Stenography and accountability
When a presidential candidate tells lies day after day, is it fair and proper for a political reporter to state unequivocally that the candidate is a liar?
This dilemma has long plagued the traveling press corps, because the traditional standards of objectivity don't permit such judgments. It's much safer for reporters to simply quote the remarks, like glorified stenographers, and then find someone on "the other side" to provide artificial balance. This is a great deal for the candidate, of course; he can continue to repeat the lies, knowing he will not be held fully accountable.
Which brings us to Mitt Romney (naturally), who keeps insisting - in his ads and on the stump, with no factual basis whatsoever - that President Obama intends to hand out welfare checks to shiftless slackers who don't wanna work. The truth, which can be found with the click of a mouse, is that Obama is as committed as ever to enforcing the federal welfare-to-work requirements; what's new is the policy tweak that gives the states more flexibility in how they would meet those requirements. Two Republican governors asked for that flexibility; Obama granted it. As I wrote in a newspaper column last Friday, the Obama memo explicitly said that the states need to demonstrate "more effective means of meeting the work goals."
Yet Romney, day after day, says that Obama killed the work goals. That's a lie. Here he was on Monday, talking to coal miners in Ohio: "I want you to know I heard something the other day that really surprised me . . . What I heard is that the president is taking the work requirement out of welfare. (Boos from the credulous crowd.) Yeah. We value work, our society which celebrates hard work, we look to a government to make it easier for jobs to be created and people to go to work. We do not look for a government that tries to find ways to provide for people who are not willing to work. And so I'm gonna put work back into welfare and make sure able-bodied people can get jobs."
Alec MacGillis, a senior editor at The New Republic magazine, witnessed this spectacle. Yesterday he wrote: "After the speech, several in the audience told me that their favorite part had been Romney's calling out Obama for weakening welfare work requirements. Yes, one of the more depressing parts of the job of being a political reporter is watching an audience fully absorb a blatant and knowing lie . . ."
"Romney just keeps using it, at stop after stop, in ad after ad. How can this be possible? Well, maybe because very few of my colleagues in the press seem all that troubled by it. Unless I've missed it, none of the national papers or networks or Buzzfeeders have done a comprehensive report on Romney's persistence in playing the welfare card. It's as if it was enough to have the fact-checkers offer their initial scolding, but after that, hey, anything goes. I saw no mention in dispatches yesterday of Romney's successful use of the welfare line . . ."
It's a real dilemma for the traveling reporters. If they were to flout the unwritten rules of traditional objectivity by calling out and documenting Romney's welfare lie each time he uses it, two problems would likely arise: editors wouldn't like it (they'd fear complaints from readers about "bias"); and the Romney staffers wouldn't like it (they'd retaliate by freezing out the offending reporters).
So Romney gets away with it - not just the factual inaccuracy, but the not-so-subliminal racial message about a black president who supposedly wants to hand out welfare checks to Those People. And sure enough, racists are hearing the message loud and clear. The other day, a neo-Confederate website approvingly quoted Romney's welfare lie, and said: "Mitt Romney is speaking to our people, promoting popular issues with subtle and not so subtle racial themes . . .Mitt Romney is a solid White guy with a large, very beautiful White family."
Yes, there are fact-checking organizations (such as factcheck.org), and they have skewered Romney for his welfare remarks, but they can't compete with a candidate who keeps repeating the lie. Heck, Romney has even dragooned his running mate into lying on his behalf. Paul Ryan last weekend at the Iowa State Fair: "President Barack Obama just passed a rule waiving those work requirements, saying no longer do states actually have to have work requirements if people are going to receive welfare."
But surely the traveling reporters can do more. If "lie" is too strong a word, then perhaps a more genteel sentence construction would work. Something like, "Today, Romney said again that Obama has eliminated the work requirement for welfare recipients, an assertion that is contradicted by the factual record." Anything would be better than the usual stenography.
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