Dan Froomkin: How the Mainstream Press Bungled the Single Biggest Story of the 2012 Campaign
“I can’t recall a campaign where I’ve seen more lying going on — and it wasn’t symmetric,” said Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who’s been tracking Congress with Mann since 1978. Democrats were hardly innocent, he said, “but it seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top.”
Lies from Republicans generally and standardbearer Mitt Romney in particular weren’t limited to the occasional TV ads, either; the party’s most central campaign principles — that federal spending doesn’t create jobs, that reducing taxes on the rich could create jobs and lower the deficit — willfully disregarded the truth.
“It’s the great unreported big story of American politics,” Ornstein said.
“If voters are going to be able to hold accountable political figures, they’ve got to know what’s going on,” Ornstein said. “And if the story that you’re telling repeatedly is that they’re all to blame — they’re all equally to blame — then you’re really doing a disservice to voters, and not doing what journalism is supposed to do.”
Ornstein said the media’s failure led him to conclude: “If you want to use a strategy of ‘I’m just going to lie all the time’, when you have the false equivalence meme adopted by a mainstream press and the other side lies a quarter of the time, you get away with it.”
Ornstein and Mann’s big coming out took place in late April, when the Washington Post’s Outlook section published their essay “Admit it. The Republicans are worse”, adapted from their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, which went on sale a few days later.
Political journalists had no doubt heard similar arguments many times before, mostly from left wing bloggers. But this time the charge was coming from two of the most consistent purveyors of conventional wisdom in town, bipartisan to a fault.
And they were pretty harsh in their critique of the media. “Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views,” they wrote in the Post. “Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?”
Initially, at least, Mann and Ornstein weren’t completely ignored. “We had really good reporters call us and say: ‘You’re absolutely right’,” Mann said. “They told us they used this as the basis for conversations in the newsroom.”
But those conversations went nowhere, Mann said.
“Their editors and producers, who felt they were looking out for the economic wellbeing of their news organizations, were also concerned about their professional standing and vulnerability to charges of partisan bias,” Mann said.
So most reporters just kept on with business as usual.