Should the Press Shame Presidential Candidates for Lying?

By Conor Friedersdorf

An experiment in covering campaign ads as if mendacity is noteworthy, dishonorable and wrong.

mitt romney handshake.jpg
Reuters

In a recent speech, President Obama said that if re-elected, he plans "to ask anybody making over $250,000 a year to go back to the tax rates they were paying under Bill Clinton, back when our economy created 23 million new jobs, the biggest budget surplus in history and everybody did well." Comparing the Clinton-era rates to the status quo, adopted under the Bush Administration, he concluded that "just like we've tried their plan, we tried our plan. And it worked."

To me, President Obama's frame is silly. He vastly overstates the importance of tax rates on income above $250,000 on overall economic health -- hearing his words, you'd think that the 39.6 percent rate was largely responsible for the Clinton-era boom, while the 35 percent Bush-era rate caused the financial crisis. His opponent ought to have responded by noting that it's fine to debate tax rates on high earners, but that anyone who implies that raising them will bring back boom times is likely to focus his economic agenda on a change that is vanishingly unlikely to result in sustained job creation.

How did Mitt Romney actually respond to the claim that we've tried both higher and lower rates on earners over $250,000 per year, and that the lower rates work better? He cut a campaign ad quoting Obama:
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That campaign ad deliberately misleads its audience.

It intentionally creates the impression that Barack Obama gave a speech wherein he spoke about his efforts to fight the recession and concluded, "It worked," even though the economy is still awful. 

But that isn't what happened at all.

As noted, it's Clinton-era tax rates on the rich, a policy not now in place, that Obama described as having worked, something the commercial's producers almost certainly knew and deliberately obscured.

The video editors and script writers who produced that advertisement, Romney for President, which paid for it, and the campaign staffers that 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. If any are parents they've done their children a disservice by giving them the impression that the ends justify the means, and insofar as their friends or acquaintances think there is something dishonorable about being in the profession of politics, it is because of actions like producing that commercial, an indelible part of their portfolio for which they should feel shame.

They are, of course, hardly unique in their mendacity. Throughout the profession, and especially at its highest levels, the near consensus is that misleading voters about the truth is an acceptable part of campaigning. It is often difficult to assess which of two candidates competing in a campaign is guilty of lying more egregiously through his words and the words of his or her surrogates. Certainly President Obama has lied on many occasions in his political career. I've yet to see a rigorous item arguing that either candidate has lied more in this campaign, though I've seen a lot of people make assertions about who has lied more based on their impressions.

I have no idea if my own impressions would stand up under scrutiny so I won't share them.

Dishonesty in politics is too big a subject to resolve in this item. What can be gleaned from it is that a particular Mitt Romney ad released recently is dishonest in a way that reflects poorly on the characters of those involved in it; that it's prudent to be very skeptical of any campaign advertisement that Romney produces; and that, whether he is presently running a campaign more or less dishonest than Romney, it is also prudent to be very skeptical of any campaign advertisement Team Obama produces. Both candidates, and people working for both of them, have been complicit in willfully misleading you in the past. To win, both campaigns would readily lie in the future.

Rather than try to assess which campaign is more dishonest, best to heavily discount all statements the candidates make about one another; seek out accurate information from more trustworthy sources; and use it to determine which candidate is most likely to govern best in your view. If enough people behaved that way the incentive for politicians to lie would be diminished.

So would the effect of lies, which will never entirely disappear.

*  *  *

Dishonest campaign ads are never covered in the way that I just wrote about the one from Team Romney. But I rather like the approach, and suspect that before long I'll be able to give Team Obama a similar treatment. It was inspired by press critic Jay Rosen and a weekend item he published titled, "Everything That's Wrong With Political Journalism In One Washington Post Item."

His longstanding complaint is that journalists care about the wrong things: "It's better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It's better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane," he argues. "Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong. Savviness, that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political, is in a sense their professional religion."

I tried to eschew "the cult of the savvy" as fully as possible when writing about the Romney ad, just to see the result. And while I don't think the Washington Post's treatment of the same commercial is quite so horrific as Rosen, Alec MacGillis, Michael Powell, and others suggest, I much prefer my experimental version, and not just because I'm biased in favor of my own approach.

I also have my own complaints about the Post item.

The most flawed part of it is this:

If you're a Democrat, Romney's ad will look wildly out of context and irresponsible. But if you're a Republican, you can make a credible case that the ad is completely justified. It goes like this: Obama was contrasting two different tax policies -- one being the Republican policy, and the other being the Democrats' policy. Obama was talking about how the Democrats' policy is better. But Democrats have been in the White House for four years now, and things are still bad. So obviously Democrats' policies -- on taxes or otherwise -- aren't that great.

That is not a credible case that the ad was justified. Democrats have been in the White House for four years. The economy does still suck. But Obama was talking about Democratic policy in place from 1993 to 2001 or 2003 when he said that "it works." Democratic policies on taxes or otherwise may in fact be bad. It is nevertheless unjustified to mislead people into thinking that Obama was describing current policy when he said "it works," the self-serving arguments of partisans be damned.

Here's another much-remarked upon passage from the Post item:

As with "You didn't build that," the Romney campaign's attacks on "It worked" will be criticized for being out-of-context, lowest-common-denominator politics. And as with "You didn't build that," "It worked" is going to ... well ... work. Here's why. There's a lot of controversy these days about campaign tactics and what crosses the line. Obama's team has been crying foul for two weeks now that "You didn't build that" has been taken badly out of context by Republicans.

The problem is, the gray area is just too gray. Fact-checkers are great (especially our Glenn Kessler), but as long as either side has an argument to justify its attacks, the history of politics dictates that it's all fair game. Romney's team is exploiting that fact -- to the credit of its political acumen, if not its strict adherence to accuracy. But they're not the only ones. The fact is that the Obama team's hands aren't quite clean when it comes to context, either, including its use of Romney's "I'm not concerned about the very poor" and "I like being able to fire people" quotes.

A couple of things are conflated in that passage. The legitimate point being made is one I'd phrase this way: deliberately mischaracterizing the ideas of an opponent is sometimes effective in politics, despite the fact that voters don't actually like to be misled. The thing is, it's  easy for political candidates and their handlers to obscure the fact that they are willfully misleading.

What grates about the same passage is the question begging line, "as long as either side has an argument to justify its attacks, the history of politics dictates that it's all fair game." It is, in fact, unfair game! The "history of politics" cannot "dictate" anything; and while political and journalistic elites may frequently take an "it's-all-fair-game" attitude toward lying politicians, the average American is not in fact uninterested in the distinction between a politician who has "an argument" and one who has an argument that is earnest and true.

Journalists ought to be especially interested in that distinction, for one of our jobs is helping the audience to evaluate the difference between attacks that are justified and attacks that are unjustified. The Post item proceeds as if the journalist's focus is something different -- that rather than assessing the truth of statements made during a campaign, he or she is charged with informing readers of the fact that lots of inaccurate things get said but a price is seldom paid for saying them.

Again, I hesitate to call any truth-telling illegitimate.

Instead, observe that as surely as the American news consumer knows that dogs sometimes bite men, he or she knows that politicians often lie, that they do so because they think it'll be effective, and that more often than not they get away with it. Let's focus on telling them something they don't know.

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