May 10, 2010

Obama’s ‘Grocery Scanner Moment’ (Except That It’s Not Made Up) Mostly Ignored by the Press

ObamaAtHamptonU0510Yesterday, in the midst of the commencement address he delivered at Hampton University, President Obama made a startling “admission” (readers will see why “admission” is in quotes shortly):

And meanwhile, you’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations — none of which I know how to work — (laughter) — information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it’s putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.

There are more troubling overtones inherent in the excerpt that many observers have already noted. I’ll stay away from them for the purposes of this post.

Those matters, aside, there are still a few pesky items that arise from the bolded portion of the excerpt.

If the President really doesn’t know how to “work” an iPod, which has been out since 2001, isn’t that just as bad or worse than the idea that President George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) supposedly marveled at the operation of a grocery scanner in 1992? (I say “supposedly” because, which if anything tends to err to the left, has definitively labeled those contentions, which were made twice by writers at the New York Times — here and here — “false.”) Journalists leaped to their conclusions about Bush 41 based on jaded “observation.” Here we have a president admitting to technical ignorance with no equivocation.

But the truth appears to be that Obama knows darned well how to “work” at least an iPod. At’s SciTech blog, John D. Sutter writes that “Given his apparent tech literacy, I wonder if Obama was kidding about not knowing how to work an iPod, iPad, Xbox or PlayStation. During the 2008 presidential campaign he told Rolling Stone his iPod contained songs by Bob Dylan, Jay-Z and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, among others. Presumably, his staffers didn’t turn it on and work it for him.” Just “kidding,” huh? How about “fibbing to ingratiate yourself with your audience”?

Further, Obama’s apparent belief that Xboxes and Playstations are commonly used as sources of “information” is pretty odd. Yes you can access the Internet with them, but the question is how many game console owners are doing so, and even if they are, whether it’s for playing games or to getting info. I’d suggest that to the extent game console owners are accessing the Internet, they’re usually doing so for gaming purposes, especially because the vast majority of households have computers with Internet access.

Press coverage of Obama’s “iPod moment” is pretty scarce.

Jackie Calmes at the New York Times dodged it. Her last paragraph’s quote begins in mid-sentence immediately after the iPod moment, but is presented as if a new sentence began instead. In her report at the Associated Press, Darlene Superville, last seen writing (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog) that General Motors and Chrysler shed 400,000 jobs in 2008 when they didn’t have that many employees to lose, avoided the controversial commencement paragraph completely.’s report did address the information-related items in Obama’s speech, but didn’t mention the President’s allusion to iPods and other gadgets. AFP’s coverage (“Obama bemoans ‘diversions’ of IPod, Xbox era”) was the sole exception.

It’s safe to say that the press would have jumped all over a Republican or conservative president claiming (or feigning) technical ignorance. Why? Because they uncriticially allowed the Obama campaign to do something very similar (actually, worse) to John McCain during 2008 the presidential campaign (noted at the time at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog).

The Obama campaign mocked McCain’s tech capabilities, saying that, “He (McCain) admits he still doesn’t know how to use a computer, can’t send an e-mail …” It turns out that “McCain’s severe war injuries prevent him from combing his hair, typing on a keyboard, or tying his shoes.”

The question, “At long last, have you no decency?” springs to mind.

These people have no credibility when they lecture the nation about “civility” or “ranking high on the truth meter.”

Cross-posted at



  1. Can I take a stab at the more troubling aspect of what he said that you hinted at? I personally found the whole tone of his speech troubling insomuch as it implied that people have too many options and he doesn’t like that people have access to so much information. Since this guy is a control freak, it’s troubling because who knows what freedoms he’ll curtail to limit peoples options for info, and it strongly suggests a president who yearns to control what information people get. Is that about right?

    Comment by zf — May 10, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

  2. #1, exactly, and he has the people on board (e.g., Cass Sunstein, John Holdren, etc.), who are ready, willing, able and eager to carry out his yearnings for him.

    Comment by TBlumer — May 10, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

  3. It’s just a little joke at his own expense which flatters the people whose achievements he is there to celebrate (the graduates). That’s a common rhetorical technique, not a scandal.

    The Bush grocery scanner story stuck because it complemented a convenient and compelling narrative that he was out of touch with Americans generally, the idea being that he knew nothing about something as everyday as grocery shopping.

    The McCain joke, on the other hand, was aimed more at making fun of his age and his contrasts with Obama (in terms of outlook, in terms of “cool”) for the young voters (and wannabe-young voters) Obama was aiming at.

    The grad speech was aimed at himself, obviously not totally truthful (seriously, it’s a *joke*), and has little to do with his connection to everyday Americans (grocery shopping is more fundamental to everyday life than surfing the web on an XBox).

    Comment by K — May 10, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

  4. #3, that is a really pathetic comment:

    - What you cite is a “common rhetorical technique” of a fibber. He could have said he “barely” knows how to “work” an iPod and have been credible. Instead he says he doesn’t know how, which is objectively false.

    - As to the Bush scanner story, as noted above,, which has generally leaned left, concludes that the whole concocted episode is “FALSE.” What about that word don’t you understand? The worst that can be said about Bush is that he was amazed that a grocery scanner can read a bar code even when it’s torn up. I still find that pretty amazing 18 years later, because I’ve seen plenty that can’t do that even today.

    - As documented above, the “McCain joke” was a CAMPAIGN AD that lied through its teeth and silently took advantage of another man’s war-caused physical handicaps to make him look out of it and falsely score political points. That ad redefines “mean-spirited.”

    - Whether he has a connection with everyday Americans because he says he doesn’t know how to work “iPods, iPads, Playstations, and Xboxes” is debatable. The point is that he has (supposedly but falsely) “admitted” to it, when the NYT made it all up out of whole cloth in connection with Bush 41.

    And … it’s all delivered in the context of a statement that can hardly be seen as a “joke” — more like an expressed authoritarian desire to control what we are and aren’t allowed to see. We get to see what HE thinks scores high enough on his truth meter. Look into what Cass Sunstein thinks of truth.

    Comment by TBlumer — May 10, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

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