Paul Waldman, who has a doctorate from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, says he has watched every ad for president aired in a general election campaign since 1952. None, he says, has “lied more blatantly” than the Mitt Romney campaign ad accusing President Obama of gutting welfare work requirements.
The ad has sparked a media debate over how far reporters can go in calling out falsehoods without compromising their objectivity. And it underlines the now conventional belief that political partisans no longer believe just that they are entitled to their own opinions; they are entitled to their own facts.
The welfare ad, which has aired in battleground states, accuses Obama of signing waivers that gut work requirements. “Under Obama’s plan,” one version says, “you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They’d just send you your welfare check.”
Numerous reporters and fact-checking organizations have called the claim false. Politifact gave the ads a “pants on fire” rating on its Truth-O-Meter. The Washington Post Fact Checker awarded the ad four Pinocchios. Factcheck.org said the ad “was simply not true.” Even Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, called the ad “completely false.”
Conor Friedersdorf, a journalist so conservative that he believes politicians should tell the truth, said of a different dishonest Romney ad that those who created, paid for and approved it are “all complicit in willful dishonesty and manipulation. They transgressed against the truth. They broke one of the Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.’ If any are practicing Catholics they have a religious obligation to confess their sin through the sacrament of reconciliation.”
I know what you’re thinking: Don’t all politicians lie? Oh, you are so cynical.
Politicians obviously do fudge, manipulate and distort the truth. Republicans cried foul, for instance, when a political action committee supporting President Obama ran an ad about a worker who was laid off from a company taken over by Bain Capital, Mr. Romney’s former business. The worker lost his health insurance, and so did his wife, and when she subsequently got sick, she delayed going to a doctor and died of cancer. Mr. Romney, the ad alleged, was indifferent to her fate.
Critics noted that Mr. Romney was no longer at Bain Capital when the firing took place (although he was still listed in federal filings as president and chief executive officer) and that the worker’s wife had health insurance through her own job for several years after the layoff.
Even if the ad had been total fiction, it isn’t clear why Republicans took such offense. If you believe in the creative destruction of the marketplace, as Republicans do, then you accept that sometimes good people are going to lose their jobs. And if you believe that America has the best healthcare system in the world, as the Republican candidate for vice president said just last month, then you must be OK with a system in which people who lose their jobs also lose their health insurance. And if you believe in human nature, you believe that some people with no income and no insurance will delay getting help for medical problems as long as they can stand it.
And if you believe all of that, then you must believe that some of those people are going to wait too long and die because of it. And if you can’t live with that reality, you have no business being CEO of a large private equity company. Or, perhaps, president of the country.
Where the Obama campaign distorts, then tries to defend itself when distortions are pointed out, the Romney campaign appears to have taken a whole new tack. In response to the claims of fact checkers, a Romney pollster said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”
CNN’s Anderson Cooper tried to pin down Newt Gingrich on the welfare ads, essentially asking the same question eight times until Mr. Gingrich finally acknowledged, in Dr. Waldman’s words, that “although the Romney ad makes false claims, that's OK because Barack Obama and those who work for him are, in Newt's opinion, the kind of people who would gut work requirements if they could, so therefore it's OK to say that they are actually doing it, even though they aren't.”
While some journalists were praising Cooper for his tenacity, Mr. Gingrich was unfazed. In remarks to the Republican National Convention, he repeated the welfare ad’s claims without qualification.
What’s a journalist to do? Others besides Mr. Cooper are pushing back. A Los Angeles Times headline boldly called the welfare attack “inaccurate.” LA Times Bureau Chief David Lauter, who wrote the story beneath the headline, said, “If you’re confident about putting it in print, you should be confident enough to put it in the lede, and if you’re confident enough to put it in the lede, you should be confident enough to put it in the headline.”
I lifted that quote from Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University who writes the Pressthink blog. He has no answer to what journalists should do when politicians decide they are no longer accountable to the truth.
But he does say this about journalists who have weighed in on the issue: “all are realizing that mainstream political journalism offers no clear instructions to its people about what to do in this situation. The only ‘pack’ response available is to do nothing. But nothing isn’t working. So which side are you on? becomes unavoidable for people who thought there would never come a day when they had to choose sides.”