If Mitt Romney were running a “post-truth” campaign, would the political press report it?

Jul.
12
No, they would not. This falls under: too big to tell.

The Boston Globe reports: Mitt Romney stayed at Bain 3 years longer than he stated. ”Firm’s 2002 filings identify him as CEO, though he said he left in 1999.”

Fallout. Which fits well into the controversy of the day template, that reusable campaign good.

Un-templated: Suppose a major party candidate for president believed we were in a “post-truth” era and actually campaigned that way. Would political reporters in the mainstream press figure it out and tell us?

I say no. They would not tell us. Not in any clear way.

Instead, they would do what the Globe did here: try to nail the candidate on specific misstatements that can be documented. Which is good and necessary and difficult and contentious and honorable. Keep going, Boston Globe! And don’t forget to credit others who have done similar work.

What template is there for reporting on a strategy that incorporates…

1.) Key lesson of the climate change debate: you can run a political campaign against verifiable facts, and thereby weaken those facts in the public’s mind.

2.) The Palin-ator: you can invent stuff and stick with it when it is shown to be false because culture war politics feeds off the noise and friction when fictional claims are fact-checked by the mainstream media.

3.) David Frum’s observation from within the Republican tent: “Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.”

4.) Old-fashioned secrecy, as in: don’t release information, don’t explain.

I think there’s evidence that the Romney forces have figured much of this out. And so even though we have a political press that believes itself to be a savvy judge of campaign strategy, here is one that will probably go unnamed and un-described because (…and this may be the cleverest part) a post-truth campaign for president falls into the category of too big to tell.

Meaning: feels too partisan for the officially unaligned. Exposes the press to criticism in too clear a fashion. Messes with the “both sides do it”/we’re impartial narrative that political journalists have mastered: and deeply believe in. Romney will be fact checked, his campaign will push back from time to time, the fact checkers will argue among themselves, and the post-truth premise will sneak into common practice without penalty or recognition, even though there is nothing covert about it.

UPDATE: Aug. 5, 2012: What matters for the savvy class is not what’s true. What matter is what works, as I explain in my new post: Everything that’s wrong with political journalism is one Washington Post item.

(Image by fimoculous. Creative commons license.)

22 Comments

  1. That illustration looks a lot like an Apple iPad. It has both a screen and a bezel! Therefore, under Post-Mickey patent and copyright rules, you must stop using it or we will tell your mommy. We told Samsung’s mommy and she spanked him. Consider yourself warned!

  2. Kim says:

    How do we ‘keep our republic’ in the face of ‘too big to tell?’ Hopefully, our fourth estate will meet the challenge and find a way. Yet, the fourth estate did little to alleviate the fear created by the fictitious death panels. Maybe some lessons were learned?

  3. Jay Rosen says:

    I see no signs that “too big to tell” has even come on the radar screen of the press.

  4. Peter Levine says:

    Jay, I think you’re right about this moment in the campaign. For example, the Times today editorializes on its front page about how both campaigns are focused on the past instead of the present–a perfect illustration of the spurious neutrality stance that you’ve been criticizing so acutely. The story poses as news but is actually a superficial opinion piece that mainly positions the Times itself as a superior observer.

    But that’s also the kind of article that the Times is tempted to run when they don’t–yet–have their own original information about the substance of the story (in this case, Romney’s record at Bain). Isn’t it possible that the Times is meanwhile flooding the zone with reporters who are interviewing Bain alumni, reading SEC filings (and keeping up with TPM and HuffPost)? I wouldn’t be surprised to see a banner headline in the Times in a few days that presents the Bain story in a new and damaging way.

    Now, in our balkanized civil society, what the Times does may no longer matter much, since we live in our separate echo chambers. But that’s a different problem.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      “…Mainly positions the Times itself as a superior observer.”

      This get at the heart of the dynamic I am trying to tease out. One way to look at it is that a “hidden agenda” interferes with reporting some kinds of stories, only it’s not so hidden. The hidden agenda is not to aid or attack one “side” or the other; rather, it is to present the press itself as a superior observer, above politics and innocent of it.

      Here’s another post I wrote on it: The Quest for Innocence at the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism

      http://archive.pressthink.org/2010/02/21/innocence.html

      Also, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom on HBO is starting to grapple with some of this.

  5. Geoffrey F.X. O'Connell says:

    Jay, you have clearly articulated one of the self-inflicted wounds of today’s press. Unable to find a coherent moral center, too many reporters and editors have regressed to discrepancy-centric journalism, as though Moses came into the newsroom to announce that rather than 10 Commandments, there was really only one. I do hope Peter is right about NYT flooding the zone, because the referenced piece is an embarrassment.

  6. […] a frequent critic of journalists passing off the “view from nowhere” as objectivity, sums up the problem. Suppose a major party candidate for president believed we were in a “post-truth” era and […]

  7. Normally, this particular crisis — the political press’ failure to pluck up the courage to articulate a disqualifying flaw in a Presidential candidate — is obviated.

    Normally, the political press never has to face such a crisis since, normally, the opposing campaign, or its surrogates, is only too happy to spell out the flaw in question in all its excruciating detail. The political press can then report on the opposition attack, elaborate on it, assess its salience, and communicate it to voters.

    Thus Barack Obama, today, faces the disqualifying charge that he is no lover of America, that he fails to understand the functioning of a modern economy, that he is intellectually unable to grasp the demands of office. It requires no courage for the political press to articulate these criticisms. Attribution is its substitute.

    Yet the equally damning disqualifying charges suggested here by PressThink against Mitt Romney are not articulated: that Romney’s would by a post-modernist Presidency, indifferent to facts, to accountability, to verification, and to transparency.

    There is a preceding explanation for this silence. Before we accept PressThink’s theory that this characterization is Too Big To Tell and that the political press is institutionally Unable To Tell It, we have to answer why the Obama Campaign, or its surrogates, has not let the political press off the hook by running attributable attack ads against Romney attaching this Post-Truth label to him.

    Maybe such a line of attack would damage the attacker more than its target. Maybe it would confirm the culture-war stereotype that liberals know all about hifalutin’ concepts such as the post-modern, while conservatives are jus’ plain folks who spend so much time in the real world that they have no need for all that theorizing.

    In other words, the Post-Truth attack is a boomerang. The one who has the worldview to articulate it looks like the one who is susceptible to its taunt.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      That is correct, Andrew. If the opposition calls out the post-truth campaign through ads and speeches and interviews, it actually furthers the agenda of the post-truth-ers.

      Because the first thing that will happen is, well, it’s this. It already happened. Intend to post-truth it? Accuse the other guys of it first. Wait for their attack. Count on the audience to dismiss it as a schoolyard spat, or the journalists to beef up on their “both sides” bona fides by pointing out the tired symmetry of it all…

      This is Steve Benen at Maddow blog:

      http://maddowblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/07/13/12725671-chronicling-mitts-mendacity-vol-xxv

      After more than six months of marveling at Mitt Romney’s propensity for falsehoods, I have to admit it was unsettling to see his campaign’s new attack ad, launched yesterday. The spot accuses President Obama of making “untrue” claims about Romney shipping jobs overseas — Obama’s claims are actually quite credible — and concludes that the president is running a “dishonest campaign.”

      Think about that for a moment. The candidate whose entire campaign has been built on one falsehood after another, the candidate whose dishonesty is routinely characterized as “almost pathological,” the candidate whose near-constant lying puts him in a league of his own among modern politicians, is complaining that his rival is taking liberties with the facts.

      There’s dishonesty in politics, and then there’s meta-dishonesty in politics.

      So yeah: “The one who has the worldview to articulate it looks like the one who is susceptible to its taunt.”

      That is why I asked: would the press point it out?

  8. Clyde Smith says:

    Kind of like Reagan?

  9. […] If Mitt Romney were running a post-truth campaign, would the political press report it? by Jay Rosen […]

  10. Rosen —

    You make the distinction between “trying to nail the candidate on specific misstatements that can be documented” and characterizing the candidate as conducting a Post-Truth strategy.

    I read Benen at Maddow as living in a pre-post-modern universe in which there exists Truth and Untruth — but not Post-Truth. So he falls in the former category, despite your quote about “meta-dishonesty” that hints at the latter.

    Benen, like the Boston Globe, nails the candidate for saying things that are not so. PressThink postulates an altogether different rhetorical strategy for Mitt Romney: words, used in political speech, have no objective referent that can be tested for its truth value. The signifier has slid so far away from the signified that it is now unmoored entirely. He is running a Humpty Dumpty campaign.

    Just as Sergio Leone created a third ethical-philosophical category in Eli Wallach — “The Ugly” — that stands equidistant from Clint Eastwood’s “The Good” and Lee Van Cleef’s “The Bad,” so Post-Truth, in semantic philosophy, is as distant from Untruth as it is from Truth.

    Such ideas — nurtured in the departments of philosophy, linguistics, Lacanian psychoanalysis and English Literature of the left-leaning academy — do indeed lie outside of the discourse of the political press for characterizing a Presidential campaign’s strategy.

    But, I think, they are excluded for a different reason than the cowardice that you suspect. To quote your own words in a different context: “Journalism belongs to the vernacular, or it has no place in the world.” And the academic discourse of postmodernism lies outside the vernacular.

  11. CardinalRed says:

    That’s all well and good, but please explain how the press never has a problem with all the too big to tell Democrat issues making it to the airwaves like birth certificates, hair cuts and twitter penises?

    Hmmm ….the lies get told and the truth gets buried….always in favour of republicans….

    Explain how come no one will call romney a liar on teevee but Obama is kind of a dick?
    Explain that please. I think that’s the key to ending this sick media dance.

  12. CardinalRed says:

    I would also like to know how a media that is going to rake in “about a billion dollars” this “cycle” (key word) from super pacs and the like will ever work to compel them to provide disclosure and transparency about their donors?

  13. Tim says:

    If Jay Rosen ran a Post-Truth partisan post on Pressthink as part of a working-the-refs campaign, would the political press see it for what it is and question his academic/media critic credibility?

    No. It would not.

  14. […] If Mitt Romney were running a “post-truth” campaign, would the political press report it? » Pre… Jay, I think you're right about this moment in the campaign. For example, the Times today editorializes on its front page about how both campaigns are focused on the past instead of the present–a perf… […]

  15. Abadman says:

    It is good to see journalist is alive and well.

    Six days after your post and there is no there there. The times has look into this and found nothing. Past Bain managers, working for the Obama campaign have been interviewed and confirmed Romney’s story. No smoking gun. Washington Post, For Christ sakes, fact check, Romney outsourcing stories, four pinocchios. So does the bain attack fit into strategy # 2 and are you playing a part?

    Strategy # 1 uses a bad example. What verifiable facts are you talking about? Dr. Jones has admitted there has been no warming since 1998. That is a fact. There is no troposphere warming the initial “thumbprint” of global warming, also a fact. Mann’s hockey stick has been thoroughly discredited, a fact. The climategate E-mails a fact. Are we warmer than a century ago? Yes. Warmer than the mideveil warm period? Hard to say no real facts. Cause? Unknown. No facts. 3 time multiplier effect of carbon dioxide? Totally unproven. So I’m not sure what your facts are.

    Strategy # 3 does that include Greg Sargent of the post and his afinity for Think Progress Talking points?

    Secrecy? Where are Obama’s transcripts? LSAT scores? College thesis? small donor list from 2008? Transcripts from the Obamacare negotiations he said should be broadcast on C-span? Fast and furious documents?

    If Obama was running a “Post Truth” Presidency would the press report it?Should this not matter too?

    Looking back to an earlier post, people do not trust the press because it does not deserve trust.

    Your civic journalism necessitates not telling the whole story because many times the facts you are so fond of are not all on your side( see climate change). So you leave some out emphasize others, thIs is not an objectivity debate, but a truth telling one.

    The fact is that if the truth comes out that Romney was never active in Bain after he left in 1999, we will likely never see a post here about it. No analysis of how Obama used the press to slime Romney with false charges. Yet you remain a press critic.

  16. […] workers’ jobs and shipping them abroad.  New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen suggests the Romney camp is likely running a “post-truth” campaign. Pollsters say the attacks […]

  17. Mitch says:

    Ever notice how journalists covering the more trivial aspects of human activity are far less forginving of nonsense than those covering policy and politics? Watch ESPN sometime and try to imagine how the anchors on Sportscenter would react to a guest claiming that the University of Alaska football team is better qualified to play in the national championship than the University of Florida and USC combined. (Liz Cheney — Palin more qualified to be president than Obama and Biden combined). There’s zero doubt a statement like that (even though arguably an “opinion”) would rightly be ridiculed by any sports journalist with access to a television set or sports page. Moreover, anyone making such a claim would be dismissed by the sports journalist as a liar, a crackpot or someone with an agenda that is wholly inconsistent with the goal of enlightening the audience, and not taken seriously again.

    Likewise a guest arguing that Roger Goodell is anti-NFL or secretly wants to subvert the game of football based on the guest’s disagreement’s with particular policies championed by Goodell (“Obama’s a socialist” -every other knucklehead that shows up on the cable talk shows). Patent falsehoods of this kind are not tolerated on ESPN, why on CNN?

  18. […] This week’s lying was especially bad.  Why does the press not call him on it?  Because it’s too big to report.  His newest lie is that President Obama is ending welfare work […]

  19. Charles says:

    My co-blogger MEC has a better word for it: anti-truth. With post-truth, one expects lies and fact to be used with equal frequency, with complete indifference. But the modern GOP is the party of anti-truth: it’s when you take the truth, turn it inside out, and shake the pockets.

    The media, however, may be merely post-truth.