Other reporters and commentators fell victim to the temptation to see Romney’s remarks as revealing his true character or beliefs. On Buzzfeed, a story by McKay Coppins was headlined, “Meet The Real—Conservative—Mitt Romney: Leaked videos show the candidate saying what he thinks.” In it, Coppins claims that “Romney seemed to give the closest thing to a candid description of his worldview.” Commentators who are unsympathetic to Romney echoed this claim, including Paul Krugman of the New York Times (“The Real Romney”), Bob Moser of The American Prospect (“The Real (Awful) Romney”), and Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (“this is the real Romney”). Jonathan Chait of The New Republic went furthest in portraying the video as some sort of revelation of the “authentic Romney”:

[T]he video exposes an authentic Romney as a far more sinister character than I had imagined. Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party. He believes that market incomes in the United States are a perfect reflection of merit. Far from seeing his own privileged upbringing as the private-school educated son of an auto executive-turned-governor as an obvious refutation of that belief, Romney cites his own life, preposterously, as a confirmation of it. (“I have inherited nothing. Everything I earned I earned the old fashioned way.”)

But as Gabriel Snyder and Philip Bump of Atlantic Wire have pointed out, we can’t know whether the video reveals Romney’s true beliefs any more than his stump speech. It’s at least as likely that Romney was crafting his message to his audience at the fundraiser just as much as he does at his public events. That’s what politicians do!

The underlying problem is the assumption that politicians have a true self that must somehow be revealed, which has infected coverage of Romney since the beginning of the campaign. Disclosure of a secret video is particularly appealing to people who hold this point of view since it seems to present an unvarnished look at what Romney says when he is not under the scrutiny of the media. In reality, however, people act differently in different contexts. In particular, politicians are likely to present a donor-friendly version of themselves and their views when it is in their strategic interest to do so. It’s useful to know what Romney says in private to donors, but we will never know whether those statements actually reflect his true beliefs. Journalists should resist the temptation to proclaim otherwise.

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