Political Animal


December 10, 2012 5:15 PM The Big Story of 2012

By Ed Kilgore

Here’s quite a lede from Dan Froomkin at HuffPost:

Post-mortems of contemporary election coverage typically include regrets about horserace journalism, he-said-she-said stenography, and the lack of enlightening stories about the issues.
But according to longtime political observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, campaign coverage in 2012 was a particularly calamitous failure, almost entirely missing the single biggest story of the race: Namely, the radical right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party, both in terms of its agenda and its relationship to the truth.

I’m going to have to plead innocence on that charge. But Mann and Ornstein, of course, in interviews with Froomkin, are talking about our powerful friends in the MSM:

“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.
“I saw some journalists struggling to avoid the trap of balance and I knew they were struggling with it — and with their editors,” said Mann. “But in general, I think overall it was a pretty disappointing performance.”
“I can’t recall a campaign where I’ve seen more lying going on — and it wasn’t symmetric,” said Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who’s been tracking Congress with Mann since 1978. Democrats were hardly innocent, he said, “but it seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top.”
Lies from Republicans generally and standardbearer Mitt Romney in particular weren’t limited to the occasional TV ads, either; the party’s most central campaign principles — that federal spending doesn’t create jobs, that reducing taxes on the rich could create jobs and lower the deficit — willfully disregarded the truth.
“It’s the great unreported big story of American politics,” Ornstein said.

Unsurprisingly, notes Froomkin, Mann and Ornstein, who turned many heads with an April WaPo op-ed on asymmetrical polarization (adapted from a new book they published immediately afterwards), aren’t real popular sources for MSM reporters any more (and they use to be quote machines, with Ornstein in particular long reigning as the “most quoted person in Washington.”).

“It’s awkward. I can no longer be a source in a news story in the Wall Street Journal or the Times or the Post because people now think I’ve made the case for the Democrats and therefore I’ll have to be balanced with a Republican,” Mann said.
Neither Mann nor Ornstein have been guests on any of the main Sunday public affairs shows since their book came out. Nor has anyone else on those shows talked about the concerns they raised.

And no wonder, if you consider what the two former Mega-Pundits told Froomkin they would have to say to reporters and editors:

Here is what Mann would say: “First of all, I’d sympathize. I’d say I understand that you have the responsibility to use professional norms of accuracy and fairness and not let your own personal feelings get in the way.”
But, he would add: “You all have missed an incredibly important story in our politics that’s been developing over a period of time. You’ll slip it in here and there, you’ll bury it, but you really don’t confront it.”
Ornstein said his message would be this: “I understand your concerns about advertisers. I understand your concerns about being labeled as biased. But what are you there for? What’s the whole notion of a free press for if you’re not going to report without fear or favor and you’re not going to report what your reporters, after doing their due diligence, see as the truth?
“And if you don’t do that, then you can expect I think a growing drumbeat of criticism that you’re failing in your fundamental responsibility.
“Your job is to report the truth. And sometimes there are two sides to a story. Sometimes there are ten sides to a story. Sometimes there’s only one.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • T2 on December 10, 2012 5:41 PM:

    I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry. Ornstein is still laboring under the illusion that “Your job is to report the truth". This just isn't so, and the past campaign illustrated that in spades. Does he believe FOX is there "to report the truth"? Or any of the Major Networks? My observation was the opposite....that their "job" was to hide the truth.
    I mean, Ornstein proclaims the Republicans disregard for the truth to be "an incredibly important story" that it is "their job to report" but clearly the Networks did not do that. Because they did not 1) think it was their job or 2) simply didn't want to acknowledge the dirty facts. Their "fundamental responsibility" was not the truth - and that much is clear as can be. To paraphrase Fox Mulder, the Truth Was There.....it was ignored, on purpose. Was ignoring it the biggest story, or the collusion to hide it.

  • joe corso on December 10, 2012 5:45 PM:

    There's a fundamental catch-22 going on that has to be challenged. As Mann and Ornstein note, because they accuse (wtih evidence) The GOP of being extremist, they are automatically defined by the MSM as "partisan" and are no longer quotable as non-alligned observers but rather as partisan Democrats who must be balanced with Republicans for "fairness".

    The pathetic result is that it is impossible for any American -- even a leading Republican -- to call the GOP extremist without the MSM bringing on a GOP shill -- for balance -- to refute the charge.

    The Orwellaian consequence is that an objective reality -- GOP extremism -- becomes literally impossible to assert in the MSM. To assert it is to automatically define oneself as non-objective.

  • mmm on December 10, 2012 5:53 PM:

    How is this different from the wolf's perspective in the Three Little pigs story ("I was framed!")? Republicans have been unsuccessful in their attempt at creativity, and in the end, it's pretty sad and a hard sell.

  • jjm on December 10, 2012 5:58 PM:

    And I have YET to hear of a SINGLE LIE by any Democratic candidate during the 2012 campaign. The NYT tried to claim there was one, in an article on campaign mendacity, by citing an instance in which Obama said that Romney proposed lowering rates on the rich (which Romney did, but then took back) among a whole host of Romney lies.

  • c u n d gulag on December 10, 2012 6:05 PM:

    Our "Fourth Estate" makes me want to down a fifth of vodka every time I buy a newspaper (except for the GREAT Paul Krugman, of course), or turn on the TV o radio (with the exception of most MSNBC news shows, before 6am and after 9pm).

    When only a handful of corporations and individuals own almost every newspaper, magazine, and TV and radio station, what does anyone expect?

    Whoreporatists companies only pay Whore-espondants.

  • tcinaz on December 10, 2012 6:18 PM:

    I'd suspect the important takeaway from this report is the outcome of the election. Republicans lied egregiously and repeatedly. Democrats fudged a few facts. The MSM pushed a false equivalency meme. Bloggers informed on the facts. Voters chose Democrats. Sounds like a new system emerges and works. I stopped watching network news decades ago, haven't really trusted print media since before that. Yet, today I consider myself better informed than ever, even if it takes a bit more time.

  • Aground on December 10, 2012 7:08 PM:

    And now some of these same news organizations want to put this dreck behind a pay wall. Sure, I might read some of it for free just to see what the MSM is pushing, but I certainly won't pay for the privilege of being misinformed.

  • Inappropriate on December 10, 2012 7:30 PM:

    I think Froomkin was deemed too white-hot for the WaPo and had to move on, am I right?

  • beb on December 10, 2012 8:42 PM:

    The big story of 2012 for me was the ascertion that Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein were highly quotable pundits when I had never heard of them before their apotheosis.

  • James M on December 10, 2012 8:57 PM:

    @joe corso on December 10, 2012 5:45 PM:

    "The Orwellian consequence is that an objective reality -- GOP extremism -- becomes literally impossible to assert in the MSM. To assert it is to automatically define oneself as non-objective."

    What strikes me as really nuts is that this applies to verifiable facts as well. For example, a statement like, "Big corporations wield too much power." is certainly open to partisan interpretation. However, If I say, "Today is Tuesday", there is no room for interpretation. It either is or isn't Tuesday: no balance required.

    However, with the possible exception of the press criticism of the misleading auto ads, the MSM refused to challenge the Romney campaign and its surrogates even when they lied about verifiable actions, statements,or historical facts. If objective reality must be 'balanced', where do we go from here?

  • Anonymous on December 11, 2012 10:50 AM:

    Froomkin mentions in his HuffPo article that Ornstein and Mann never appeared on any of the Sunday morning gabfests (they did appear on Up with Chris Hayes).

    Which reminds me of when David Corn cited their article "Let's Just Say It: The Republicans are to blame" on ABC's This Week to push back a little on the discussion where all the conservative mouthpieces (Peggy Noonan in particular that day) were placing the blame for gridlock on Obama's failure to lead.

    When Corn mentioned the Republican's responsibility for gridlock Noonan chimes in with "Oh boo hoo, oh boo hoo".

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