This Financial Times coverage of Mitt Romney’s false attack on an Obama administration move on welfare reform is a classic example of the kind of he said-she said journalism that leaves readers throwing up their hands at all of it.

Obama, reacting to requests from Republican governors, including from Romney himself seven years ago, signals a willingness by Health and Human Services to issue waivers on work requirements to states—if they move 20 percent more people on welfare into jobs. In other words, you only get waivers if more people go to work.

Romney’s people put it this way, as quoted in the FT’s third paragraph:

“Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare cheque,” the narrator in the Romney ad says. “And welfare to work goes back to being plain old welfare.”

The only information presented by the FT to show that this is extremely misleading is sourced to the Obama campaign:

Mr Obama’s re-election team responded by saying that Mr Romney asked for even greater flexibility to waive the central part of the law while he was governor of Massachusetts.

Readers, trained not to believe what politicians and their campaigns are telling them, are less likely to believe something is true when it’s sourced to interested parties. That goes to Romney’s dog-whistle claim too, of course, but the playing field should not be level here. One side, Romney’s, simply has no credible case here, while the other, Obama’s, does. This is not a particularly complicated question.

Failing to call a spade a spade, the FT neglects even to bring in an independent expert to get at the truth behind the back-and-forth; readers just get false equivalence.

The Wall Street Journal at least brings in an expert, though it takes too long to get to it, reporting a Brookings Institution fellow’s analysis in the eighth paragraph.

Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who helped draft the 1996 welfare-overhaul law as a Republican congressional staff member, said he does not believe the Obama administration change was designed to neuter the work requirements.

The Journal stuffs Romney’s outright hypocrisy on the issue—he requested similar waivers from the Bush administration in 2005—down to the 20th graph.

“Romney Attacks Obama Over Welfare Reform” is not the story here. The story is a cynical and false Romney attack on yet another position he favored not so long ago but renounced for political benefit.

This kind of credulous coverage enables campaigns to put out false and/or misleading information and get at least a few hours of free, largely unquestioning media play out of it in the news sections. That needs to change.

If you’re looking for a better model, check out McClatchy’s top:

The Romney campaign on Tuesday accused President Barack Obama of gutting a signature success of the Clinton administration that links welfare benefits to work.

But the White House and Obama campaign officials pushed back aggressively, calling the claims “blatantly dishonest,” and their stance was bolstered by independent experts who said the Republican claims were exaggerated.

Meantime, for the best take I’ve read lately on the problem of false balance, check out this good Economist post riffing off the recent NYT story on Obama’s press criticism (emphasis mine):

It should be obvious that this made-up scenario has parallels in climate-change reporting, an area of journalism that has been dogged by the issue of balance. When climate-change sceptics felt that reporters were writing about the issue as if it were accepted fact, they pushed hard to create a sufficiently large body of “experts” and “evidence” in order to force journalists to take cover under the trusty shield of balance. A controversy was created, where none had existed, by those who stood to gain. And thus journalists felt obliged to give equal weight to both sides of the debate.

Today, creating uncertainty in order to hijack the concept of balance is a significant industry. Public-relations firms create artificial “grass roots” organisations for business and political-interest groups in order to have their views reflected in the media. They are known as “astroturf” groups, a concept that might not even exist if not for the demand for so much balance. For a recent example, see this brilliant series in the Chicago Tribune describing how the chemical industry created a phony consumer watchdog group to successfully push for the greater use of flame retardants.

Fascinating.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.