The Right's Jennifer Rubin Problem: A Case Study in Info Disadvantage

I could go on. Rubin insisted that Obama would have a huge problem with the Jewish vote, that hammering on Benghazi could be his undoing. But you get the idea. At every opportunity, Rubin wrote favorably about Romney and his campaign. And she didn't just get things wrong, sometimes absurdly, she always got them wrong in a way that redounded to Team Romney's benefit. If her goal was striving to inform her right-leaning audience with the truth, she was an abject failure.

Is there any other goal that wouldn't be discrediting?   

As I noted, I'd have hesitated, before now, to go on record speculating that her coverage was disingenuous, rather than attributable to the partisan zeal that has gripped plenty of basically honest pundits. But I nearly spit out my effete acai berry smoothie when I read her campaign post-mortem:

Until October it was the Perils of Pauline campaign. It moved in fits and starts on foreign policy. The message was rarely consistent from day to day. Gobs of ads were aired to no apparent effect. The convention speech was a huge missed opportunity. Romney made a lunge now and then in the direction of immigration reform and an alternative health-care plan without giving those topics the attention they deserved. The communications team was the worst of any presidential campaign I have ever seen -- slow and plodding, never able to capitalize on openings. It was hostile, indifferent and unhelpful to media, conservative and mainstream alike.

That "huge missed opportunity" of a convention speech was covered by Rubin in the Washington Post:

"Mitt Romney accepted the nomination of his party for president with a speech that showed he can rise to an occasion, and let us see a side of him that was compelling and heartbreaking ...When Romney arrived, dramatically walking through the hall, it was a reminder how determined some in the party had been not to like him. No more. He didn't need to toot his own horn. He certainly looked the presidential part. In confident and calm tones, he described the Obama presidency more in sorrow than in anger... He ended to rousing applause.

The speech was succinct and clear, providing a contrast to the president, about whom Romney said had no real plan to revive the economy. It was a mirror image of the speaker: well organized, sentimental, reasoned and optimistic. The irony is the Mitt Romney we've seen on the trail is not complicated or "weird" or lacking warmth or even out of touch. He is, like many men of his generation, somewhat reserved and in a cultural time warp. Tonight, he also showed some mettle and spine... Tonight he took a step in the right direction.

Now she tells us she thought it sucked at the time?

And that, for all the months she was acting as America's most reliable Romney sycophant, she actually thought his campaign was bumbling? Media Matters has more in the same vein. How can this be viewed as anything other than a Rush Limbaugh-style "I'm tired of carrying their water" moment? She didn't say it as brazenly as Limbaugh, but you can't compare her work during the campaign to her post-mortem without concluding that she deliberately misled her readers.

As my colleague James Fallows has just put it, "I can name you five mainstream columnists whose hearts are obviously with the Democrats, and five who are obviously with the Republicans. But I believe that what they're writing or saying reflects what they actually think. I don't know of another staff member of a mainstream news organization who has blithely admitted to telling the public things different from what the journalist actually thought, so as to boost the cause."

"Is the Post entirely comfortable with this?" he asks.

As do I.

In journalism, it doesn't get any more basic than write what you earnestly believe to be true, whether you're on the news desk or the opinion desk -- otherwise you owe your readers the disclosure, "Sometimes I'm going to mislead you in the fashion of a propagandist to sway the election."

At this point, I'm pretty jaded about the willingness of conservative media figures to disrespect the rank-and-file by lying to them, so I recovered quickly from Rubin's post-mortem. By the time I got to her other post-election item of note, I could only laugh at what Bill Clinton would colloquially call her brass.

Says Rubin:

...the Politico-ization of the media (superficial, contrived scandals and invented conflicts) has turned the political dialogue into an endless series of gotcha episodes devoid of substance and sterile in its obsession with horse-race politics and tactics. Devoid of substance and indifferent to policy, the coverage becomes nonstop score-keeping. Who wins? Who benefits? The questions "What should we do?" and "What happened?" get lost in the scramble for more clicks, more eyeballs. The horse-race politics and personality-driven journalism that eschew policy issues can't be eliminated. But we have to go beyond all of it and make decisions.

That involves meatier discussion by our pols and more serious coverage by the press. I fear we have so dummied down the debate in this country we're just not up to it.

I hope I'm wrong.

Careful with that "we," Ms. Rubin. Some of us haven't spent an entire campaign season breathlessly obsessing over every bit of horse race gossip that could be spun into good news for one side! Some of us haven't just seen much of our output proven wrong by real world events. If you were ordered to cover the campaign as you did, please do explain the arrangement. If you chose it yourself, please own it with a singular pronoun. You're not the only journalist to have behaved badly during Election 2012, but I'll be damned if you're going to lecture those members of the media who have been openly mocking your approach for months. 

For the conservative rank-and-file, this should be instructive. If I'd have told them three years ago that during the 2012 election cycle, they could have a staffer at the Washington Post who would invariably write favorably and sympathetically about the Republican nominee, they'd have celebrated. As it turned out, there were some unintended consequences that they suffered -- a dearth of fair-minded coverage during the primaries, a nominee marginally more prone to believing his own bullshit every time it was echoed back to him in the Washington Post, a rank-and-file given information so unreliable that they could no longer assess reality... and for what? A perch at a center-left newspaper doesn't help conservatives persuade anyone of anything if the person holding it is widely perceived as a disingenuous mouthpiece for her favored candidate. What happens is that conservatives themselves are increasingly the only ones who are misled.

Lest there be any confusion, I am not calling for Jennifer Rubin to be fired. I have a better idea, and if anyone writes angry letters to the Post's public editor, let this be the demand appended. What I want is for Rubin to go back through all her blog posts from this whole election cycle, and to append corrections, clarifications, and explanations for all the things she got wrong -- the factual errors, of course, but also anything that egregiously misled her readers. Along with it, she should write an apology to the conservative rank-and-file for failing to level with them, and a forthright item about how exactly she conceives of her editorial duties. I wonder if she'd be bewildered by the notion that she did anything wrong. I wonder if she behaved as her boss, Fred Hiatt, expected. Regardless, redemption and better journalism are but some soul-searching and a forthright apology away.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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