NEW HAMPSHIRE — In Sunday’s Boston Globe, reporter Michael Levenson warned of a coming “year of mudslinging.” This “rough, negative, and confusing advertising onslaught,” as Levenson calls it, is foreshadowed by recent ads run by Texas governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney which are “drawing howls of protest from Democrats but no apologies from the Republicans’ campaigns.”
In both cases, the evidence is compelling that the candidate ads were misleading. In Perry’s ad, he rips from context an Obama comment about the U.S. being “a little bit lazy” in trying to attract foreign investment and asks, “Can you believe that? That’s what our president thinks is wrong with America? That Americans are lazy?” Similarly, Romney repurposed a 2008 clip in which Obama quoted an advisor to John McCain in 2008 saying that “if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose” and blended it into an ad that suggests Obama was talking about the 2012 campaign.
How should reporters here in New Hampshire or at the national level cover these sorts of claims?
The first obligation of journalists is to the truth. As such, it is important that reporters set the record straight when ads like these are misleading their audience. The problem, however, is that many national reporters—and the state reporters who increasingly emulate them—have been sucked in by the cult of the savvy. For these journalists, producing meta-level analysis of the effectiveness of deception as a campaign tactic is more important than correcting the factual record for readers.
We saw this problem in coverage of both ads at the national level. For instance, The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis highlighted a Politico article that focused on how the “little bit lazy” phrase “is quickly becoming a focus of Republican campaigns.” The context of Obama’s statement is briefly acknowledged in the lede, but the authors write that “the context may not matter as much as the punch line.” The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza noted similar pathologies in Politico and Washington Post articles that focused on the strategic effectiveness of Romney’s ad rather than the truth value of its claims.
These sorts of stories play into the hands of campaign strategists who exploit the objectivity bias of the press, knowing that artificially balanced coverage of “controversial ads” and savvy analysis of their effectiveness will likely reinforce the ads’ messages. Indeed, Romney’s advisers were reportedly “pleased with the reaction” to the ad—one told the Boston Globe, “It’s all deliberate. It was all very intentional.” The Romney campaign was especially clever in this regard, including the context of the quote in its press release to preempt criticism of the ad as misleading and called on the media to provide that context to the public. The strategy recalls one of the Bush’s administration’s most effective tactics—the use of technically true but misleading claims that the media were reluctant to fact-check.
So how did reporters in New Hampshire do? I’ll focus on the Romney ad, which received far more coverage since it ran here during Obama’s visit to the state. Relative to the worst excesses of national coverage, the record is largely positive, but far more could be done. To its credit, the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, ran a Tribune Washington Bureau article which stated unequivocally that Romney’s ad “takes President Barack Obama’s words out of context” in the lede. Another prominent newspaper here, the Concord Monitor, laudably focused its initial story on the accuracy of the “we’re going to lose” clip in Romney’s ad. Though the headline—“Romney ads starts war of words with Obama”—was far too agnostic and controversy-focused, the Monitor’s Sarah Palermo noted that Romney’s campaign itself acknowledged the context of Obama’s statement and gave the last word to PolitiFact, which rated the ad “pants on fire.” Unfortunately, the Monitor’s second story focused more on the partisan debate over the ad. Likewise, the state’s leading television news source, WMUR, aired a segment by reporter Adam Sexton that attributed the view that the ad is misleading to a “Manchester alderman and Obama supporter.” And the Boston Globe, the leading newspaper in the southern part of the state, ran an initial story that does not clarify the misleading way in which the quote is presented, as well as two debate-focused followups.