MICHIGAN — Over the weekend, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney began running a new 30-second ad in Ohio in which he argues that he, rather than President Barack Obama, will better serve the American auto industry—an effort, during the final days of the race, to put a new face on an issue that’s dogged his campaign since the primary. (A variation of the ad began airing on Ohio radio yesterday).
As the New York Times wrote yesterday:
With the race under most expected circumstances coming down to Ohio, and Ohio potentially coming down to perceptions of how the candidates view the auto industry, Mr. Romney has spent the last few days aggressively trying to undercut Mr. Obama’s auto bailout narrative.
While the ad in question didn’t air in Michigan, political journalists here—ground zero for the auto bailout—took swift notice. In a piece on Sunday, Todd Spangler, The Detroit Free Press’s Washington DC correspondent, right away provided key context missing in Romney’s ad. Here are Spangler’s second and third paragraphs:
In the ad, the Romney campaign also says that Jeep, now owned by Italian automaker Fiat after going through a structured bankruptcy in 2009, is going to make cars in China.
While true, that production would represent an expansion or return of jobs to China for Chrysler, not a transfer of North American jobs.
The loss of North American jobs is, as the New York Times put it yesterday, “the misleading impression” left by the ad. (Spangler could have made that point more emphatically, say, like this: “While true, that production would represent an expansion or return of jobs to China for Chrysler, not a transfer of North American jobs as the ad might lead viewers to conclude.”)
Spangler smartly drew attention to the significance of the ad playing in Ohio, which, after Michigan, “had more auto manufacturing jobs as of September than any other state.” He called the ad “risky,” as it follows closely on Romney erroneously telling a crowd in Defiance, Ohio, that he’d “seen a story…that one of the great manufacturers in this state, Jeep, now owned by Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China.” Spangler wrote: “Not only was the story wrong, Romney took criticism for not knowing better and repeating it without questioning it.” Spangler pointed to a Free Press story (with, happily, a link in the online version) about Chrysler adding a third shift and 1,100 jobs to Jeep production in Detroit, as well as Chrysler’s investment in a new Jeep plant in Toledo. The article appeared the same day as Romney’s Ohio speech.
The ad further attempts to boost Romney’s auto industry bona fides by citing endorsements for the candidate by former Chrysler head Lee Iococca and The Detroit News. Spangler pointed out that the Free Press endorsed Obama, and that “Iococca famously asked Congress for help for Chrysler in 1979-80 and repaid it ahead of schedule.” The irony here might’ve warranted a more explicit comparison with Romney’s position on the auto industry loans, but the context was welcome all the same.
The Detroit News, too, took a look Sunday at Romney’s Ohio ad in a piece written by David Shepardson. Unfortunately, the piece muddles as much (perhaps more, and certainly earlier along) than it clarifies. In Shepardson’s second paragraph, he repeats the ad’s narration: “Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China. Mitt Romney will fight for every American job.”
He follows up by writing that, “Chrysler previously built Jeeps in China—and the move would not be unusual. Ford Motor Co. builds Ford vehicles in China for Chinese buyers and General Motors Co. builds Buicks in China for local consumers.” Such context, however, sidesteps the fact that Chrysler is not “moving” jobs to China at all, but is, rather, expanding Jeep production both there and here in the US. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told Bloomberg Businessweek on Monday, with the ad, the Romney campaign is “inviting a false inference. It is literally accurate and inferentially false. We also call it ‘not the whole story.’” In a post published a day after the articles in the Detroit newspapers, FactCheck.org affirmed that it is “misleading to suggest that Chrysler’s decision to expand into China will cost US jobs—especially after the company has said it would have no impact on its US operations.”
In his News piece, Shepardson waits until the ninth paragraph to address this misleading implication, and then only via an Obama campaign spokesperson (thus suggesting that this is a matter of political opinion, rather than a fact that can, and has, been checked). It takes all the way to the sixteenth paragraph before the story says that Chrysler is “flatly denying it has any plans to move Jeep output to China from the United States.” By this point, readers may well not know what, or whom, to believe.
In contrast, National Journal also analyzed the Romney ad on Sunday, and gave its piece this crystal clear headline: “Romney ad wrongly implies Chrysler is sending US jobs to China.” Reporter Jill Lawrence followed with a strong, direct lede: “Republican nominee Mitt Romney is running a new TV ad that implies Chrysler is planning to move U.S. auto jobs to China, though that is not the case.” Lawrence later wrote that, especially following so closely after Romney’s Ohio speech, the ad “could lead viewers to conclude Chrysler was indeed going to shift Jeep production to China.” The Detroit newspapers made the same points, but the News in particular did it in a delayed fashion that made the story murky. (The News did better in a piece published yesterday—with the benefit of a strong, clear statement from Chrysler’s CEO—but, as National Journal demonstrated, that sort or work can and should be done the first time around).
For all that, the News on Sunday did point out many of the ad’s disjointed claims, including the same points the Free Press made, but adding, for example, that while the News endorsed Romney, its editorial specifically criticized Romney’s “wrong-headedness on the auto bailout.” Shephardson also had a nicely succinct way of narrating the political history of the bailouts, including the all-too-easily forgotten fact that they originated before President Obama took office.
Unlike the Detroit papers, the National Journal piece cited and linked to Romney’s famous 2008 New York Times op-ed, ”Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”, which, as Lawrence paraphrased, “said the companies should be required to rely on private capital until after the bankruptcy. But most analysts agree there was none available in the depths of the recession, and without the bailout the two companies would have likely died—possibly taking down with them the supply chain and Ford.” The mention here of the supply chain’s influence on the one member of the Big Three that didn’t take federal loans is a relief: when debating the wisdom of the bailouts, the ground-shaking effect that Chrysler and GM’s death would have had on the other major player in the US auto industry is often neglected by journalists.
When reporting on political ads, reporters have a tricky line to walk. They need to think not just in terms of providing additional information to counter or affirm political claims, but also in how the ordering of information contributes to the perception of what is both important and true. This means getting the critical perspective on—and context for—claims high up in their stories, and not repeating a misleading claim without an immediate clarification for readers. While follow-up stories, like the second News piece, are useful for providing readers with a comprehensive picture of what’s happening, the presidential election is in less than a week: facts shouldn’t be spread out over a series of days. Readers need them now.