Arbitrating the dispute over Romney’s history at Bain

Reporters and editors need a better approach to covering the controversy

NEW HAMPSHIRE — Last Tuesday, the Obama campaign released a new ad here and in eight other swing states that distorts the facts in a Washington Post story to implicate Mitt Romney in outsourcing by firms that received funds from Bain Capital.

The ad, which is titled “Believes,” reinforces a critique of Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital that the Obama campaign has frequently repeated in the weeks since the Post story was first published, including during a speech by the President in Durham, NH two weeks ago. In particular, Obama is running a series of ads drawing on the Post story, including a new ad released on Saturday that will run here in New Hampshire and in other battleground states.

Given the prominence of these claims in the campaign debate, the need for reporters to help voters make sense of them is especially great. However, journalists who have covered the story both here in New Hampshire and nationally have largely failed to fact-check the Obama campaign’s claims, which is especially disappointing since the online fact-checking site had already published a thorough analysis of similar Obama ads stating that they “found no evidence to support the claim that Romney—while he was still running Bain Capital—shipped American jobs overseas.” As the site’s Brooks Jackson and Eugene Kiely note, the only clear cases of outsourcing cited by Obama’s campaign took place after Romney took a leave of absence from the firm in February 1999. The Obama camp has protested that Romney was described as retaining ownership stakes in Bain funds in various SEC filings, but they have provided no evidence that he maintained a significant operational role after leaving Bain to assume leadership of the Salt Lake City Olympics. (Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler and Fortune’s Dan Primack have reached similar conclusions.) The language of the new ad is less specific, but the misleading implication that Romney played an active role in outsourcing US jobs to low-wage countries remains the same.

Rather than clarify the misleading nature of the Obama campaign’s claims, many reporters have played stenographer and simply summarized the debate for readers. These “he said,” “she said” reports—which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the Associated Press and on CBS News—serve the basic function of notifying the public of the existence of a dispute but fail to help voters arbitrate among the conflicting claims.

Even less usefully, other reporters and pundits have avoided discussion of the accuracy of the Obama campaign’s claims in favor of tactics-focused punditry. During a roundtable on Fox News Channel’s Special Report last week, for instance, New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny was asked about the dispute. He managed two vague sentences on the substance of the matter before quickly turning to tactics, saying that the “interesting point” was the Romney campaign’s “clumsy response.” Likewise, when asked for comment on ABC’s This Week, commentator George Will said “the question is not whether the outsourcing is valid, is good economics, the question is, does it make Mr. Romney less than approachable and friendly?”

Finally, some outlets have avoided the issue altogether. Despite the ads that are running here, the dispute over Romney’s record at Bain has received little coverage in state media aside from a brief item in the Boston Globe (which is widely read in southern NH) and two Associated Press wire stories (here and here) since Obama’s June 26th speech in Durham.

What would a better approach look like? First, journalists should not mince words in describing the Obama campaign’s misleading claims. Consider how this lede from this report in Britain’s left-leaning Guardian newspaper immediately calls the claim into question—an approach that is more likely to avoid reinforcing misperceptions about Romney than most of the reporting we’ve seen thus far in the US:

Barack Obama has used a tour of the swing state of Ohio to renew his claim that his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, led the outsourcing of American jobs to India and China.

The assertion is controversial and has been largely discredited by independent fact-checking groups.

Likewise, the Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs employed a scathing lede in her excellent report on “Believes,” which also included detailed evidence and links to help readers understand the dispute:

Independent fact checkers have debunked President Barack Obama’s previous allegations that Mitt Romney was responsible for outsourcing jobs, but the Democrat will soon air his third TV ad in Iowa going after his Republican rival on the same claim.

Of course, many news outlets may not want to rely on’s reporting of this story despite the site’s excellent (albeit imperfect) track record. It’s of course possible that Jackson and Kiely’s conclusions are not the right ones or that new facts will emerge if further inquiries are made. In that case, however, journalists need to do the hard work of re-reporting the story themselves rather than simply treating the facts as a matter of dispute or ignoring them altogether.

Beyond these specific charges, journalists need to figure out how to acknowledge the complexity of the outsourcing issue while summarizing Romney’s history at Bain in an accessible and accurate manner for readers. It’s true, as the AP’s Beth Fouhy put it in an ad watch of “Believe,” that “Bain did invest in businesses that moved jobs overseas to cut costs—a trend that began in the 1990s and which many US companies followed.” Voters have every right to know this and to form their own opinion about Bain’s role in the transformation of American business practices during this period. But as showed, the specific cases cited by the Obama campaign largely concern actions taken by those companies during a period in which Romney was not making operational decisions at the firm. Journalists must be clear about this distinction.

Romney’s history at Bain will come up again and again during this campaign. It’s time for reporters and editors to pioneer a better approach to covering this issue.

Staff writer Greg Marx contributed to this report.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan.