Last week, a lot of media attention was devoted to latest GOP frontrunner Newt Gingrich using the word "humane" in a debate answer about illegal immigration, suggesting we should avoid policies that tear families apart. Will erring on the side of humanity sit well with "family values" voters?
There was another big story -- the brazen dishonesty of former frontrunner Mitt Romney -- that received a lot less attention from the media. Instead of obsessing over whether an element of humanity might disqualify Gingrich with some Iowa voters, the media would be better served focusing on whether out-and-out lying should disqualify Romney with all voters.
The lie is found in Romney's first television ad, run last week in New Hampshire. The ad shows President Obama saying, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." What the ad doesn't tell you is that this was from 2008 -- and that Obama was quoting an aide to John McCain at the time. Here is the full Obama quote: "Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, 'if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.'" (The full speech can be found here.)
This is far from the garden-variety truth stretching we're used to in political advertising. This is so breathtakingly cynical it should cause us to question whether a candidate that would put it forth is fit for any public office -- let alone the presidency.
This ad isn't about the economy -- it's about character. Or at least it should be. Instead, for those in the media who bothered to cover it, it led mostly to a discussion about campaign tactics. Usually the media loves to play up these "character moments," and here was a moment that really did reveal a candidate's character. Yet, with some notable exceptions, the media punted.
Our own Jason Linkins superbly covered the ad and the reaction to it here, but the story deserves to stay alive. As Jason wrote, "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!"
Of course, as Jason points out, what actually makes people cynical is seeing obvious lies not called lies. That Mitt Romney hasn't been forced to apologize for this ad, that he hasn't been forced to fire the team responsible for it, isn't just a failure of Romney's -- it's a failure of our media culture and highlights the role it has played in the degradation of our political system.
Instead of a national conversation about what sort of person would approve such an ad, what we mostly got was just another "he said/she said" episode. The Obama camp attacked the ad, and the Romney camp responded. "There was no hidden effort on the part of our campaign," Romney said in Iowa on Wednesday. "It was instead to point out that what's sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander." And he was actually allowed to get away with that.
The response by Romney's senior New Hampshire advisor Tom Rath was even worse. "He did say the words," Rath told CBS News. "That's his voice."
Well, I guess Obama better not denounce someone like, say, Hitler, or Osama bin Laden by quoting their words because to the Romney camp, if the words are said by your voice, you must believe those words. And this is a man who wants to be president?
Along with being deceitful, the ad is also a challenge to the media. It's like when a toddler looks right at you and slowly and deliberately spills a glass of milk. The child wants to see the reaction. It's a test of boundaries. If there's no reaction, then the message is that it's OK.
So what message did the media send with its reaction? This is how the New York Times' Michael Shear covered the ad:
"Democrats reacted ferociously on Tuesday to Mitt Romney's first campaign commercial, which they said distorted comments by Barack Obama to make it look as if he was running away from his record on the economy."
"They said"? The ad did distort President Obama's comments. It was not a matter of what Democrats said versus what Republicans said -- there is an objective reality, and it is the media's job to present it unequivocally.
According to Shear, the ad "let Republican voters know that Mr. Romney would take a combative posture toward Mr. Obama." Actually, it let voters know that Mr. Romney would take a lying posture toward Mr. Obama.
The article then quickly pivots to yet another discussion of campaign tactics: "The result of the back and forth was to highlight an ad that Mr. Romney's campaign spent relatively little to broadcast -- just $134,000 on one New Hampshire television station." Just another "back and forth," people -- nothing to see here.
Politico mentioned the ad several times, mostly as a jumping off point for a discussion of -- what else? -- campaign tactics. In a story calling the ad "jujitsu" and the lying part of it "the buzziest part," the site wrote: "Today's impending back-and-forth will only elevate Romney and rally conservatives to his side. Most important, by the end of the day, the high command in Boston is confident they will win the argument with voters (especially independents)."
And they might well, with media coverage like that.
In another article, entitled "Who wins this round," (see, it's just all a game!), Politico's Maggie Haberman concludes that, "if nothing else, the ad was clearly intended as a signal of the bare-knuckled race Romney would run in a general." The problem with this ad was not that it was "bare-knuckled" -- you can be bare-knuckled without being dishonest.
To Haberman's credit, the piece notes that the ad says something that "clearly isn't true," but that acknowledgment makes it even more damning that this doesn't lead to a discussion of the implications of the lie, but instead to more coverage of politics as a meaningless, consequence-free boxing match.
A third Politico story said that the ad is "a microcosm of what a general election fight between Romney and Obama might look like, with Romney leveling explosive attacks on Obama's economic record, and the president working to disqualify Romney as a liar."
But, in fact, the ad was not an attack on Obama's economic record (I have leveled plenty such attacks myself and they are perfectly legitimate). It was an attack on the truth, and on the intelligence not just of the media but of voters as well. And, given the reaction, it is sadly very likely a microcosm of how the media plan to cover the race.
On PBS's Washington Week, there was some mild tsk-tsking, but the discussion, between Gloria Borger and John Dickerson, was mostly about how the ad might be successful, because, hey, it's getting media attention, isn't it?
Borger: A big context problem. And you know that the people cutting the ads are so cynical, a) they know there's a context problem; b) they know that we're going to be talking about it. I spoke to somebody in the Romney campaign who said, "As long as you people keep talking about our ad, we're happy." But if you're a candidate looking for credibility, I don't think this is the way to go about it.
Dickerson: Unless you're in a Republican primary, where proving you can beat up on the president is one of the tests. And being accused of playing dirty pool about Obama might not hurt you.
Of course, this theory -- that it's always good to have the media talking about you -- only works if what they're doing is just replaying your ad and talking about campaign tactics, instead of replaying it, calling it a lie, and asking if the candidate who approved it is going to apologize and fire whoever made it.
And then there's "FactCheck.org." Surely a group with a name like that must have been all over this ad, right?
"The Obama campaign is in a lather over Mitt Romney's first TV spot, calling it 'a deceitful and dishonest attack' because of an edited quote from 2008," the FactCheck site says. Their conclusion? "That's a matter of opinion." Actually, it's not a matter of opinion. Maybe someone needs to launch a site called FactCheckFactCheck.org.
As Jason Linkins writes, "the phenomenon of the media being unable to call a lie a lie and a liar a liar" has become a 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.'"
Fortunately, there are several in the media who have not yet succumbed to this disease. CNN's John King, for example, called the ad "reprehensible."
ABC's Jake Tapper tweeted that the ad was more than misleading, "it's TV-station-refuse-to-air-it-misleading," and that it was "so deceptive it's a lie." "TV-station-refuse-to-air-it-misleading" is a perfect description of the ad -- and bravo to Jake Tapper for saying so.
And over at MSNBC, Lawrence O'Donnell's response was a strong antidote to the disease of thinking the truth is just another opinion. "Mitt Romney's first television ad is simply and entirely a lie," he said, adding that those who say "everyone does this sort of thing in political advertising" are also lying. "The truth is," he said, "most of the media is going to allow those things to fly as if they are the standard issue spin of campaigns." Added his guest Eugene Robinson:
"This is anything but the standard issue spin. This is not regular spin. This is not even out of context -- that's technically true -- but this is pure mendacity."
The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza was another one who showed the media how it should be done:
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!)
Back in 1998, in response to some lies Republicans had told about the budget process, I wrote: "The public seems to consider politicians' abuse of language and the truth as resignedly as they do carbon-monoxide emissions. We don't like them, but we can't imagine a world without them." And things have only gotten worse since then.
In an essay called "Dickens, Dali, and Others," George Orwell wrote: "The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp."
And the first thing a campaign demands of an ad is that it shall promote the candidate. Yet even the best ad in the world deserves to be pulled -- and roundly excoriated -- if it is built on a lie. Focusing instead on whether it's a good or bad move politically is a major reason why our political system is so broken.