On Tuesday, the New York Times ran a classic "both sides do it" article, one that sacrifices truth in the name of balance. This article actually centers on the premise that:
Mr. Romney, Mr. Obama and their allies have started trading accusations over a much more delicate and personal question: Are you an American like me?
To be fair, the article is by no means a hit job on the Obama campaign. Its problem is in trying to equate what the two campaigns are doing.
The article equates hitting Mitt Romney over Bain Capital, outsourcing, offshore tax havens, and Swiss bank accounts with Romney directly accusing Barack Obama of having a presidency built around "extraordinarily foreign" ideas.
I'm sorry, but that's not the same thing. The Obama campaign is talking about concrete things Mitt Romney has done, things that may make him less appealing to American voters, but it never once came close to characterizing Romney himself as "not American."
But that's exactly what Mitt Romney has done, both himself and through surrogates like John Sununu. Although it noted Romney's and Sununu's statements about Obama, the NYT article didn't even mention what happened Monday, when a member of Romney's foreign policy team opined that Romney would be a better president because Barack Obama can't "fully appreciate" our country's "Anglo-Saxon heritage" and the way it ties us to Britain. The Romney campaign dissociated itself from those remarks later in the day.
Nevertheless, Romney's comments are not about things Barack Obama has done. They are about what Barack Obama is.
The NYT article says that both campaigns have sought "to define each other as detached from mainstream American life." That's fine, as far as it goes, but when the Obama campaign accuses Mitt Romney of being detached from the lives of regular Americans because of his wealth and business practices he isn't saying Romney's not an American, just that he's an out of touch American. Romney is essentially saying Barack Obama is outside the bounds of the American community, that Obama is not an American.
The article denies that what Romney's campaign is doing has anything to do with race, offering the following as support for that claim:
"These two campaigns have gone to pretty considerable lengths to keep away from that kind of attack that relates either to Obama's race or Romney's religion," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California and a former Republican consultant. "What we're seeing is more like, He's really rich so he can't understand what your life is like," Mr. Schnur said of attacks on Mr. Romney.
Yes, the quote is from a former Republican consultant. That doesn't immediately disqualify him from being objective. But his take, and the conclusion drawn by the article's author is simply inaccurate.
It is absurd to deny that there is a racial element in calling Barack Obama "foreign," given the broader context of birtherism, of Newt Gingrich accusing Obama of having a "Kenyan" worldview, and all the related bigotry that has sought to "other" Obama.
When Mitt Romney said last December: "I don't think [Obama] understands America," the New York Times editorial page rightfully called the comments "divisive" and declared that Romney had made a series of "invidious claims that Mr. Obama is not really part of mainstream American culture." And that was before Romney came right out and called President Obama "foreign."
On a related note, the NYT article from Tuesday didn't even discuss the fact that one of Romney's ads completely misquoted Obama's own words, slicing and dicing them to make it appear he said something he didn't. The article only hinted obliquely at this when talking about a series of "issues from tax cuts to foreign diplomacy to claims of words taken out of context" over which there has been a "clash." The article actually led with that particular attack by Romney, so one would think that a simple, direct mention of the incontrovertible fact that Romney edited Obama's words would have been in order.
I don't want to suggest that Tuesday's NYT article is the worst example of "both sides do it" journalism I've ever seen. Nevertheless, it's mind-boggling, to say the least, that an objective journalist would equate talking about Romney's outsourcing and Swiss bank accounts with a direct statement that Obama is "extraordinarily foreign." The former suggests that Romney doesn't share the economic priorities of middle-class voters. The latter suggests that Obama is not an American. It's equally mind-boggling that an objective journalist would state that calling Obama "foreign" is not an attempt to play on racial anxieties and fear of "the other."
Sometimes, both sides do it. But sometimes they don't. Good journalism requires being able to tell the difference.
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