Toledo Blade disappoints on Jeep-to-China claims

For Ohioans targeted by Romney’s misleading rhetoric, the paper confuses more than it clarifies

OHIO — As Toledo became ground zero in the presidential campaigns’ message war in recent days—over auto industry jobs, in general, and Jeep, in particular— The [Toledo] Blade, unfortunately, did not come through for readers.

While The Blade has covered the evolving story almost daily since last Thursday (the day that Romney said at an Ohio campaign stop that he’d “seen a story” that Jeep is moving all production to China which, in fact, wasn’t the story at all), that coverage has often done more to confuse readers (and repeat misleading claims) than to clarify.

For starters, the headline on the Blade’s October 26th story was, “Romney worries about Jeep going to China.” In fact, Romney was “worrie[d]” about something that Jeep’s parent company said is not happening (and said as much before Romney publicly expressed his worry). This obviously doesn’t come through in the Blade’s headline but also isn’t made entirely clear in the story itself.

Here is the lede of the Blade’s story, written by Tom Troy:

Mitt Romney attacked his opponent, President Obama, in this rural and manufacturing city, on education and trade, passing along a report that Chrysler might move all of its Jeep manufacturing to China, which the company has denied.

Readers now knew that Romney said one thing and Chrysler “denied” it. The he-said, she-said dynamic carried on, as readers learned in the fourth paragraph that “the Obama campaign said the story about Jeep was ‘totally debunked’.” Finally, in the fifth and sixth paragraphs, readers heard from Chrysler directly, explaining that “Jeep has no intention of shifting production…out of North America to China” but may add additional production in China for Chinese consumers. In other words, Romney’s “worries” were unfounded. On the plus side, the story did include, further along, some solid background on the auto industry, the auto bailout, and related campaign strategies.

The Blade’s report two days later, also by Troy, again missed opportunities to clarify for readers Romney’s evolving claims. The lede described as “disputed” Romney’s claim that all Jeep production will move to China. In fact, that claim was immediately refuted by Chrysler itself, not merely “disputed” by the Obama campaign. Readers are then told that “Mr. Romney today renewed the China claim in a new ad, but with a key tweak leaving out the word ‘all.’” And? Is Romney’s “tweaked” claim solid?

Readers don’t get a clue until eleven paragraphs later—after the ad is described and quoted—when Troy writes (emphasis mine): “Mr. Romney’s TV ad is a more accurate interpretation of a Bloomberg News report last week than what he said at a rally in Defiance Thursday.” So, the ad’s is “a more accurate interpretation” of a report than the initial totally wrong interpretation Romney presented last Thursday? What does that mean? Not very helpful for readers.

In the next paragraph, readers are told that “the Obama campaign attacked the ad as full of falsehoods,” and, six paragraphs later, that Chrysler described as “fantasies” Romney’s initial claim from last Thursday. But, about Romney’s “tweaked” claim, readers never get anything more than he-said, she-said—and that it is better than totally inaccurate. (Wait! There was a hidden clue for very careful online readers, in the name of the link to the story: “Romney-ignoring-false-production-to-China-issue.” Too bad that clear language was buried rather than in the actual story).

The Blade has, appropriately, continued this week to cover the story, as it hinges on issues key to its circulation area (auto jobs and which presidential candidate is “better,” as Romney’s TV ad put it, for the industry). Unfortunately, the paper continued to miss opportunities to provide clarity and context for readers.

For example, an October 30th (Block News Alliance) story tells readers, per the headline, that “Clinton, Biden call Jeep ad deceptive,” casting the matter as a partisan disagreement when, in fact, PolitiFact, the Washington Post, and Chrysler’s CEO, among others, have also called the ad misleading.

Two other Blade stories this week addressed the Obama campaign’s response (with its own TV ad) to Romney’s ad. The first story, from Monday, quoted Romney’s ad saying Chrysler “plans to return Jeep output to China,” but missed the chance to explain that this is not a shift of existing US jobs but an expansion of production in China for Chinese consumers. The short follow up Tuesday was largely a rehash of the previous story, with back-and-forth between the campaigns. Not particularly helpful. (Maybe some confused Blade readers also caught the “Pants on Fire” rating that PolitiFact gave to Romney’s ad and that ran in the Plain Dealer on Tuesday?)

One bright spot: yesterday, Blade business writer Tyrel Linkhorn wrote a clear account of how, in Linkhorn’s words, “Chrysler’s plans for expanding the Jeep brand got sucked into the political tornado whirling about the auto industry last week.” Linkhorn’s story, hooked to the email that Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne sent to employees on Tuesday reaffirming that the automaker is not moving US Jeep production to China, managed to avoid many of the pitfalls in earlier Blade coverage (including he said, she said framing and repetition of misleading claims without context and clarification). Also clear? Today’s Blade editorial decrying Romney’s “exercise in deception about auto-industry issues that is remarkable even by the standards of his campaign.”

The auto industry is clearly key to both candidates’ closing arguments in the all-important state of Ohio. Reporters here need to cut through—not contribute—to the confusion. Candidates may be betting against that, but readers are counting on it.

TC Brown contributed reporting to this post.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.