In the wake of BuzzFeed’s “scoop,” many journalists diligently took up the subject afresh, with the meticulous reporting on Romney’s past health care positions. But in doing so, they tended to absolve themselves from not having done so earlier. As if such awareness and reporting had been outsourced to oppo shops altogether, journalists have framed Kaczynski’s big “discovery” like he did; as a sign of weakness in the other candidate’s campaigns.
Per Alexander Burns of Politico:
Remember that shocking moment on the debate stage, when Santorum confronted Romney with his 2009 USA Today op-ed highlighting the individual mandate as a possible element of national health care reform?
No, you don’t. And neither does anyone else because — thanks to the total failure of Romney’s opponents to do basic research and preparation — they never happened.
And New York’s Jonathan Chait:
Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, and Jon Huntsman’s campaign all possessed opposition research on Romney’s health care position, which they thought would make him radioactive. But they didn’t want to introduce themselves to the voters by launching harsh attacks. They wanted to establish themselves as popular alternatives, force a one-on-one race, and then go after Romney. But they all had to quit. The three remaining candidates include Ron Paul, who’s functionally allied with Romney, and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both running seat-of-the-pants campaigns.
Almost all the opposition research on Romney’s health care past has come from the media itself. Yet he has generally managed to squirm out of any serious damage.
Chait gives the press credit, but I’d argue it’s too much.
Here’s Noam Schreiber of The New Republic, about BuzzFeed being the first to turn up the “damning” op-ed and video footage:
That the GOP field had somehow overlooked these smoking guns for months was only the latest turn in the campaign’s most confounding subplot…
None of the challengers left standing had much in the way of an opposition-research staff to mine Romney’s health care record or a communications war room to transmit that record to the media and to voters.
Again, wait a moment. If the information is substantive and meaningful, why should the media need a campaign’s communications war room to prompt their reporting of it? In taking such cues, the media effectively drives coversation and primary coverage at only the precise moment a campaign calls for it, and only for the campaign’s purposes of attack.
This seems exactly like what we should not hope for from campaign reporters, an ominous sign of their growing dependence on campaign staffs and ‘gotcha’ stories—a phenomenon Joe Hagan foretold in his New York article “The Coming Tsunami of Slime”:
An Obama ally working for a super-PAC told me that NBC News’s Chuck Todd “doesn’t necessarily have time to sit there and Lexis-Nexis Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital personnel records. In some ways, reporters become traffic cops for information.”
“Research from campaigns has essentially replaced investigative reporting,” says Devorah Adler, a former research director for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “The free press is where people are going to get their information from, so that becomes your missile-delivery system.”
That’s a grim picture of political journalism, possibly, we hope, exaggerated.
BuzzFeed’s Kaczynski, can be seen, perhaps, as offering an alternative model, one of a specialized media landscape in which researchers like him do the digging and reporters elsewhere explain the meaning. Kaczynski says he reports inconsistencies he finds in candidates’ history; he doesn’t judge them or examine why the candidates have shifted their position.
But somebody certainly should. This is something that campaign reporters or pundits that chose to take up the BuzzFeed “scoop” could have done. So is contextualization, and reminding readers, as The Washington Post editorial staff did, that the individual mandate was once a widely-held Republican position, not just another thing on which Romney had changed his tune.
Some have done that, and good for BuzzFeed if it got some reporters to grapple seriously with Romney’s record. But journalists, that’s also your job. You shouldn’t need BuzzFeed to remember this.