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How the Mainstream Press Bungled the Single Biggest Story of the 2012 Campaign

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Post-mortems of contemporary election coverage typically include regrets about horserace journalism, he-said-she-said stenography, and the lack of enlightening stories about the issues.

But according to longtime political observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, campaign coverage in 2012 was a particularly calamitous failure, almost entirely missing the single biggest story of the race: Namely, the radical right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party, both in terms of its agenda and its relationship to the truth.

Mann and Ornstein are two longtime centrist Washington fixtures who earlier this year dramatically rejected the strictures of false equivalency that bind so much of the capital's media elite and publicly concluded that GOP leaders have become "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

The 2012 campaign further proved their point, they both said in recent interviews. It also exposed how fabulists and liars can exploit the elite media's fear of being seen as taking sides.

"The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties' agendas and connections to facts and truth," said Mann, who has spent nearly three decades as a congressional scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution.

"I saw some journalists struggling to avoid the trap of balance and I knew they were struggling with it -- and with their editors," said Mann. "But in general, I think overall it was a pretty disappointing performance."

"I can't recall a campaign where I've seen more lying going on -- and it wasn't symmetric," said Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who's been tracking Congress with Mann since 1978. Democrats were hardly innocent, he said, "but it seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top."

Lies from Republicans generally and standardbearer Mitt Romney in particular weren't limited to the occasional TV ads, either; the party's most central campaign principles -- that federal spending doesn't create jobs, that reducing taxes on the rich could create jobs and lower the deficit -- willfully disregarded the truth.

"It's the great unreported big story of American politics," Ornstein said.

"If voters are going to be able to hold accountable political figures, they've got to know what's going on," Ornstein said. "And if the story that you're telling repeatedly is that they're all to blame -- they're all equally to blame -- then you're really doing a disservice to voters, and not doing what journalism is supposed to do."

Ornstein said the media's failure led him to conclude: "If you want to use a strategy of 'I'm just going to lie all the time', when you have the false equivalence meme adopted by a mainstream press and the other side lies a quarter of the time, you get away with it."

The Apostasy

Ornstein and Mann's big coming out took place in late April, when the Washington Post's Outlook section published their essay "Admit it. The Republicans are worse", adapted from their book It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, which went on sale a few days later.

Political journalists had no doubt heard similar arguments many times before, mostly from left wing bloggers. But this time the charge was coming from two of the most consistent purveyors of conventional wisdom in town, bipartisan to a fault.

And they were pretty harsh in their critique of the media. "Our advice to the press: Don't seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views," they wrote in the Post. "Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?"

Initially, at least, Mann and Ornstein weren't completely ignored. "We had really good reporters call us and say: 'You're absolutely right'," Mann said. "They told us they used this as the basis for conversations in the newsroom."

But those conversations went nowhere, Mann said.

"Their editors and producers, who felt they were looking out for the economic wellbeing of their news organizations, were also concerned about their professional standing and vulnerability to charges of partisan bias," Mann said.

So most reporters just kept on with business as usual.

"They're so timid," Mann said.

Some reporters did better than others, Ornstein said, particularly crediting Jackie Calmes of the New York Times and David Rogers of Politico among a few others. "They grew a little bit more straightforward in what they do, and showed you can be a good, diligent unbiased reporter, report the facts, put it in context, and yet show what's really going on," he said.

Most reporters, however -- including many widely admired for their intelligence and aggressive reporting -- simply refused to blame one side more than the other. Mann said he was struck in conversations with journalists by how influenced they were by the heavily funded movement to promote a bipartisan consensus around deficit reduction and austerity. Such a bipartisan consensus doesn't actually exist, Mann pointed out. But if you believe it does, than you can blame both parties for failing to reach it.

"The Peterson world, I think, has given journalists the material to keep doing what they're doing," Mann said of the vast network of think tanks and other influential Washington groups underwritten at least in part by Wall Street billionaire Peter Peterson.

Peterson's vast spending has given rise to an environment of contempt among the Washington elites for anyone who doesn't believe the government is dangerously overextended. And by that reckoning, the Democrats are therefore more out of touch with reality than Republicans, who at least pay the concept ample lip service.

How Fact-Checking Made Things Worse

Ornstein and Mann's views on journalistic failure have not been widely shared by mainstream media critics, who have instead focused on the fact that the press, in its enthusiasm to see the presidential race decided by a nose, ignored solid polling data to the contrary and called it wrong until the very end.

To the extent that the issue of widespread prevarication has come up at all, many media critics identified the rise of fact-checking as the big new trend of the 2012 cycle.

But Mann and Ornstein said that in practice, the fact-checkers may have made things worse rather than better.

"We had these little flurries of fact-checking -- which I found not worthless, but not a substitute for coherent, serious reporting -- and most of the time it just got stuck in the back of a news organization's output and there was no cost to a candidate of ignoring it," Mann said.

And then there was this terrible irony: "Fact checkers almost seemed obliged to show some balance in their fact checking."

"There was some damn good stuff done, and stuff that really did hold Romney to account," Ornstein said. But no fact-checker intent on "appearing to be utterly straightforward, independent, and without an axe to grind, is going to actually do the job of saying that we're going to cover 20 fact checks on one side, to three on the other."

So, Ornstein concluded: "If you looked at where the scales should have been, and where they were, they were weighted. And they weren't weighted for ideological bias. They were weighted to avoid being charged with ideological bias."

It's hard to exaggerate just how popular Mann and Ornstein were with the press before their apostasy. They were quite possibly the two most quotable men in Washington. They were the media cocktail party circuit's most reliable walking talking points.

And now they are virtual pariahs.

"It's awkward. I can no longer be a source in a news story in the Wall Street Journal or the Times or the Post because people now think I've made the case for the Democrats and therefore I'll have to be balanced with a Republican," Mann said.

Neither Mann nor Ornstein have been guests on any of the main Sunday public affairs shows since their book came out. Nor has anyone else on those shows talked about the concerns they raised.

Ornstein is particularly infuriated that none of the supposed reader advocates at major newspapers have raised the issues they brought up. "What the fuck is an ombudsman doing if he's not writing about this?" he asked.

Their phones are still ringing, they say -- but not from inside the Beltway. "We've gotten a tremendous amount of attention, but much of that is due to the Internet and our original piece going viral," Mann said. They were also featured on NPR.

There have been countless requests for speaking engagements. "We're just selling a shitload of books," said Mann. "There've been page-one stories in countries around the world."

Domestically, however, Mann and Ornstein said they refuse to be "balanced" on TV shows by Republicans -- because they are not anti Republican. The reason they wanted the press to expose what was really happening, they said, was to give voters a chance to respond in an appropriate way.

"The argument we're making is that our politics will never really get better until the Republican Party gets back into the game, instead of playing a new one," Mann said. "We want a strong, conservative Republican Party -- but one with some connection with reality."

Their critique came not out of ideology, they said, but out of their background as devoted process junkies and honest analysts, who finally realized that their vision of collegial governance wasn't possible any more, and it was clear why.

Both see the rise of Tea Party influence on the GOP as a major turning point. For Mann, the moment of reckoning came in the summer of 2011. "What flipped me over was the debt ceiling hostage-taking," Mann said. It was clear then that the Republicans would "do or say anything" to hurt Obama, even if it was overtly bad for the country and false to core Republican values.

"That and getting older. What do I give a shit about access," he said.

"The fact is that one of the parties stopped being a conventional conservative party," Mann said. "My own view is that what needed to happen is somehow the public had to take a two-by-four to the Republicans' heads, knock them back to their senses, and allow conservative pragmatic voices to emerge," he said.

Democrats won soundly in 2012 of course, so the two-by-four was administered. But because the media obfuscated what was going on, the message was not entirely clear -- and certainly not to the Republican leadership.

Their Message Going Forward

Mann and Ornstein don't get invited to talk to the leaders of news organizations anymore.

But if they were, again, here is what Mann would say: "First of all, I'd sympathize. I'd say I understand that you have the responsibility to use professional norms of accuracy and fairness and not let your own personal feelings get in the way."

But, he would add: "You all have missed an incredibly important story in our politics that's been developing over a period of time. You'll slip it in here and there, you'll bury it, but you really don't confront it."

Ornstein said his message would be this: "I understand your concerns about advertisers. I understand your concerns about being labeled as biased. But what are you there for? What's the whole notion of a free press for if you're not going to report without fear or favor and you're not going to report what your reporters, after doing their due diligence, see as the truth?

"And if you don't do that, then you can expect I think a growing drumbeat of criticism that you're failing in your fundamental responsibility.

"Your job is to report the truth. And sometimes there are two sides to a story. Sometimes there are ten sides to a story. Sometimes there's only one.

"Somebody has got to make an assessment of whether the two sides are being equally careless with their facts, or equally deliberate with their lies."

Dan Froomkin is in the process of launching a new accountability journalism project. He is contributing editor of Nieman Reports, and the former senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. He wrote the White House Watch column for the Washington Post website from 2004 to 2009, and was editor of the site from 2000 to 2003. Dan welcomes your email and can be reached at froomkin@gmail.com.

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