“Even about your Lie of the Year there is doubt.”

Jan.
27
Romney’s chief strategist Stu Stevens is trying to re-litigate a campaign ad suggesting that Jeep was shipping factory jobs to China. Why? I speculate.

“Lie of the Year,” people in the establishment press called it. As bad as it gets.

To which professional strategist Stu Stevens, head thinker for the Romney campaign in 2012, says: Nonsense, gentleman, our work on this ad was pristine. A model of accuracy, upholding a standard in verification beyond what is normally seen in politics.

Surreal exchange, right? But it happened the other day, as I will soon explain.

But first, a brief check-in with common sense.

1. Standard deviation from the verifiable fact

To some extent all political campaigns are run against reality. No mystery lies about it. There is a tendency to portray the opponent as the embodiment of everything wrong in the country. There is a tendency to portray your own candidate as right about everything, and a great husband and father or wife and mother to boot. There is a thing called confirmation bias. We may safely posit a kind of standard deviation from the verifiable fact that is part of the messy carnival of politics. It is juvenile to make too much of it, or to get worked up about its appearance on one side of the ledger, while minimizing or ignoring its solid presence on the other.

However, it can also happen, and here we drift out of “common sense” and into a political argument with consequences for press treatment… It can also happen that a political party works itself into a position where it has to run against reality in a more serious way, beyond some standard range of distortion. Because, for example, a substantial portion of its base is committed to propositions that aren’t so, like: Obama is for sure a socialist and probably a Muslim. Or: what unites the various factions is thinning, and so a demonized other and paranoid charges serve as the “glue” keeping parts of the coalition together. Non-standard deviation from verifiable facts becomes normal politics for the party in such a weakened state. Wilder charges must be made for reasons internal to the party’s malfunctioning state of denial.

2. Agreed upon untruths.

For this thesis (in which I join) Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s April 27, 2012 Op Ed in the Washington Post is the standard text. Part of the reason for that is Mann of the Brookings Institution and Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute are establishment figures par excellence, think tank centrists and students of How Washington Works who for that reason have been among the most quoted men in political journalism over the span of their influence. So when they say it, the meaning is somewhat different:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

One of the flash points during the campaign–and one I wrote about–was the tension between Romney aides doing what it takes to win and fact-checkers in the press, who had to cope with distortions that sometimes went beyond the normal range. These tensions led to the now famous statement by Romney pollster Neil Newhouse: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

That was a true statement. If they had to bend more facts beyond the sort of breaking point that establishment journalists had set up, it was not because they were professional liars or more mendacious than your average campaign Joe, but because political fictions — agreed-upon untruths — were doing more of the work in holding the Republican Party together, even though the Democrats and the Obama campaign relied on distortions too, sometimes outrageously so. (A list of the ones that concerned me, written during the campaign.)

That’s what Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann were trying to try say to the sober-minded political professionals they wanted to reach. It’s not you, Stu: your party has become an outlier. Of course Stuart Stevens didn’t want to hear that. He didn’t believe it, and never accepted it.

3. Re-litigating the Lie of the Year.

The campaign has been over for almost three months. Here and there, the Republican Party has started the confrontation with its ruling fictions that it could not have afforded during the struggle to get Romney elected. But for at least one of the guys who ran the Romney campaign, the tourniquet of denial has tightened since the election returns came in.

Witness the letter Stevens recently sent to the Washington Post fact checker column, asking to re-litigate a Romney campaign ad that had suggested, using weasel wording, that Jeep was shipping American jobs to China. (Romney said this on the campaign trail too: “Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China.”) Stevens thinks that new facts announced recently show that the original ad was true. “I would hope that you would take another look at this and stress test it for accuracy away from the heat of a campaign,” he wrote to the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler.

Kessler agreed. He took another look and re-awarded the ad Four Pinnocchios, the highest level of mendacity the Post system registers. Keep in mind: this is the same ad that won Politifact’s Lie of the Year award. The Politifact researchers noted that not only did Romney make the false claim himself, and then work it into an ad, but the campaign then “stood by the claim, even as the media and the public expressed collective outrage against something so obviously false.” (The Weekly Standard’s take: a pathetic case of liberal bias; the ad is true.)

But it gets even more strange. For Stu Stevens isn’t saying, “Oh come on, fact checkers, it was bad, but it wasn’t that bad.” He’s not trying to make an outrageously false claim seem routine– within the standard deviation for campaign rhetoric. No, he’s upholding the “Jeep shipping jobs to China” statement as exceptionally well-founded, a kind of model for people in his business. “I believe that the ad and Romney’s statement were completely accurate, unusually so by any standards,” he wrote to Kessler. Thus we have:

Lie of the year!

(Folds arms.) “Unusually accurate.”

We double checked. Still a total lie.

(Stamps foot) “I shall not hear of it!”

Why is this a conversation that Stuart Stevens wants to have? He’s initiating these events, after all. For what reason? Is there even a strategy here?

4. Both sides do it most of the time.

It’s worth nothing that Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact checker, and Michael Scherer of Time magazine, along with others who do fact checking or cover politics full time, are convinced that it’s simply too hard to say which side is distorting the facts more in a hard fought campaign. Both sides do it most of the time, they say. People tend to see mendacity in the other guy and forgive their own side’s BS, as Scherer explained at some length in Time. This is from Scherer’s Fact Checking and the False Equivalence Dilemma:

Kessler at the Washington Post has what he calls the Pinocchio tracker, which gives you the average number of Pinocchio’s for a given politician for the statements he has reviewed. Obama gets an average of 2.04 Pinocchios out of 4, while Romney gets an average of 2.35 Pinocchios out of 4. Romney has had 10 statements that received the maximum [number of] Pinocchios, compared to six statements for Obama that received the maximum. Does this mean anything? According to Kessler, not really.

Kessler has repeatedly said that he thinks all politicians “will twist or spin information if they believe it will advance their political interests.” To him that’s the right starting point. He has “a both sides do it” thesis, born of experience, and unfriendly to… The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. Stevens should be happy with Kessler, who is willing to slap Four Pinocchios on a particularly bad ad but usually resists conclusions like “The GOP is a party unmoved by conventional understanding of facts.”

5. Embrace asymmetry, avoid distortion.

Look at Mann and Ornstein’s op-ed, again:

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

After the campaign they assessed the news media’s performance in meeting this challenge.

“The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth,” said Mann, who has spent nearly three decades as a congressional scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution.

Mann and Ornstein had this advice for the press: “Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?”

Embrace asymmetry, in other words. That’s the way to avoid distortion.

6. Danger, journalists

Here I speculate: In his attempt to re-litigate a campaign ad that everyone else had nearly forgotten about, Stu Stevens is fighting Mann and Ornstein’s advice to the press, which comes from a key part of the Washington establishment. He has some advice of his own:

Danger, press corps. Don’t switch out of your symmetry-making machinery just yet. And don’t be so quick to declare “unbalanced phenomenon” conditions. For there is doubt. Even about your Lie of the Year, Four Pinocchios and all that– there is doubt. My advice: do seek professional safety. You are risking a lot when you try to declare: Which politician is telling the truth?

“Fierce arguments still rage over…” That’s the sentence you should bet on if you care about being right and avoiding distortion. Allow me to demonstrate…

And thus we have Stuart’s fierce argument, raging at a kind of consensus verdict in the political press about the mendacity of the Jeep ad.

“A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality,” Mann and Ornstein had advised the press. Along with: “The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth.”

“Even about your Lie of the Year there is doubt. So don’t try anything.” That’s what I hear Stuart Stevens saying back.

19 Comments

  1. Terry Heaton says:

    Nice piece, Jay. Two things. One, this nicely demonstrates how the ruse of objectivity has been used by smart people to help us paint ourselves into a corner. Two, we should simply agree that there’s a difference between lying and being full of shit, the former being an unacceptable act while the latter is a forgivable state of being.

  2. Dean Wright says:

    Well said, Jay.

    Here’s a standard journalists might follow: Write or broadcast what our reporting and observations tell us is true.

    As I look out my window, I see that it is cloudy and threatening to rain. That is what I will report. It is not necessary to quote an outlier who insists the sun is shining, no matter how powerful he is or how loud he bellows his opinion.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Thanks, Dean. I think there is widespread agreement on “Write or broadcast what our reporting and observations tell us is true.”

      The hard part is: … and we haven’t really been willing to do that, because we allowed our obsession with “both sides” reasoning, our desire to be in the middle between extremes, and our squeamishness about making sharp judgments get in the way of that simple duty to report what our observations tell is is true, whether it makes for a symmetrical portrait or not.

      • Dean Wright says:

        Yes. Many journalists have essentially said, We are unable, through our reporting and observations, to determine what is true and what is not.

        • Procopius says:

          I don’t think the blame for this state of affairs is being allocated to the right people. What we see is not what the reporters report. What we see is what the publishers/owners of the media direct their employees, the editors, to allow to be published. There was some discussion of this (not nearly enough, in my opinion) during the Vietnam War. An especially egregious example was Henry Luce and Time Magazine. The reporters in Vietnam were writing stories accurately describing the burning of villages, the “tiger cages” for political opponents, the oppression of buddhist monks. The magazine was mostly printing stories from the Pentagon. Luce, the child of missionaries in China, was determined to use his magazine to fignt Communism. He probably honestly believed his friends, high ranking Pentagon and White House officials, knew the true situation better than the reporters in Vietnam because they had access to classified information the reporters did not. In any case all the major media were doing the same thing, ignoring the stories from witnesses, their reporters on the ground, in favor of the establishment version of the truth. Why should the current corporate owners of the media (and now there are so few of them) be any different?

  3. In order for the “both sides are equally right” reasoning to fall away, there needs to be an equally effective mode of reasoning that can deflect blame. At least with accepting the arguments from both sides equally, the reporter can deflect blame that they are biased to one side or the other. Being equal to both sides is very easy to measure. Just look at the number of words for the quotes from both sides. If my response to a charge of bias is that I am in pursuit of the truth and both sides are not equally truthful is much harder to prove.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      This is an important point. As I explained in my post on “He said, she said” journalism from a few years ago, the utility of all these “both sides” devices has never been that they capture so much truth, or accurately reflect what’s going on in politics. Rather, they provide political journalists with refuge, or as Steve puts it, “a mode of reasoning that can deflect blame.”

      See:

      http://archive.pressthink.org/2009/04/12/hesaid_shesaid.html

      …He said, she said is not so much a truth-telling strategy as refuge-seeking behavior that fits well into newsroom production demands. “Taking a pass” on the tougher calls (like who’s blowing more smoke) is economical. It’s seen as risk-reduction, as well, because the account declines to explicitly endorse or actively mistrust any claim that is made in the account. Isn’t it safer to report, “Rumsfeld said…,” letting Democrats in Congress howl at him (and report that) than it would be to report, “Rumsfeld said, erroneously…” and try to debunk the claim yourself? The first strategy doesn’t put your own authority at risk, the second does…

      • So we agree that the reason for “balance” is to deflect blame. The real question is what can replace “balance” that journalists now rely on? I don’t think that giving journalists a shot of courage will work either. What is needed is an alternative mode of operating that allows the cowardly journalist to either have more courage (because they have more support behind them) or a strategy to survive criticism while in search of the truth.

  4. Allowing the tax break increase imposed by the Bush administration to expire has decreased the advantage afforded by the break. It has not ended it. The time that it took to win a small correction for the middle class shows that the correction is not complete. Neither does it count as something that has stopped the human rights violations documented by the NDAA.

    Democracy favors that which is right about centrism. The success of right wing extremism distorted the sense of center. When the right and left sides of center have been pushed so far to the right that the poor are being pushed out the door of society, democracy doesn’t represent the people. It only represents the elitists who have been paying to control government outcomes. Decreasing the tax break given to the wealthiest provides a measure for increasing representation for the people.

  5. George Lowry says:

    Stu appears to be saying that if a statement is 98% BS, it still falls within the realm of verifiable fact.

    As usual, Krugman breaks it down for us hoi polloi:
    Krugman: ‘Right-Wing Intellectuals And Politicians Live In A Bubble’

    http://tinyurl.com/axd42gu

  6. […] checkers to revisit the Romney campaign’s epic Jeep-to-China falsehood. But why? Jay Rosen posits that it’s rooted in the inability of Republicans to come to terms with just how much of… to news orgs unwilling to shed the illusion that the party’s dishonesty is just business as […]

    • Jay Rosen says:

      I like the way Greg Sargent of the Washington Post summarized my perspective. Better than I did!

      “As you may recall, top Romney strategist isasking the fact checkers to revisit the Romney campaign’s epic Jeep-to-China falsehood. But why? Jay Rosen posits that it’s rooted in the inability of Republicans to come to terms with just how much of an outlier the GOP has become, something that continues to pose a dilemma to news orgs unwilling to shed the illusion that the party’s dishonesty is just business as usual.”

  7. Tim says:

    Keep in mind that Jay wanted last year’s “Lie of the Year” to be categorized as moral depravity by Democrats but not an actual lie.

    Speculating on Steven’s intent as a way to push a favorite partisan theory is punditry at best.

  8. abigail beecher says:

    Gee,why is Jay relitigating the relitigating of the guy who lost the POTUS election?

    Well, he wouldn’t want to focus on the guy who actually WON would he? I mean, why would Jay focus on the guy who has real power rather than the guy who doesn’t?

    Wouldn’t be prudent. Easier to be the bully kicking sand in the face of the powerless rather than challenge the powerful.

    Which is where “journalism” is these days.

    Isn’t it Jay?

    • Your attempt to change the subject is inept, to say the least.
      Jay set out to address the issue that the Romney campaign spokesperson is still trying to retrospectively change the media assessment of BS (at the least) on claims made by his campaign (aka The Guy Who Lost). He has no obligation to write about the achievements of the POTUS. If you want to discuss the latter subject, write about it yourself.

  9. abigail beecher says:

    In a perfect world, all “journalists” would be like Steve Kroft.

    Right Jay?

  10. Abadmna says:

    ““Lie of the Year,” people in the establishment press called it. As bad as it gets.”

    I’ll get to this in a moment.

    First though maybe the lie of the year should not be a statement the the Washington Post called “technically correct” or according to politifact

    “The Romney campaign was crafty with its word choice, so campaign aides could claim to be speaking the literal truth, but the ad left a false impression that all Jeep production was being moved to China.”

    The literal truth.

    Both Kessler and politifact digress from the fact Chrysler will be producing at least some Jeeps in China to editorials on outsourcing. They find ,shockingly, the Romney campaign tried to interpret the facts in the worst possible light. Perhaps the Romney campaign could have been cut a little slack as suddenly after being hit for months on Bain and how bad outsourcing was, they find outsourcing is actually a good thing.

    One can see how claims like Bain capital, and by extension Romney was responsible for,a woman’s death by cancer or that Romney cheated on his taxes pale in comparison to this. Both by the way are both misleading and literally lies.

    Or perhaps the lie that the Benghazi attack originated from a mob incensed by an obscure video.
    This was literally a lie. The first ambassador killed,in over 40 years is part of the story. As well as three other murdered Americans. It directly informs on American foreign policy and the much ballyhooed Arab Spring.

    Still, literally correct but misleading building jeeps in China is as bad as it gets.

    Asymmetry?

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    I think the fact that it is actually true is not particularly relevant.

  12. […] NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who wrote a piece marveling at the Romney campaign’s once and ongoing disregard for the consensus of the […]