NEW HAMPSHIRE — Yesterday, Mother Jones released a secretly-recorded video of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney making the following comments at a May 17 fundraiser in Florida:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…
These are people who pay no income tax. 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect
And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
The story continued to receive widespread coverage this morning. Here in New Hampshire, which overlaps several media markets, it was covered on all the local or network morning shows in Boston and Burlington, Vermont, as well as on WMUR in Manchester, and by two major print outlets. So how did the media do in covering the story? Two key failures emerged—a failure to provide sufficient policy context in reporting and a presumption that the video revealed Romney’s true self.
Reporting on the video has focused on its potential political consequences for Romney, but these may be overstated. As the political scientist John Sides correctly noted last night, gaffes and impolitic statements like Romney’s rarely have significant effects on candidate support. (The Etch-a-Sketch metaphor used by a Romney advisor and President Obama’s statement that “the private sector is doing fine,” for instance, are already distant memories.)
What was missing from most coverage, however, was context on the factual claims that Romney made. For instance, the Boston Globe, which is widely read in southern New Hampshire, ran two stories on its website—one by Matt Viser that omitted any policy context and one by Glen Johnson which put Romney’s claim into context as follows:
Romney classified this 47 percent as those Americans who pay no federal income tax, though fact-checkers quickly noted that in roughly half of those cases, the people are senior citizens on fixed incomes, and the remainder in the group include students and members of the US military.
Unfortunately, only Viser’s story ran in the print edition of the Globe, depriving most of the paper’s readers of the context necessary to understand exactly who Romney was describing as “dependent upon government” in his statement. The Washington Post similarly published a process-oriented Philip Rucker story in print instead of a Rachel Weiner story that appeared earlier on the newspaper’s website. Laudably, however, the Concord Monitor reprinted Weiner’s Post story in its print edition instead of Rucker’s. Monitor readers therefore learned, per Weiner:
While it’s true that 47 percent of Americans do not pay federal income tax, most of those people pay payroll taxes. Those that pay neither are overwhelmingly elderly or making less than $20,000 a year, according to a Tax Policy Center analysis. Low income people also pay state and local taxes.
(The state’s largest newspaper—the New Hampshire Union Leader—did not cover the controversy in today’s paper.)