Boehner's old-news Op-Ed: How a cut-and-paste opinion piece became a big story

Boehner's Op-Ed on his suit against Obama is basically a republished press release, but the bored media went nuts

Published July 7, 2014 6:53PM (EDT)

John Boehner                                      (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

If you’re like me and love reading dry, stilted Op-Eds published under the names of prominent elected officials but really written by anonymous communications staffers, then you devoured John Boehner’s piece yesterday for on his plan to sue Barack Obama. Boehner made some news recently by announcing he’d introduce legislation authorizing the House to file suit against Obama for alleged abuses of executive authority. His Op-Ed, titled “Why we must now sue the President,” offered the promise of a more detailed explanation as to why the speaker of the House was embarking down this strange, legally dubious path.

The Op-Ed drew a lot of attention – pretty much every major political news outlet covered Boehner’s piece. It got a shout-out in Playbook, and CNN published a response from Sally Kohn. It was one of the major political news stories of the day.

For me, though, Boehner’s Op-Ed was old news, in the quite literal sense of the term.

The first three paragraphs of Boehner’s piece were largely just cut-and-pasted from Boehner’s June 25 memo to colleagues explaining the lawsuit. That bit about Obama’s “habit of ignoring the law” making it “harder for private sector employers to meet payrolls, invest in new initiatives and create jobs”? That’s also taken almost word-for-word from Boehner’s memo, except the original context dealt with the “Washington politicians” who “force laws upon the people that make it difficult for private-sector employers to meet payrolls, invest in new initiatives and create jobs.”

Was it significant that Boehner’s Op-Ed singled out the “range of issues, including his health care law, energy regulations, foreign policy and education” that he might sue Obama over? Maybe, but certainly no more significant than when he singled out “matters ranging from health care and energy to foreign policy and education” on June 25.

The last half of the Op-Ed was taken, largely word-for-word, from Boehner’s June 25 press conference on the lawsuit. Pretty much every word from “In the end, the Constitution makes it clear …” to “… eroded the power of the legislative branch” was borrowed either wholly or in part from Boehner’s remarks to reporters that day. By my estimation, 340 of the words in Boehner’s 554-word Op-Ed were taken from things he said or wrote on June 25, which means roughly 61 percent of Boehner’s hotly discussed Op-Ed was something we had already heard, often with the same sequence of words.

To be clear, I’m not accusing Boehner of self-plagiarizing, if that’s even a thing. Recycling and repurposing talking points is the work of political communications shops, though some tend to be a bit savvier about it.

The press, however, went nuts for something that didn’t give us any new information and told us nothing about what Boehner intends to do. Even the paragraphs that weren’t cribbed from existing press materials were useless; there was a dig at the president for acting beneath the “dignity of the office,” and a non sequitur about jobs.

I get that it’s summer and there’s not a lot of news to cover, but pretty much all of Boehner’s Op-Ed was already covered less than two weeks ago. It’s a testament to the sometimes shared uselessness of political communications and the media, in which a big story can be made of what is essentially a republished press release.

By Simon Maloy

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