New York Times repeats a $5 trillion falsehood

This is pretty bad. In a profile of Stephanie Cutter, President Obama’s deputy campaign manager, the New York Times repeats a demonstrably false allegation advanced by Paul Ryan and others. Times reporter Amy Chozick writes:

Ms. Cutter doesn’t always stick to the talking points. In a recent CNN interview, she said Mr. Romney’s tax cuts “stipulated, it won’t be near $5 trillion,” as the Obama campaign had earlier claimed. The gaffe became fodder for a Romney attack ad three days later and was raised by Representative Paul D. Ryan in the vice-presidential debate on Thursday night.

Chozick links to the transcript of Cutter’s exchange with CNN’s Erin Burnett, but apparently she didn’t bother to read it; the headline, “Cutter Concedes $5 Trillion Attack on Romney Is Not True,” is simply wrong. Because here’s what Cutter actually said: the tax cut could be a lot less than $5 trillion if Romney closes loopholes and ends deductions; but Romney hasn’t specified any; therefore, yes, it’s a $5 trillion tax cut.

“The math does not work with what they’re saying,” Cutter told Burnett. “And they won’t name those deductions, not a single deduction that they will close because they know that is bad for their politics…. Last night, he [Romney] walked away from it, said he didn’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. He does.”

I wrote about this last week for the Huffington Post.

At veep debate, reviving a $5 trillion tax-cut argument

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I argue that the vice-presidential debate showed President Obama was right when he accused Mitt Romney of supporting a $5 trillion tax cut that would mainly benefit the wealthy.

Obama changes the media narrative — in Romney’s favor

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I argue that, contrary to what Obama supporters will tell you, the president’s poor performance in Wednesday’s debate will matter a great deal in the days ahead.

Blame Jim Lehrer’s comatose moderating style and Mitt Romney’s falsehoods all you like. Obama could have risen to the occasion, and he didn’t.

Falsehoods too blatant for the media to ignore

Paul Ryan in 2011

When you claim that President Obama was responsible for the closing of an auto plant that actually shut down before President Bush left office, people are going to notice. The question is whether anyone will care.

Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan delivered a speech Wednesday night that was unusual for its deliberate mendacity, even by the rough-and-tumble standards of political combat. Right after he finished, the usually timid souls of CNN praised his address for its tone and approach, but volunteered that the fact-checkers would surely have something to say.

Indeed. FactCheck.org, nonpartisan and often cautious to a fault, reports that Ryan’s speech “contained several false claims and misleading statements” — the auto-plant closing as well as the Surety Bond cost, of course, but also:

  • Criticizing Obama’s $716 billion reduction in the future growth of Medicare when Ryan himself, before joining the Romney ticket, had embraced those same cuts.
  • Taking Obama to task for the ratcheting down of the federal government’s credit rating even though Standard & Poors specifically blamed congressional gridlock.
  • Blaming Obama for the failure of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission’s recommendations without mentioning that he himself had a key role in ensuring they would fail.
  • Falsely claiming that none of the more than $800 billion in stimulus money went to American workers.

FactCheck competitor PolitiFact rated Ryan’s auto-plant whopper as “false” and his Medicare claim as “mostly false.”

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen recently wrote a provocative blog post on the media’s encouragingly aggressive response to a much bigger lie being perpetrated by the Romney-Ryan team — that Obama had loosened the work requirements for welfare recipients.

The problem is that though the media have deviated from their usual he-said/he-said/you-decide formula in frankly labeling the welfare claim a falsehood, the Republicans keep using it on the theory that it’s working. And there’s little evidence that the media’s diligence will make any difference with the public, which is likely to chalk it up to politics as usual.

As for the notion that “both sides do it,” well, they do and they don’t. I think Rosen gets it exactly right:

If you’re wondering: do I recognize that the Obama forces have also used deceptive, depraved and untrue claims? Yes. I do. These stand out: Romney didn’t say he likes firing people in the way some Democrats and TV personalities have suggested, so that counts as a kind of lie. The Priorities USA ad that suggested (without quite saying it) that Bain Capital was somehow responsible for the death of a steelworker’s wife: that goes in the depraved category. When the White House claimed it knew nothing about the case that was clearly untrue — pathetic, really. The refusal to condemn the ad was a black mark, as well. Obama ads calling Romney “outsourcer in chief” were over the top and relied on false or overblown claims.

In my view these are serious transgressions. And in my view they do not compare to the use of falsehood and deceptive claims in the Romney 2012 campaign. Nor is there anything coming from the Obama machine that is like the open defiance of fact-checking we have seen from Romney and his team.

Romney delivers his acceptance speech tonight. It will be interesting to see whether he takes the high road, content to let his running mate do the dirty work — or if he will dive into the muck himself.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Pro-Obama cancer ad may be sleazy, but it’s not “false”


The Paul Ryan announcement has made Joe Soptic seem like yesterday’s news. But before we let go, I want to take a look at a truly miserable job of fact-checking done by FactCheck.org on the pro-Obama ad in which Soptic appears to blame his wife’s death from cancer on Mitt Romney.

My purpose is not to defend the ad, produced by Priorities USA, a Super PAC aligned with President Obama. I agree with just about everyone that it’s over the top, though I take it as kind of a warning shot for Romney to ease up on his own false claims (see this and this for recent examples).

Last December, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on the downside of the explosion in fact-checking. FactCheck’s attempt to knock down the Soptic ad is a good example of what I found troubling about the phenomenon. I would have no problem with calling it a toxic bit of sleaze, because it is. But false? Not by any standards I’m aware of. Essentially, the ad omits the sort of factual statements that could be subjected to a binary true/false test.

The FactCheck fact-check, by Robert Farley (click here and scroll down for bio), is rife with distortions. Let me take a few.

First, and most important, FactCheck is sticking with its insistence that Romney had nothing to do with Bain Capital in February 2002, when Bain pulled the plug on the steel mill where Soptic worked. (The back story on the plant closing, reported by Reuters last January, is well worth reading.) “As we’ve reported before, when the plant closed Romney was running the 2002 Winter Olympics,” Farley instructs us.

But as the Boston Globe and others have reported, Romney — who says he left Bain in 1999 — was chief executive of the company until well into 2002. Whether he was hands-on or not, he was in charge and he benefited financially from the decision that left Soptic unemployed.

The idea that Romney shouldn’t be held accountable because he was running the Olympics is mystifying. As someone else said (I wish I had the link), imagine that Obama owned an apartment building in Chicago, and that rats and cockroaches were discovered there. Do you think anyone would be inclined to let him off the hook because he was an absentee landlord and had hired a manager to look after the property?

FactCheck’s Farley also finds the ad “misleading” because Ranae Soptic “didn’t lose coverage when the plant closed. Mr. Soptic told CNN that she lost her own employer-sponsored coverage a year or two later. She had no coverage after that.”

Seriously? This isn’t hard, folks. If Joe Soptic hadn’t lost his health insurance after Bain shut down the plant where he worked, his wife could have slid over onto his coverage after she lost hers — assuming she wouldn’t have been rejected for having a pre-existing condition. I have absolutely no idea what point Farley even thinks he’s making.

Finally, Farley wants us to know that the ad is “misleading” because Mrs. Soptic “died in 2006 — five years after the plant closed.” Good Lord. I’m not even going to attempt to comment on that except to point out that uninsured people tend to let things go.

Interestingly enough, the ad has never even appeared on television as an ad, but it’s been shown numerous times for free so critics could denounce it. That’s cost-effective advertising.

Voters should feel free to judge the candidates on the tenor of their campaigns. Fact-checking has its purposes. But it has real limits as well.

Mitt and the media

Northeastern’s communications folks interviewed me about Mitt Romney’s touchy relationship with the media, and what both his campaign and the traveling press corps should do to make it better.

From the New York Times, political #fail in three acts

Three examples from Sunday’s New York Times of political coverage that makes you want to bang your head against an immoveable object until you’ve forgotten what you’ve just read:

• Maureen Dowd’s column, a characteristically superficial attack on Mitt Romney that veers into the ditch when, about halfway through, she sneers at Romney’s “shiny white family.” Seriously? What color is the Dowd family, Mo?

• Jeff Zeleny’s news analysis, in which he opines — oh, sorry, writes analytically — that both the Romney and the Obama campaigns are relying mainly on negative advertising.

Of course, there are few things more satisfying to the media mindset than asserting that both sides are just as bad. But as Zeleny writes as an aside to which he attaches no seeming significance (and as Greg Mitchell flags), the Romney campaign’s ads are five-to-one negative, whereas Obama’s are a relatively cheery two-to-one negative.

Even worse, Zeleny makes no attempt to assess whose negative ads are more truthful. The mere existence of negative ads on both sides is not the least bit newsworthy if one side’s consist of unfair attacks and the other’s are more or less on the level. All in all, a worthless exercise, yet the Times played it at the top of the front page. (Younger readers may be interested to learn that some news sites print a portion of their content on dead trees.)

• Public editor Arthur Brisbane, nearing the end of his somnolent stint as the Times’ in-house critic, laments that political coverage is too focused on the negative campaigns being waged (naturally) by both sides and not focused enough on the issues.

Now, this is a difficult one for me to wrap my arms around, because I’m as critical as anyone of horse-race coverage and the political press’ obsession with polls and tactics. But the alternative Brisbane proposes — “substance” and “issues” — strikes me as absurd given the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

This election will not be decided on issues. There is nothing important to learn by studying the fine points of Romney’s or President Obama’s tax proposals or financial-regulation plans.

Rather, this election is about broad themes, tribalism and cultural signifiers. There is more significance in polls results showing that one in six Americans believes Obama is a Muslim than there is in 50 stories telling us where he and Romney stand on cap-and-trade. Political coverage that avoids that central truth is destined to fail.

Where is our Hunter Thompson?

Photo (cc) by unwiederbringlichbegangenes and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Making it on his own — with a little help

In the Boston Herald, columnist Jessica Heslam writes that Brian Maloney, the owner of the Roxbury trucking company that Mitt Romney visited yesterday, made it without any help from anybody, dadgummit:

The government didn’t help — at all. No tax breaks. No “Good guy, Brian.” Just hard work did that and a few other dedicated people that came along with me. Who’s going to pay for Obamacare?

In the Boston Globe, Callum Borchers reports:

Maloney founded his company as an auto body shop in Cambridge in 1966, while pursuing an MBA at Boston College. In the late 1970s, according to a 1986 Globe profile of the business, “he approached Boston city officials because a preferential bank loan was possible if his firm relocated to the Crosstown Industrial Park,” where Middlesex Truck & Coach remains to this day.

In its first year at the new location, Maloney’s company accepted a $560,000 federal government contract to overhaul 10 buses. Within a half-decade of the move, Maloney reported, his company had quintupled its annual revenue.

And political analyst Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) coaxes a rather different quote out of Maloney:

The only way I was able to come here, because I had no money, was with an industrial revenue bond.

That would be a government industrial revenue bond.

No one would question the hard work and dedication Maloney put into building his business. The only point President Obama was trying to make — and which Romney is now distorting beyond recognition — is that we’re all part of a larger community, and even the most successful among us didn’t make it entirely on our own. As Obama put it, “There’s no question your mom and dad, your school teachers, the people that provide roads, the fire, the police. A lot of people help.”

Oh, wait — sorry. That was Romney.

Maloney’s sincerity aside, he turns out not to be the best spokesman for the I-made-it-alone argument. Then again, Joe the Plumber’s name wasn’t Joe, and he wasn’t a plumber.

Political partisans go at it outside Symphony Hall

[View the story “Sparks fly on Mass. Ave.” on Storify]

The Newseum caves in on reporters’ access

Yes, that’s the First Amendment carved onto the vertical slate in front of the Newseum.

For many of us, it began with a tweet Thursday morning from Boston Globe editor Marty Baron:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/GlobeMartyBaron/status/213267379352907778″%5D

Clicking led to a blog post by Globe political reporter Matt Viser, who had covered an event by Mitt Romney in Washington at the Newseum, a museum about journalism and the importance of the First Amendment. Toward the end, as Baron noted, came this rather startling paragraph:

Romney stayed to take questions. But following his 28-minute address — held at the Newseum, which is situated between the US Capitol and the White House — reporters were escorted out of the room and weren’t allowed to listen to the questions.

In the Newseum? The irony couldn’t have been any thicker. (And not just Romney. See update below.) As Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone put it a short time later:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/mlcalderone/status/213290979799736321″%5D

Also jumping in was New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who guessed — correctly, as it turned out — how the Newseum would respond:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu/status/213290735695446018″%5D

Media blogger Jim Romenesko wrote that he contacted Newseum spokesman Jonathan Thompson and “suggested … that the Newseum put a clause in its room-rental contracts requiring journalists be respected in the House of Journalism — for example, not be marched out of a room when it’s time for politicians to face questions.” Please click to read Thompson’s response, but the short version is that Rosen’s prediction was on the mark. You’ll also see my suggestion for how Thompson should have responded.

So those are the facts. What are we to make of this?

First, I’m inclined to give the Romney campaign half a pass here. It is hardly unusual for presidential candidates to hold events from which the media are excluded. You may recall that one of the worst moments of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was when he complained to supporters at a no-media event about Pennsylvanians who “cling to guns or religion.” In that case, a supporter named Mayhill Fowler, who also blogged for the Huffington Post, decided to write it up.

But Romney only gets half a pass because he and his handlers should have known that excluding reporters from an event in the “House of Journalism,” as Romenesko called it, would create unwanted controversy in a way that excluding them from a fundraiser in a hotel banquet hall wouldn’t.

Second, and more important, the Newseum’s response was reprehensible. I’m reasonably sure officials there didn’t know Romney was going to lower the cone of silence. Maybe it’s never happened before. But the proper response would have been to express chagrin and promise that steps would be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Reporters should never be kicked out of an event at the Newseum, whether it’s private or public. But as of this writing there’s been nothing from the Newseum other than Thompson’s statement and this tweet from Thursday:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/Newseum/status/213309765412073473″%5D

No doubt the Newseum needs the rent money. According to its tax filings for 2010, the most recent that’s publicly available at GuideStar, the museum took in $73.4 million and spent $78.8 million, for a deficit of $5.4 million.

On Thursday, though, Newseum officials stepped in it in a way that could end up costing them a lot more in future donations than they’ve ever made in private rentals. My guess is the proverbial high-level conversations are taking place right now.

By the way, Viser is back with a more comprehensive story today.

Update: Politico media reporter Dylan Byers takes a swipe at Calderone, his predecessor in the job, saying that Obama “did the exact same thing” at the Newseum back in March. Yes, it should have been news then. And it only underscores that it’s long past time for the Newseum to prohibit private groups that rent its facilities from banning reporters from their events.

Photo (cc) by David Monack and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.