Political Animal


December 05, 2011 10:30 AM Indifference to the truth

By Steve Benen

The controversy over Mitt Romney’s first television ad — the one that shamelessly wrenched a President Obama quote from context, misleading the public — has largely come and gone. But the Romney campaign’s blatant dishonesty left a bad taste in the political world’s mouth, made worse by the campaign’s failure to come up with a coherent defense.

By way of an explanation, a top Romney operative told the NYT that the manipulation of facts in campaign commercials is fine because ads are “propaganda” and “agitprop.” Referencing Democrats, the unnamed member of the Romney campaign added, “It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context … All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”

Greg Sargent wasn’t persuaded by this.

So here you have it: The Romney camp’s standard for accuracy and fairness seems to be that there is no need for any such standard, because all ads are by definition “manipulative” and “propaganda.”

But come on: You can make an assertion or depiction designed to persuade that also happens to be … true. […]

Between this new quote and their boast that the ad’s mangling of context was strategically brilliant because it won reams of media attention, it almost seems as if Romney advisers are trying to persuade political reporters and commentators to abandon any standards they might use to judge tactics and rhetoric throughout this campaign.

I suspect this is very much a part of the Romney campaign’s strategy. Ever since the ad generated pushback, a wide variety of officials on the Romney team — including the candidate himself — have all effectively said the same thing: people shouldn’t get so hung up on what is and isn’t true.

It gets back to something we discussed a couple of weeks ago. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a fascinating book several years ago called “On Bullshit,” drawing a distinction between b.s. and lies. The key difference is considering the truth irrelevant.

A liar makes false claims. A b.s. artist doesn’t much care what’s true or false, because facts are extraneous details that have no bearing on the person’s larger agenda. Liars care what’s true and deliberately say the opposite; b.s. artists are indifferent to what’s true and tend to see facts as inconveniences that simply get in the way.

In this case, the Republican campaign has been quite candid about it perspective on this, and has repeatedly said that the dishonest ad “worked” and was “effective” because it generated attention and an angry response.

So, Romney and his team lied. Then they got caught. Then they were pleased.

Truth, facts, evidence, reason, decency, fairness — for Romney and his team, none of this matters. It’s not that they’re considering whether to be honorable; they’ve convinced themselves that the question itself is irrelevant. Their messages to voters, after all, are “manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”

Usually, professionals are slightly embarrassed when they get caught lying, but the embarrassment is motivated by a sense of shame — the truth is good, being good is worthwhile, deliberately ignoring the truth is bad, and no one wants to be bad.

But there is no embarrassment when such moral niceties are thrown out the window.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • bcinaz on December 05, 2011 10:35 AM:

    It seems to me a complete indifference to whether a candidate cares about the truth, might be the basis for a political ad.

  • Betsy on December 05, 2011 10:37 AM:

    The current Republicans are the worst purveyors and adherents of the "no objective standards" thinking that they have decried in liberals.

  • stevio on December 05, 2011 10:37 AM:

    “It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context … All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”

    Tell that to the tobacco companies...

  • Laura on December 05, 2011 10:46 AM:

    Entirely in keeping with his 'work' at Bain, as well. Buying companies to plunder and destroy them while reassuring managers and workers that everything would be fine. He's a bullshit artist. And a con man extraordinaire.

  • DAY on December 05, 2011 10:48 AM:

    Mitt Romney had man on dog sex with the family pooch- on the roof of his car!
    -or something like that. . .

  • Grumpy on December 05, 2011 10:48 AM:

    Everyone claims to hate bias in the media. So why would anyone pay attention to advertising, which is nothing but bias?

  • iyoumeweus on December 05, 2011 10:55 AM:

    These are some of the best arguments as to why I support the taxing of advertisements.

  • Danp on December 05, 2011 10:57 AM:

    There's not much distance between Wall Street and Madison Ave, and there are a lot of whores along the way.

  • SteveT on December 05, 2011 10:58 AM:

    Who would Jesus lie to?

    Who would Jesus torture?

    Who would Jesus execute?

    Who would Jesus let die for lack of health insurance?

    Since it it the Republicans who bring Jesus into the political discussion at every opportunity, these questions are relevant.

  • Andy Olsen on December 05, 2011 10:59 AM:

    We used to have a relative in my family who was famous for his ability to bullshit. He would tell stories full of bullshit big and small. And he would have fun doing so, his audience would enjoy it know it's a bunch of bull. And someone would call him on it, which often ended in laughter.

    That was the equivalent of a fish story. (Really, they were often hunting stories).

    Now, however, bullshitting is getting a bad name. It's just lies and they want people to believe and repeat these lies. My relative seldom expected to be taken seriously. Romney and his cabal of liars demand we believe them and not challenge their myth.

    It's corrupt and it reflects a widely held practice and belief in the GOP. This is a weakness, if their opponents have the stones to use it (they should be safe).

  • Andy Olsen on December 05, 2011 11:02 AM:

    Steve T, I emphatically agree.

    Likewise, we should be asking the pious followers of Ayn Rand who simultanteously abnd loudly espouse a Christian faith how the is possible. Ayn Rand's creed is pretty much 180 degrees removed from that of Jesus Christ.

    Jesus Christ preached love, forgiveness and charity.

    Ayn Rand preached selfishness, greed and indifference to others.

    The thing is, the religious right doesn't even detect the conflict.

  • Buffalo Harold on December 05, 2011 11:04 AM:

    With Mitt Romney, a candidate devoid of character, ideas, ability, consistency of thought, and basic integrity, the only weapon his campaign handlers have to work with is outright deceit. They obviously cannot -- and don't dare to -- handle the truth.

  • T2 on December 05, 2011 11:12 AM:

    really, political ads are and have been shady. I think most people accept that....they believe the ads that support whomever they like, and hate the ads that go against their guy. The more crooked the politician, the more crooked their campaigns are. Therefore, many more crooked ads come from GOPers than Dems, as they are the more crooked Party.

  • qwerty on December 05, 2011 11:14 AM:

    people shouldn’t get so hung up on what is and isn’t true.

    That explains why, in the fantasy world the Republicans live in, shifting the wealth from the middle class to the super-rich is good for the country.

  • T-Rex on December 05, 2011 11:20 AM:

    Yes, political ads are manipulative, but there are a few laws on the books about truth in advertising. I'd like to see Romney advertise an elixer that he claims can cure cancer, quoting a line out of context from an FDA memo, and see what happens to him.

    The distinction between lying and b.s., however, casts an interesting new light on Jerry Falwell, who among his other enterprises marketed a scurrilous video that purported to expose Bill and Hillary Clinton as murderers. In the advertisement for the film, a figure photographed in silhouette said ominously that he was remaining anonymous because his life would be in danger if he revealed his identity. It turned out later that this mystery man was no Clinton insider, but Falwell's producer for the video. Falwell wasn't the least bit abashed about being busted for blatantly bearing false witness. He said they just filmed the ad that way because it was more dramatic. "Man of God" my arse, it's a pity there's no hell for him to burn in.

  • imjustsayin on December 05, 2011 11:24 AM:

    Ok, if this is the new Republican ad business model, then I'm ok with it as long as it is stated clearly at the bottom of the screen paraphrasing Senator Joh Kyl now famous quote: "Disclaimer: Whatever (any Republican candidate name) says is "not intended to be a factual statement."

  • jrosen on December 05, 2011 11:25 AM:

    Yes, T-Rex. One of the few times that this atheist really wished there were an after-life is when Falwell died. He took the Lord's name in vain with every breath he took.

  • Jinger on December 05, 2011 11:26 AM:

    Mitt has to answer one question every two years (and is expected be able to answer it at any time) in order to be in good standing with his faith: "Are you honest your dealings with your fellow men?"

    An enterprising reporter should ask that same question and follow up with examples where he appears be dishonest or to permit dishonesty in his name. The answer should be interesting, especially if contrasted with what his campaign says.

    Of course every politician could be asked this question, but Mitt uniquely risks publicly revealing his hypocrisy if he lies on this one. How many of the others have answered this question to clergy in the past two years?

  • windshouter on December 05, 2011 11:36 AM:

    I'm trying to decide when Mr. Romney would not lie if it were convenient. No offense, but virtually every statement of a politician is at least to some extent “propaganda” and “agitprop", even those that manage to be true. That's why the statements are so carefully vetted.

    The good part about this is this should wave a red flag in front of the press. If you plan to lie, you can't be candid about that (you need to lie). If you tell the truth, you announce you intend to make a fool of the press and I don't think that can go over well.

  • Anonymous on December 05, 2011 11:42 AM:

    It gets back to something we discussed a couple of weeks ago. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a fascinating book several years ago called “On Bullshit,” drawing a distinction between b.s. and lies. The key difference is considering the truth irrelevant.

    Frankfurt's work is popular because of the colorful scatological title, but its just another example of a popular writer redefining existing terms to invent a pop explanation for something that is already well understood. The real distinction here is between just-plain-liars and sociopaths.

  • DRF on December 05, 2011 11:51 AM:

    I'm not sure why it's necessary or even desirable to expend so many words pointing out the obvious: The Romney ad was completely dishonest and, therefore, was nothing more than a bald-faced lie.

    It wasn't "out of context" in the customary sense of editing out prior or subsequent explanations or qualifications; the ad took a piece of film purporting to show Obama as speaking for himself when he was actually quoting, with disapproval, his opponent's staffer's statement. The Romney ad dishonestly passed this off as Obama's own words.

    Let's not get too intellectual and agonize over the difference between lying and bullshit, etc. And we don't really need to spend a lot of time discussing the Romney staff's attempt to justify this, which are patently ridiculous. A lie is a lie, and Romney's refusal to retract or apologize is just as disgraceful, if not more so, than the fact that his campaign produced and ran the ad in the first place.

  • Catsy on December 05, 2011 11:55 AM:

    Your conclusion at the end is pretty much what defines the modern Republican party: they have figured out how to break the system. Many of the checks on outrageous abuses of power in our system rely on the deterrent effect of public shame. Enabled by the double standards in the media for Democrats and Republicans, the latter have figured out that if no one actually holds them accountable, they can get away just about anything they want.

    This won't change until there are consequences for this kind of behavior. And that won't happen until the media does its job or someone manages to break through the filter. I think once campaign season gets in full swing and Team Obama starts unloading their oppo research on the winner of the GOP clown car derby, it'll get a bit easier to get through that filter.

  • Daryl McCullough on December 05, 2011 12:17 PM:

    It never caught on, but during the Bush administration, I coined the term "truthslaughter" in analogy with "manslaughter" to mean reckless indifference to the truth.

  • Tom Dibble on December 05, 2011 12:22 PM:

    Romney is Mormon. The LDS faith teaches adamantly that honesty in all things is vital, that a person shouldn't even say something like "I swear that ..." because without the "swear" their statement should still be 100% true. I've seen whole Sunday Testimony meetings on the subject.

    I've been trying to square Romney's affinity for blatant untruths with his faith. I wonder if the hypocrisy of the LDS Church leadership around for example the Prop 8 campaign in California has been teaching a different lesson or if it is endemic in the fiber of the faith. I'm coming down on the side of both facts (the LDS leadership's moral relativity when it comes to bashing gays, and Romney's moral relativism when it comes to advancing his political career) are sibling artifacts of a common cause rather than one causing the other. The timelines just don't match up.

    Still, I think it is important to realize that Romney will, amongst the 6M-ish Americans who share his faith, be coming from an angle of presumed honesty. While those of us outside the LDS bubble think that this particular horse has been beaten to death, it will take a lot of convincing to change the minds of those inside the bubble. Did I mention that they are the dominant force in many large Western states, such as Utah (obviously), Nevada, Arizona, and California?

    Yes, California could swing Republican with an LDS candidate.

    But, not one who preaches the opposite of what the rank and file learn every week in their sunday school lessons.

  • jjm on December 05, 2011 12:23 PM:

    Paul Krugman in the NYT this morning has one of the most cogent 'readings' of Romney, his evasiveness and his two-facedness that I've ever read.

    His sheer unscrupulousness is now on display for all to see, not just the hapless victims of Bain Capital.

  • Gus on December 05, 2011 12:53 PM:

    People need to care a great deal whether or not the candidate has integrity. Lying indicates a big problem with integrity. There are other areas that are going to be deficient as well such as fairness, honesty, scruples, morals, buggery and thievery. The Boy Scouts would probably ask the guy to leave the troop. Isn't there something in the ten commandments about bearing false witness?

  • JEA on December 05, 2011 1:06 PM:

    Since Romney has such a low standard (and opinion of voters), I wonder that reporters didn't already ask how he'd react if the Obama campaign did the same thing to HIM???

  • Cha on December 05, 2011 2:09 PM:

    Romney is a sociopathic asshole who needs to confirm or deny whether he did have sex with that dog he strapped on the roof of his car.

  • Peter C on December 05, 2011 2:35 PM:

    The 1% MUST turn elections into the equivalent of 'picking a prom queen'; otherwise, they will lose their power. They really want the election to be about who has the best hair, who is a MILF, who looks rugged next to their pick-up and NOT about who represents my interests, who will govern effectively, who will protect all the people, who is most qualified. The 1% don't want the government to be effective. The 1% don't want government which protects the 99% through regulations. They want the Bush years, when government ignored regulations and gave away pallets of cash without even a receipt.

    They want 'popularity contests' with paperless voting and horse-race media coverage which endlessly 'explains' why the vote goes their way.

  • JM917 on December 06, 2011 6:38 PM:

    Interesting that the Romney camp used the word "agitprop" to describe and excuse this lying bullshit.

    Romney and his admen may not realize it, but the word "agitprop" is a Soviet neologism, straight out of the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist political lexicon. The term was standard practice on the far left between the 1920s and the 1940s.

    If Democrats today ever used this word, you can bet that Republicans would be screaming to high heaven about the wicked Marxist roots of every liberal idea.

    Nice that this blather is coming from pious champions of "American exceptionalism."

  • jerry on December 22, 2011 8:48 PM:

    Romney's campaign just gave away the Republican
    platform for the last 15 yrs. & it's the one thing
    Rom & Republicans have in common. All political
    parties lie but some are complusive. Like Fox "news"
    commentary, Republicans lie 80% more than their
    competition. They & their voters come from a culture of BS.
    As long as that DOD budget remains infinite they'll feel
    ENTITLED to it.