Associated Press reminder: That NY Times' story about George H.W. Bush being amazed by a supermarket scanner was garbage

If you want a grade A example of why people on the right don’t trust the media, this is a good one. With the death of former President George H.W. Bush, the NY Times published an obituary which briefly mentioned one of the most famous incidents during his 1992 re-election campaign:

His critics saw him as out of touch with ordinary Americans, pointing to what they portrayed as his amazed reaction during a demonstration of a supermarket scanner when he visited a grocers’ convention while president. (He later insisted that he had not been surprised.)

Notice, before we move on, that the Times doesn’t say whether the critics were right or wrong but leaves it an open question. The Times also doesn’t take any responsibility for the story, suggesting it was “critics” who said these things about Bush. Perhaps prompted by that mention (or others like it), the Associated Press published a story titled “AP Was There: Bush’s bum rap on ‘amazing’ barcode scanner.

One last time, for the record: It was not an ordinary supermarket scanner.

A February 1992 newspaper story reporting that President George H.W. Bush was baffled by a supermarket barcode scanner when he visited a grocers’ convention in Florida fed into impressions that the president was out of touch, just as he was dealing with a reeling economy and fending off a primary election challenge at the outset of his re-election campaign.

The newspaper story in question, the one that kicked off this long-standing bit of fake news, was published by the NY Times. It appeared on the paper’s front page under the headline, “Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed.” Written by reporter Andrew Rosenthal, the whole point of the story was to mock President Bush as out of touch with the experiences of ordinary Americans:

As President Bush travels the country in search of re-election, he seems unable to escape a central problem: This career politician, who has lived the cloistered life of a top Washington bureaucrat for decades, is having trouble presenting himself to the electorate as a man in touch with middle-class life.

Today, for instance, he emerged from 11 years in Washington’s choicest executive mansions to confront the modern supermarket…

Then he grabbed a quart of milk, a light bulb and a bag of candy and ran them over an electronic scanner. The look of wonder flickered across his face again as he saw the item and price registered on the cash register screen.

“This is for checking out?” asked Mr. Bush. “I just took a tour through the exhibits here,” he told the grocers later. “Amazed by some of the technology.”

The image of Bush being amazed by a grocery scanner quickly became a favorite topic with opinion writers and cartoonists but it didn’t take long to figure out that the NY Times had botched the story. The AP published this on Feb. 11, 1992, setting the record straight:

It was widely reported that Bush was surprised to see an ordinary supermarket scanner.

Pundits, columnists and cartoonists seized upon the report as evidence that Bush was out of touch with everyday life after 11 years ensconced in government mansions.

“The whole thing is ludicrous,” Bob Graham, an NCR Corp. systems analyst who showed Bush the scanner, said in a telephone interview from Pleasanton, Calif. “What he was amazed about was the ability of the scanner to take that torn label and reassemble it.”…

A videotape shot by a White House press pool shows Bush saying, “This is the scanner, the newest scanner?”

“Of course, this looks like a typical scanner you’d see in a grocery store,” Graham replied.

“Yeah,” said Bush.

“There’s one big difference,” said Graham, lifting off the scanner’s top plate to reveal a scale underneath. He weighed and rang up a red apple.

The exhibitor had Bush put the machine through its paces before he showed off what he called the machine’s “really quite amazing” new feature.

He had Bush scan a card with a universal product code ripped and jumbled into five pieces. The machine read it and rang up the correct sale.

“Isn’t that something,” the president said.

The AP notes that CBS radio broadcaster Charles Osgood “offered a mea culpa” on his show after running with the initial NY Times story. So at least some journalists corrected the record based on the accounts of people who were there. One of the people who was not there was Andrew Rosenthal, the reporter who wrote the initial story for the NY Times. Snopes reports that Rosenthal wrote the story based on a pool report which barely mentioned the scanner:

Andrew Rosenthal of The New York Times hadn’t even been present at the grocers’ convention. He based his article on a two-paragraph report filed by the lone pool newspaperman allowed to cover the event, Gregg McDonald of the Houston Chronicle, who merely wrote that Bush had a “look of wonder” on his face and didn’t find the event significant enough to mention in his own story.

In sum, the NY Times launched this story offering a misleading account of what happened by a reporter who wasn’t there and 26 years later it obliquely refers to the story as if a) it might be true and b) it came from critics rather than from the NY Times itself. As for Andrew Rosenthal, the author of the shoddy piece, he’s still with the Times and currently works as an Op-Ed columnist.

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