistic process, Romney himself touched off the firestorm with a public speech observed by reporters—a speech he undoubtedly thought would appeal to Jewish voters back home.

Well, hey, that's nice, but it was just a couple of paragraphs ago that you said that the Associated Press "clearly played a role in the ensuing uproar." Now we know that this role involved doing nothing more than reporting on a "firestorm" that "Romney himself touched off" when he gave a "public speech" that was "observed by reporters." (It's worth pointing out that The Daily Beast's Daniel Stone has provided his readers with what amounts to the same story, availing himself of the same Associated Press reporting.)

In the end, Kurtz just suggests that maybe the Romney camp can do more to provide access to the traveling press and give them an outlet to ask questions, instead of frustrating them with a freeze-out. I don't understand why it was necessary to provide this forensic investigation of an AP story to arrive at this conclusion.

Let's hope it was illuminating for somebody, I guess!

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