Brendan Nyhan’s post earlier this week about the lackluster coverage of President Obama’s “outsourcing” attack on Mitt Romney threw pointed darts across the media landscape, pricking outlets like the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, CBS News, and others for failing to truly examine the merits of charges. And when the Romney campaign and the Republican Party this week turned the “outsourcer” line back against Obama, much of the early coverage was similarly skin-deep. For example, reports by The Associated Press and CBS News noted that the Romney campaign cited a Washington Post article about liberal critics of Obama’s outsourcing record as evidence—but didn’t really examine how well the details in that article support Romney’s rhetoric.
Against that backdrop, we’re happy to be able to award a laurel to Michael Shear and Richard Oppel Jr. of The New York Times, who on Tuesday took a skeptical look at the outsourcing rhetoric coming from both campaigns, and found it often wanting. Regarding the Obama campaign’s attack, the Times reporters cited the work of FactCheck.org, which concluded that Obama and his allies are overstating Romney’s connection to outsourcing and offshoring at firms in which Bain Capital had invested.
On the other side of the aisle, the NYT focused not on Romney’s stump speech but on a new website set up by the Republican National Committee, which alleged that billions in stimulus money had been sent improperly overseas. Shear and Oppel called up the companies listed by the RNC and found—surprise!—that many of the claims “do not bear out as fact.”
(To be sure, federal money did go to companies with substantial overseas operations, and given the current political climate the particular companies in question have an incentive to describe their activities in the least-outsourcing-related way possible. But from a journalistic perspective, calling up the companies in question is a darn sight better than not calling them. And variations on the messages now surfacing have been previously questioned or debunked by factchecking groups—see here, here, here, and here.)
Shear and Oppel relay this news with an air of exasperation: called out by critics, they write, “the two candidates and their allies have all but stuck their fingers in their ears while continuing with their outsourcing attacks.” Which is true enough. But, as Nyhan has also written for CJR, the continued existence of misleading political statements is not evidence that factchecking doesn’t do some good. So no reason for discouragement—and more like this, please!
On a related note, Stephen Koff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer earns a laurel for his detailed look at Bain’s management of clothing retailer Stage Stores, published last Saturday. Stage is at the center of another Obama campaign attack on Romney’s business record, and Koff’s piece relies on SEC filings, court records, and interviews to piece together how much credit, or blame, Romney and Bain merit for Stage’s rapid expansion and subsequent bankruptcy.
The result is nuanced and ambiguous: Some readers may come away seeing Stage’s struggles as a result of the debt burden Bain foisted upon the company, while others may point to an adverse retailing environment and poor management decisions made after Bain sold its stake. But sometimes life is ambiguous. Koff has done the hard work here of sorting through a complicated situation, and his readers—whatever conclusions they draw—will be better-informed as a result.