Friday's Times contained the paper's latest edition of "Checkpoint," its occasional fact-checking feature. Despite the promise of balance implied in the headline, "The Candidates Speak Off the Cuff, and Trouble Quickly Follows," reporterLarry Rohter's storyhas a clear pro-Obama slant,with Rohter defending Obama's recentstatement that"you need to make sure your children can speak Spanish" by accusing conservatives of misrepresenting Obama's remarks.
Yet when John McCain took heat for calling the Social Security funding mechanism an "absolute disgrace," Rohter declared McCain's defense of his own comments invalid.
At this rate, both John McCain and Barack Obama may want to rethink their fondness for town-hall-style meetings. Both have embroiled themselves in controversies this week as a result of departing from scripted campaign speeches and speaking off the cuff.
Start with Mr. Obama. Answering a question that touched on bilingualism at one such forum in Powder Springs, Ga., on Tuesday, he said, "I agree that immigrants should learn English." But then he went on to poke fun at those who argue that "we need English only" and Americans who "go over to Europe, and all we can say is 'merci beaucoup.'"
"Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English - they'll learn English - you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish," he said. "You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language."
Rohter rushed to Obama's defense (just as he did in the Times' previous "Checkpoint" feature back on June 13.In his Friday defense of Obama, Rohter took pains to explain:
Conservative and "official English" groups immediately interpreted Mr. Obama's statement as an endorsement of the idea that "Americans should be forced to learn to speak Spanish," in the words of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC. But that not only misrepresents what Mr. Obama said, it also ignores the views he has expressed in the past on the proper role of English and foreign languages in American life.
In his book "The Audacity of Hope" (Crown, 2006), Mr. Obama writes that "we can insist to those already here that with citizenship comes obligations - to a common language," among other things. But even as he said he wanted his daughters to learn Spanish, he also acknowledged: "When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I'm forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration."
In many respects, Mr. Obama's remarks echoed the Department of Education's own position on the importance of learning foreign languages. "American students must master critical-need foreign language skills for our nation to remain competitive and continue the progress in securing our nation," the department's Web site states.
(Ironically, by stretching to defend Obama, Rohter revealed a detail the Times left out of its soft-focus coverage of illegal immigration rallies - the waving of Mexican flags.)
By contrast, Rohter rained blame on McCain alone for his alleged Social Security gaffe.
For Mr. McCain, the biggest controversy stemmed from his answer to a question about Social Security at a forum in Denver on Monday. His response appeared to take issue with the "pay as you go" mechanism the system has used since its inception in 1937, in which those working today pay for the benefits of those who have retired.
"Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today," he said. "And that's a disgrace. It's an absolute disgrace, and it's got to be fixed."
Afterward, spokesmen for the McCain campaign said that his use of "disgrace" was meant to refer not to Social Security itself but to Washington's unwillingness to address distortions developing in the system. Indeed, one such problem is the ratio of workers to retirees, which is declining. But Mr. McCain did not mention that issue explicitly, and seemed to undermine his staff's explanation when he appeared on CNN on Tuesday and, to a large extent, repeated himself.