By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Mitt Romney and the truth

Reporters don’t like to call politicians liars, even when they lie. We tend to use euphemisms — “at odds with the facts” being a favorite. But Mitt Romney is a liar — a flagrant repeat offender. Everyone knows it, and the press doesn’t quite know what to do about it.

Yesterday, Associated Press reporter Glen Johnson couldn’t take it anymore, interrupting Romney when he said, “I don’t have lobbyists running my campaign. I don’t have lobbyists that are tied to my —”

“That’s not true,” Johnson interjected. “Ron Kaufman’s a lobbyist.” Kaufman, a longtime Massachusetts politico and a lobbyist, has been heavily involved in Romney’s campaign.

If you watch the video, you’ll see that Romney tries to hang his argument on a technicality, saying that Kaufman isn’t “running” his campaign. But it is simply a matter of objective fact that Kaufman is “tied” to Romney’s campaign (as Romney started to say), and at a very high level.

I know Johnson a bit. He’s a professional. Perhaps he shouldn’t have leaped in quite as aggressively as he did yesterday, but how much of this garbage can he be expected to listen to? And do watch the video all the way to the end. You don’t want to miss Romney and his spokesman, Eric Ferhnstrom, trying to intimidate Johnson for doing his job.

Just two prominent other examples of Romney’s lies that you probably already know about:

  • At a televised debate in New Hampshire, John McCain complained that Romney had described his illegal-immigration proposal as “amnesty” in a television commercial. Romney’s response: “I don’t describe your plan as amnesty in my ad. I don’t call it amnesty.” Well, yes he did.
  • As David Bernstein recently revealed in the Boston Phoenix, Romney’s oft-repeated claim that his father, George Romney, had marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is not true. Some Romney defenders, including Jay Severin of WTKK (96.9 FM), continue to insist that Romney only meant it metaphorically. But the Romney campaign knew better, producing two eyewitnesses who claimed — falsely — that they had seen the elder Romney and King walking side by side in Grosse Pointe, Mich., in 1963. And this 1978 quote from the Mittster would seem to be beyond parsing: “My father and I marched with Martin Luther King Jr. through the streets of Detroit.”

Of course, the entire reason that Romney has suddenly reassumed his former persona as a skilled business executive is that Republicans found his late embrace of right-wing social issues to be utterly unbelievable, as the Globe’s Scot Lehigh notes today.

Even as a liberal media critic, I don’t like calling Romney a liar. But Romney is proving to be something of an ethical test for journalists. When a candidate lies repeatedly, as Romney has, should a journalist maintain objectivity and refrain from saying the obvious? Or does he or she have an ethical obligation to point out that the liar is lying again? I’d argue the latter.

Scott Allen Miller, who saved me the trouble of tracking down the video, weighs in usefully.

More lobbyists: Bernstein’s got ’em. (Via the Outraged Liberal.)

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42 Comments

  1. Peter Porcupine

    DK – a lesson for your students.If you think somebody is about to hang themselves, don’t interrupt! Don’t interject your heroic self into the story! And don’t sit on the floor like some troll under a bridge!We will never know what Romney was going to say after ‘tied to…’ because the overweening ego of this advocacy journalist got in the way.Mr. Fehrnstrom was right to chastise Johnson if he was pretending to be an actual, disinterested journalist covering the campaign. His remarks were only intimidating if he had shared his advocacy stance with the campaign, and apparently, he did not.And really – are you willing to say that referring to a National Committee Man as a ‘potted plant’ is professional? Or mere baiting?

  2. Suldog

    For what it’s worth, I also would argue the latter. I mean, if there is objective evidence of lying, then it’s only a matter of reporting, right? It is no longer a matter of maintaining objectivity.Perhaps you are only speaking to a reticence to jump on the liar during a press conference, rather than in what is written/reported afterwards? I’d also argue that jumping on the liar then and there is preferable and morally correct. If you’re mistaken, and it turns out to not be prevarication, then you’re giving the subject an opportunity to clear things up before damage is done in print or on-air.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    PP: Not that it makes a whole lot of difference, but Johnson did not call Kaufman a “potted plant.” He asked Romney if he were describing him as a potted plant, given Romney’s attempt to play down Kaufman’s role.Agreed that we would have had an even more egregious lie, on the record, if Johnson had let Romney finish his sentence. Heck, he might have said, “I don’t even know any lobbyists.”

  4. Jim

    Worked with Glen lifetimes ago. A thorough pro. First guy to jump up and head out when the police scanner barked, his beat or not, working another story on not. The kinda guy who’d write thank-you notes to the copy desk for improving his stuff. And as I recall, the guy who outed John Kerry’s cancer diagnosis before (grousing) presidential candidate Kerry really wanted it out – this in support of the notion that Glen’s not a partisan player but an aggressive reporter. It did seem a bit awkward to jump up and challenge the candidate publicly, rather than pointing out in print that he’s flat-out lying, but you’re right – how much of this can you swallow? And maybe it seems so odd because so little of the political press remembers what it’s like to report aggressively, and thus, we see so little of the good stuff these days.Jim

  5. Anonymous

    Why all the angst about a reporter aggressively confronting a politician during a press conference? I thought that’s what they were supposed to do.The press conference as a speech, followed by a few selected questions — who decided that is the model everyone must follow unto infinity?

  6. Watchdog

    I don’t care if Johnson has saved a dozen puppies from burning buildings, his conduct with Romney was outrageous and why journalists have a lousy reputation. Do good reporting, write it straight, and people will get it. Now he’s lost all credibility.If that was OK, where do you draw the line? Do you jump up in the middle of a council meeting if the mayor lies? Or do you just write the fact next to his statement in your story?Do you scream at the football coach during the game that he should have thrown, not run a draw, or do you write that his draw came up short by a yard and the team lost the game?There’s a difference between being a good, accurate, aggressive reporter and being rude and putting yourself in the middle of the story. We saw the difference at Staples.

  7. Anonymous

    Your peers had no trouble calling Al Gore a liar, but were loath to call any of Bush’s lies “lies”. I saw no thoughtful obsessing in 2000 about Gore. Why was Bush ignored and why are you dithering about an obvious serial liar?

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Watchdog: An important clarification — the video makes it look as though Johnson was interrupting a campaign event. In fact, it was a news conference. It wasn’t like interrupting the mayor in the middle of a council meeting. It was like interrupting the mayor while he’s talking to reporters. Big difference.

  9. morphemetales

    I must be missing something. A reporter didn’t let a politician use him to foist a lie on the public that would help that politician? And the reporter called him on it. Right? It may be unusual in this day and age, but it seems perilously close to…JOURNALISM! (For shame?)

  10. Jeff Inglis

    Dan – too many people are missing the real problem here – though you have pointed it out. Romney and his flack told a reporter that it wasn’t how to behave toward a candidate. The flack also said it was an “opinion” that a DC lobbyist was involved in the Romney campaign.That kind of thinking is dangerous, and a lot of PR people appear to have that kind of thinking. For that matter, some reporters act like they do, too.Many people appear to think the public should defer to people running for office and just believe whatever they say. We are in a world where people apparently want to debate what “facts” are and call the stuff they don’t like “opinion.” That’s not just garbage – it’s dangerous.Reporters need to stand up (or sit down, in this case) and challenge the statements of people seeking to hold public office (or those who already hold such offices).That. Is. Our. Job.

  11. another face at zanzibar

    Wow! Thanks, Dan. Great video. Johnson appeared to be just calling Romney on what he said. Maybe that requires being argumentative. But, hell, if “The Candidate” can’t stand up to that it makes an interesting point about “The Candidate,” eh?

  12. Anonymous

    I have no idea as the ideological leaning of the original poster – but if Romney is your best example of politicians difficulty with the truth you must not be watching the Democratic primary race.I don’t care for Romney and he shifting beliefs are one reason but he’s got nothing on Clinton or Edwards, and even Obama hides a lot of inconsistencies with his rosy rhetoric.

  13. Sean Roche

    A different takeaway from the video: what a grind. Romney’s a fibber. Johnson clearly blew up his own lede.But, man do those guys look burnt out. It’s a wonder that any of the three main players could keep a lid on it.And, hey, how ’bout that woman at the end offering that she thought that Johnson was “rude and ugly.” Classy.

  14. Anonymous

    You’ve got to call people on their lies to give them a chance to explain, particularly if you’re planning to document the discrepancies. It’s unfair and enethical not to. I’d let them finish hanging themselves before you jump in, though. It’s more fun.

  15. michael

    I could not disagree more. I have no love for Romney, none whatsoever, but I have to say that in the clip Romney is the one who looks like he’s in control of the situation and the reporter comes off looking like an obnoxious ass.He accuses Romney of having lobbyists running his campaign, Romney says no, so-and-so is running my campaign and the lobbyist in question is an unpaid adviser. ASKED AND ANSWERED. Move on.If the reporter had any brains, he would have rephrased the question, asking about what lobbyists are CONNECTED with the campaign and what is the nature of the connection, but he didn’t. He continued to hammer away at his “running the campaign” theme, which doesn’t take much to refute. Who’s running your campaign, Mitt? The person I say is running it is running it. You don’t believe me, here’s a copy of the org chart.A smart reporter would have found a way around Romney’s answer. This guy wasn’t too swuft.

  16. mike_b1

    Wow, Mitt really got his garments in a bunch, didn’t he? Welcome to the land of democracy and free press, Mittster.

  17. Rhea

    Johnson should be held up as a shining example of a journalist doing his job. Interrupting, asking grating questions, having people hate you — these are all part of the job description, if you’re doing it correctly. We’re too accustomed to creampuff journalism.

  18. Steve

    It seems to me that it’s the press corps’ obligation to vigorously engage a candidate at news conferences. You figure out where a candidate truly stands, and let him defend apparent divergences with the facts to his face. That’s objective, that’s responsible journalism, and I think really interesting reading.Steve LeVine, authorThe Oil and the Gloryhttp://www.oilandglory.com

  19. Eric Deggans

    Seems to me that the guy’s job is to ask tough questions and expose the lie in his stories, not spend so much time objecting emotionally during the press conference.I would have just asked “isn’t it true that joe blow is a high-level advisor who is a lobbyist?”When Romney says he’s not runniong the campaign, I would ask, “Isn’t that a distinction without a difference?”After all, isn’t that the job of reporters during a press conference? To ask incisive questions? and report on the responses?

  20. Anonymous

    Watchdog: “Do you jump up in the middle of a council meeting if the mayor lies?”Yes.If he does it repeatedly. If you’ve heard it repeated over and over again, yes. We’ve seen all too often in politics that lies, or at the very least misstatements, repeated time and again tend to gain traction as the truth eventually. You can write the counterargument only so many times before good journalism demands that you get more pointed with the question.This was a news conference, so that kind of give and take is acceptable.And I’d wager this wasn’t the first time reporters heard Romney make that characterization. Probably not the 10th time either. With a dozen speeches daily – rarely any variation in theme or message – it’s likely these guys have heard this repeated so many times that it rankled just a little too much.It’s not advocacy journalism to call out an official running for higher office on a fib. Eventually it becomes duty.

  21. Christopher

    wow, that’s some really weak evidence to outright label Romney a liar. Mccain is for amnesty no doubt and if you want to burn him over the King Jr statement I guess you want to do the same for Ms. Clinton and her lopsided view of him also.I guess you say the same about your parents being liars after you found out about santa and the easter bunny.

  22. Anonymous

    I worked with Glen Johnson years ago, too, and Jim is right on about Johnson’s tenaciousness and drive. In the case of Romney, Glen called him out when he should have called him out, in one of countless events where the press was expected to dutifully take notes, ask a few questions and let the candidate get on to the next gig. Reporters should ask tough questions and expect answers, just like readers and listeners should expect the candidates to be quizzed, cajoled and questioned. Glen might have done it this time in a less-than-delicate way, but the campaign isn’t tea time and now – not after the election – is the time to get answers to questions and to hold the candidates to their words. Good job, Glo-Jo. Keep it up. Eric, a former Herald reporter, has clearly gone over to the dark side many years ago and forgotten his past. There ain’t no turning back, Eric.

  23. Anonymous

    Ask any of the half-dozen or so serious candidates who are running with Mitt for the GOP nom. Do you think Romney is a prevaricator? It hasn’t been just the press that has been calling Mitt out?

  24. Dan Kennedy

    Christopher: You wrote of Hillary Clinton, “Maybe she’s been mistaken for a man too many times.” Very nice! Perhaps Chris Matthews will make you his co-anchor.Here’s a question for you. If Romney says McCain is for “amnesty,” then claims he never said it, doesn’t that make Romney a liar? Even if McCain is for “amnesty”?Ah, never mind.

  25. Aaron Read

    While I loathe Romney, and I agree with you in principle, Dan…if reporters truly called out every politician making a blatant lie (never mind the small ones) wouldn’t politicians never be able to speak?I don’t mean from fear of being instantly fact-checked…although that’s a valid concern…I mean because virtually everything they say is a pretty blatant lie. Or such a damning omission of truth it’d be called a “lie” around anyones’ dinner table.Christ, are we really so shocked, yes SHOCKED that people running for office can and will say ANYTHING to win? Here’s your winnings, sir.Still, it’s nice to see people wake up to what a total opportunistic slimeball Romney really is. He makes Massachusetts residents look bad no matter what your ideology is. Hell, he makes our species look bad.BTW, I recently blogged a bit about how little folks outside of Massachusetts really know about Romney, and how it’s high time the media started calling bullshit on him. Perhaps people are starting to do so.

  26. af

    Eric Fehrnstrom has been practicing this attack dog form of communications for Romney for as long as I can remember. I find him to be snide and condescending. It seems that every incident that arises is seen as an opportunity to attack or ridicule Romney’s perceived political opponents.

  27. bobafet

    Wny would it not be considered objective to call a lie a lie.. ?

  28. Anonymous

    Perhaps the reporter was responding toe Earl Stanley Garner’s famous phrase to the effect that it is through cross-examination that the truth comes out. For some reason, most of the 4th Estate refuses to cross-examine polititions; he was. The admonition that he was being inappropriate is ridiculous.John Carroll on Beat the Press last night gave Romney’s full quotation and it included far more than whethere lobbyists were “heading” his campaign. Don’t believe everything you read in the main stream media.–raj

  29. david

    What exactly is the job of the reporter covering a candidate? Is it to take dictation and print whatever the candidate says or is it to provide some context to what the candidate says and report the truth to the extent that the reporter can determine it.I don’t think people go to journalism school to learn to take dictation.

  30. Shayna Field

    Couple of thoughts:* Hardly Mitt’s finest moment. You get the feeling that “no lobbyists running my campaign” was a talking point; Mitt ad-libbed the “tied to my campaign” bit; and that’s when Johnson pounced. * Body language, word choice, etc. made Johnson look bad. Had he not interrupted, stood (for crying out loud), and said, “Governor, you just said …” nobody would have a beef with him.* Dan, one of your compatriots on Beat the Press last night mentioned that MSMers simply don’t like Romney. Is this your view as well, and if so, why? I think it’s clear they don’t. First, he’s a Republican, of course. And like President Bush, Romney has a biz background. In my experience (I was a journo for 20 years), CEO types have a low opinion of journos, viewing them as tools (in several senses of the word!) CEOs have a way of reminding journos how unimportant they are – and journos resent the hell out of it.* Finally, what we Republicans would like to see is a sauce-for-the-goose approach. Mitt fibs (fudges, lies …) and is rudely interrupted by a reporter from a powerful MSM outlet. Let’s be grownups and stipulate that Senators Clinton, Obama and Edwards do plenty of lying (fudging …) on the campaign trail themselves – can you serve up examples where THEY’VE been interrupted in a similar manner?

  31. Dan Kennedy

    Shayna and David: Of course it’s the job of a reporter to call out a candidate on a lie. What was so refreshing (or distressing, depending on your point of view) about Johnson was his stylistic approach.Generally, you would let the guy finish. Then you’d ask a question, if given a chance. Then, whether you got to ask a question or not, you’d write something like “Romney appeared to have made a misstatement, as Ron Kaufman blah blah blah.” So yes, you’d have called him on his lie, but it would all be very polite and most people would never notice.I do wish Johnson had let Romney finish. Romney was digging himself into a deeper hole, and Johnson made him stop. But Johnson also did a public service by really calling people’s attention to the fact that Romney was lying once again. And it was a news conference — it’s not like he was interrupting Romney as he spoke to undecided South Carolina voters or some such thing.Certainly there are candidates whom reporters like and those whom they loathe. Romney would definitely seem to fall into the latter category. The other candidates supposedly detest him, too. Not to be flip, but I think it’s got mainly to do with his inherent Mittness — the utter shamelessness of his willingness to say anything, and to insist with a straight face that he’d never said the opposite, even in the face of evidence that he had said the opposite.But I don’t think it’s a Republican-Democrat thing. I can think of no candidates more detested by the media than Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, for instance. You really saw the fangs come out when Obama beat Clinton in Iowa. The press wasn’t wild about John Kerry, either, though they were more respectful of him than they were of Gore and Clinton. (Even the Swift Boat lies never quite made it into the mainstream — they were mainly a phenomenon of talk radio and a few of the cable shows.)By contrast, a number of influential reporters got quite close to George W. Bush in 2000. (Seems hard to believe today.) And of course, John McCain has half-jokingly referred to the press as “my base.”

  32. mike_b1

    One of my fundamental problems with j-school instruction was this near-mandate not to become part of the story. And yet … CJR, for one, which philosophically toes this line, has on occasion praised reporters for following a subject so deeply that they end up writing from personal experience (vs. disinterested observer). In the academic world, it is completely acceptable to heckle or denounce lecturers in mid-sentence; I have seen this often at conferences. I think the question to ask is not whether Johnson was out of line, but why isn’t his “outburst” standard operating procedure?

  33. Peter Porcupine

    Point of order, Gentlemen – as I said in my initial comment, Romney never got to finish his statement, “No lobbyists are tied…”Now, John Carroll et al are eagar to FINISH that sentence FOR him, as their psychic abilities (obtained in journalism school?) enable them to KNOW what Romney was going to say – but it’s little stretches like this that make MSM reporting seem less reliable and even more biased. Romney ran that clip on the Tonight Show last night, and the audience reaction there was VERY different from Greater Boston (I was flipping back and forth, as I had missed the 7 pm).DK – it most certainly IS a Republican-Democrat thing, and goes far beyond Massachusetts. Now that we are living the ‘Together We Can/Change You Can Believe In’ nightmare together, ask yourself if Deval or Obama were/are ever interupted like that to state what the hell they are talking about.And denigrate the Swift Boat veterans at your peril, Dan – like the bloggers that brought down the LIES of Dan Rather, they are a mode of communication that isn’t controlled by the former intellgentsia, leading to debacles like the election returns in Iowa and NH. There’s a reason McCain calls the press his base – they’re the ones most interested in seeing him get the nomination. Pity they’re all registerd Democrats unable to vote for him.

  34. Dan Kennedy

    PP: Here’s Romney’s quote again: “I don’t have lobbyists running my campaign. I don’t have lobbyists that are tied to my —”I don’t think we need to be mind-readers to finish that quote for him.I am denigrating the Swift Boat liars because they are liars — proven liars. When you have people who change their 40-year-old story in the midst of a presidential campaign, when you have people who weren’t there suddenly claiming to have been there, you have lies. It’s pretty simple.Dan Rather wasn’t lying. He didn’t even care enough to get his hands dirty. It’s a shocking indictment of the way the star system in network news really works, but it’s not a lie.Remember, too, that CBS showed the fake memos to Scott McClellan the day of the broadcast, and took his lack of objection as confirmation. Unbelievably stupid — how was McClellan supposed to know? But you can’t call such stupidity a lie.

  35. Winghunter

    Candidate Research – Know Who You’re Voting For ( The Easy Way ) http://tinyurl.com/2sowta

  36. AmyJo

    A point I haven’t seen made yet: this debate over whether Johnson should or shouldn’t have asked Romney the questions he did in the way he did is motivated, in large part, by the fact that there is video of the back and forth — and many non-reporters are not used to seeing the actual reporting process. Reporting isn’t a pretty process all the time. And it shouldn’t be. My stomach turned as I watched the campaign staffer admonish Johnson for being unprofessional. And even more so when I saw others, in postings online, agree. What Johnson did was entirely appropriate. As others pointed out, this was a press conference, not a city council meeting. And the way Johnson did it — by interrupting Romney in the middle — was okay by me. As others have pointed out, this probably wasn’t the first time he and the other reporters had heard the speech. What Johnson did is what more reporters should do: he sparked a more honest response from Romney, and a direct response to what everyone in the room was already thinking: that he was trying to get away with saying something that obfuscated the truth. In this case, I don’t think polite questioning or changing the question around would have gotten that kind of response from the candidate. He would have pivoted again. This was good stuff. I was glad to see it.

  37. Anonymous

    I don’t much care for Romney and wouldn’t vote for him, but I don’t buy these endorsements of Johnson’s professionalism, especially since reading his story on Hillary Clinton and the taking of hostages at her campaign office in New Hampshire last month.That’s when Johnson slobbered all over Hillary as he wrote about how she was the “picture of calm in the face of crisis” and how she was “regal-looking,” as if regal looks had anything to do with the crisis.Johnson praised her for facing “disorder in a most orderly manner,” and said it was a “vintage example of a candidate taking a negative and turning it into a positive.” He also called it a “thawing moment for a stoic figure,” and he lauded her for “taking charge while giving the professionals free rein” as well as for using “the sad moment as a national teaching opportunity, another skill often employed by presidents.”It was one of the most embarrassing stories that’s ever crossed the AP wires, I’m sure. And I hope those of you who want to argue that Johnson has an obligation to challenge politicians such as Romney will explain why he doesn’t also have an obligation to keep from falling in love with Democrats in skirts.

  38. Anonymous

    What a schock yet another left wing loon criticizing a Republicans issue stance. The way media morons portray it, only Republicans have changed their opinions or in their definition LIED, please everyone who has a brain understands that a person can change their position without actually having lied about it, even the media believes this, but only when a Democrat does it. The fact is whenever a question arises about a politicians truthfullness the one thing we can be assured of is that the reporters a flaming left wing lunatic and the politicians a Republican or a conservative, Thank God the media gets away with this farce less and less as the truth which ironically the media knows absolutely nothing about comes out. All you media hypocrites unite, the more you showcase and spew your hypocrisy the quicker you’ll fall into obscurity and not soon enough.Keep up the incompetent work.

  39. Christopher

    I think reporters should bring up the questions first instead of calling someone out, that makes you look like you have an agenda to make this person look a certain way, doing the hard work, is bringing the question to Romney and giving him a chance to explain the situation. Notice how Bill Clinton accused that reporter of accusing him of that union voting mess in Nevada, that is how reporters should act, not actually be in someones face over such a small thing. Bring the question to the man and see how he answers don’t try to catch him off guard. I believe that is real journalism.

  40. Anonymous

    Dan Kennedy said it best.–PP: Here’s Romney’s quote again: “I don’t have lobbyists running my campaign. I don’t have lobbyists that are tied to my —”I don’t think we need to be mind-readers to finish that quote for him.–That was more than Johnson could stomach, and I don’t blame him.

  41. Christopher

    DK..I said that about Hillary because she can’t help but remind people all the time that she’s the woman canidate, which it is obvious to anyone.She shouldn’t be focusing on that and should focus on something solid like a plan for helping America and making jobs for the future.Humor is the spice of life, which I find very little of when I speak to people.

  42. Suzanne

    The way to illuminate the discrepancy Glen perceived is skilled questioning. Not simple-minded name-calling. Essentially screaming “Liar”, made Glen look like he had PMS, and obscured the discrepancy he perceived.Mitt Romney has largely funded his own campaign. Which, in his view, allows him to enter the whitehouse unencumbered by favors that must be returned to lobbyists. Lobbyists who fund you & take paid positions of leadership on your staff–ARE different from lobbyists who may advise you. Some may disagree. But, Glen’s bravado did NOTHING to flesh out this subject. All it did was make Glen’s bravado the headline. Boring.

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