united states project

Jumping the gun on the Romney ‘47%’ video

In early coverage, reporters overstated the meaning and impact of Romney's comments—and left out out key context
September 18, 2012

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 video attracted such extensive interest—including a long clip on NBC Nightly News—that Romney was forced to defend his comments in a rare evening press conference.

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.

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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.)

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.

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