GOP 2012 contender Mitt Romney's recent ad has gotten a ton of attention from the press because it contains a brief clip of President Barack Obama saying these words, consecutively, in order: "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." BOOM! What a clip, right? Why did Barack Obama say such a thing in public? Oh, that's right, he said those words consecutively and in order because back in 2008, an aide to John McCain said those words consecutively and in order, and Obama quoted that aide to use the words against McCain -- whose campaign, if you recall, did not exactly handle the 2008 economic collapse all that well.
As everyone points out, Romney's use of the words out of context is misleading. But it seems that what very few people are willing to say, as Too Much Joy once sang, is: "That's a lie. You're a liar."
Well, except for Ryan Lizza, over at the New Yorker:
This is one of those cases where a candidate has put out something that is demonstrably false. If a journalist or writer quoted someone in such an intellectually dishonest way, you would never trust the person's writing again. And yet this episode is being reported by some as a clever tactic by the Romney camp to spark a debate about the ad's accuracy that will serve to highlight its overall message that Obama has been a failure. (See, it worked!)
I think that accounts for much of what's going on. People in the political media just don't take well to calling people liars, probably because if they did, they'd spend so much time doing that that people might get cynical or something! And anyway, a lot of these people will at some point want access to Mitt Romney, and if he's going to hold it against you for pointing out that he lies and is a liar, you may not get that ratings-goosing sit down with a major candidate for office.
And so, in keeping with media traditions, the matter is handled with kid gloves. Typically, what happens is a "lie" becomes magically transformed into "an interesting point of view" in a big debate -- in this case, over the economy. And, indeed, that is how this lie has largely been handled. Here's First Read, for example:
As it usually does when Obama hits the road, the Romney campaign is bracketing Obama's visit to New Hampshire -- but this time it's doing it with its first TV ad of the race. Per NBC's Jo Ling Kent, the advertisement will begin airing today on WMUR (at a buy of $134,000). Strikingly, Romney's first ad is NEGATIVE. It blames Obama on the economy and then pivots (with soaring string music) to what Romney wants to do. He hits on Tea Party talking points -- "getting rid of programs, turning programs back to states"; "get rid of 'ObamaCare'; "moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in"; "high time to bring those principles of fiscal responsibility to Washington, D.C." And, with a shot of a manufacturing worker, he says, he'll "make America a job-creating machine like it has been in the past." After Obama's speech in Manchester, N.H., Romney surrogates Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) will hold a conference call at 2:00 pm ET. And Romney took out a full page ad in the Union Leader, Concord Monitor, and Nashua Telegraph, calling it an "open letter to President Obama," entitled, "Welcome to New Hampshire -- your policies have failed." In it, he references the out-of-context attack that Obama thinks Americans are "lazy."
That's the first paragraph of coverage, which sets the tone: people taking lines out of context is an exciting mainstay of contemporary politics, sure, but let's pass on pointing out the part that early viewers of this ad could not help but remark upon for a moment, and we'll explain what Romney was trying to do with this ad. (They are somehow surprised that the ad is "strikingly negative" as well, because First Read is written by Pollyanna, or something.)
Once First Read makes Romney's case -- and notes the soundtrack choices! -- we get to the whole part of how Romney lied and is a liar.
Speaking of out of context: With grainy video, ominous music and President Obama with an echo, Romney's ad uses this seemingly damning line from Obama: "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." But, as the New York Times points out: "[T]he line, which is perhaps the spot's most devastating moment, is also the one that seems to be the most taken out of context. In fact, at the time, Mr. Obama was referring to something that an aide to his then opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona, had said in reference to the McCain campaign -- not Mr. Obama, then or now." The Romney campaign defended its use, saying the "tables have turned" on the president. "President Obama and his campaign are doing exactly what candidate Obama criticized," Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said. "President Obama and his team don't want to talk about the economy and have tried to distract voters from President Obama's abysmal economic record."
See! Just an interesting point of view that should actually, as Lizza says, "spark a debate!" (Somehow, despite the fact that the economy is in a multi-year tailspin dating back to early 2008, the discussion of this gigantic ongoing crisis is still something that continually needs to be "sparked," primarily through the actions of affluent political celebrities who aren't actually affected by the crisis.)
Lizza quotes Politico's Morning Score at length, levying the same charge: "While it's always interesting and useful to report on how a campaign believes something is going to play out, it seems to me in this case the news that the quote in the ad is falsely attributed to Obama outweighs the news of the Romney campaign's predictable spin." But most of the people who covered this story disagree. Time's Mark Halperin characterizes the matter as a battle between Romney and Obama proxies that is played to a draw. Politico did not headline its after-the-fact report "Mitt Romney Lied In His Campaign Ad," opting instead for "Who Wins This Round?" (I'm glad Politico doesn't cover crime: "A serial rapist in Bellingham, Washington remains at large from police ... who wins this round? Later: we take on whether the police haven't caught the guy because of 'message discipline.'")
And Politico's Alex Burns suggests that the Romney campaign "recognized -- and acknowledged up front -- that their commercial selectively clipped the president's words for dramatic effect." Because everyone knows that it's okay to lie when you acknowledge up front that you are going to lie to a bunch of people in a campaign ad. To make this work, shouldn't the ad come with a disclaimer up front that says, "Here's our new ad! About twenty seconds in, we're going to lie for dramatic effect. Vote for Mitt Romney if you found yourself dramatically affected by the lie!"
I'll add that I cannot hold The Huffington Post apart from this criticism, either.
Let's remember that Jake Tapper -- who made a huge investment in fact-checking during his interim tenure as the host of ABC's "This Week" -- did not succumb to this disease.
In truth, none of the people named above who are not named "Jake Tapper" can be held solely responsible for the phenomenon of the media being unable to call a lie a lie and a liar a liar. Let's recall that when CNN's Anderson Cooper reported that the Mubarak regime in Egypt was telling him lies by calling the things they were saying "lies" and referring to the people who were saying them "liars," he was taken to task by the Los Angeles Times' James Rainey:
It's not often that American television news figures accuse government officials, foreign or domestic, of lying. But CNN's Anderson Cooper made up for that, big time, this week. He heaped the pejorative on Egypt's leaders 14 times in a single "Anderson Cooper 360."
Though the Big Picture knows of no record book for declarations of mendacity, that must have been some sort of new high -- at least for mainstream American news. Cooper's accusations of "lies" and "lying" got so thick on Wednesday's show that the host seemed to be channeling comic (and now U.S. Sen.) Al Franken's 2003 book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them."
Note that the main objection is that Cooper laid it on a little "thick." And later, Rainey would repeat that, saying that Cooper's constant use of the words "lies" and "liars" in reference to Mubarak and his cronies was "a little one-note" and "seemed like a marked departure from the moderate tone we once expected on CNN." This is all extraordinary considering Rainey had no objective problem with Cooper's reporting -- Cooper "nailed the nation's foreign minister for a whopper" Rainey says, terming Cooper's work an "extraordinary truth-squading session" that he handled "all by himself." But, you see, here's the rub:
The CNN star regularly devotes a segment on his show to "Keeping Them Honest." Some critics have noticed Cooper's pronounced shift toward more opinion-making in recent months. One theory is that CNN -- which has hewed to traditional he-said/she-said reporting in the past -- may be trying to adopt the more commentary-heavy approach of its higher-rated competitors, Fox and MSNBC.
I can't say for sure whether CNN is trying to emulate MSNBC by calling the Mubarak regime a bunch of liars, but let's note what happened in that paragraph: referring to a lie as "a lie" is now "a pronounced shift toward more opinion-making." See what they did there? Insisting that there is an objective truth is now the province of opinion.
That's the disease. And one of the symptoms of the disease is that it feels like you're being fair. But this disease ravages the political discourse. It makes it okay to lie. It makes it okay to spin falsehoods in your campaign ads. And it makes it okay for the person you hurled a lie at to respond in kind -- and now, they're immunized from criticism. Now they're the ones just "sparking a debate." And the Romney camp's response to all of this? The short version is: "It's totally okay in politics to misrepresent someone's position." Their entire vision of the upcoming battle with Obama is that both sides will be actively lying, and they welcome it. It will spark a debate.
But the subject of this debate -- the welter of sorrow that is the American economy -- deserves better. To actively wish for the discussion to become less serious and more frivolous and packed stem to stern with facile deceptions masquerading as poetic license deserves to be condemned.
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