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October 31, 2012 / Joshua

Media Hacky Sack

The aftermath of the first presidential debate prompted Mother Jones blogger, Kevin Drum to lament what he calls “the hack gap.” This gap, as he has it, is

…a liberal problem of long standing. Put simply, we liberals don’t have enough hacks. Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.

Drum points to the wide public freak out, and distinct lack of positive spin, from liberal bloggers and pundits over President Obama’s performance in the first debate as a clear example of this hack gap. And I think he has a point, particularly considering the contrast in the reactions to the other debates.

All across the media, the first debate was perceived as an unquestionable victory for Romney. Yet, for my money, Romney scored no substantial takedowns in that debate. Obama, on the other hand, certainly did in the following two. Yet, conservatives never accepted defeat and many even claimed a solid victory for Romney in the final debate, even though he chose a safe and somewhat agreeable approach.

Thus, with the right’s faithful hacks in action, we end up with more balanced coverage like this:

There was far from a consensus view on who won the debate in the hours after it ended… Given that both sides think they won, it could be a wash that won’t change the trajectory of the race.

This is an example of what many decry as the “He said, She said” equivalence problem in the media. And it happens all the time. Now, let me say, if Drum is right about liberals lacking hacks, then that’s really a point in their favor in terms of reliability, intellectual honesty, et cetera. But I think what conservatives better understand, and are better at shamelessly exploiting, is the simple right/left dichotomy of our news, because of which, as Paul Krugman has joked, if they said “the earth was flat, headlines would read Views Differ on Shape of Planet.”

In this way, the Romney campaign has floated in its own preferred reality for months and months, but the media mostly fails to seriously challenge this. I’m guessing that’s largely due to the desire to not only be “balanced” but to also play up the more exciting narrative of a close horse race, prompted by a debate “game change” that has supposedly provided a comeback and “momemtum” for the challenger. At this point in the game, too much is viewed through a lens focused on political tactics, optics, and perception. Thus, we get too many pundits pretending that the important questions to ask are, “Did the candidate do what he needed to do?” “Did he appear presidential?” “Does he appear confident?” “Has he been able to make himself attractive to independents?”

My favorite along those lines, was the low bar that Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith set for Romney in the first debate:

Mitt Romney, trailing in the polls, needed to prove tonight that he could stand on stage with President Barack Obama as an equal and a plausible president of the United States.

Right. That’s all. Just stand there and appear equal. Look the part of a plausible president even. If mere superficial plausibility this late in the day is “winning”, then we are all losing.

Or then there’s the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley’s take on the final debate:

[Romney] looked like a Commander in Chief; Obama looked like a lawyer. Who would you rather vote for?

How about the one who can not just look like the Commander in Chief he is, but can also demonstrate some level of trustworthiness and realism – Or offer legitimately plausible plans with actual numbers – Or show some modicum of consistent principles? If these questions that go beyond TV optics aren’t front and center at the very end of the race, then what is the point of closely covering the race at all?

Think about how we got here. Have we already forgotten the long “Anyone-But-Mitt” parade that was the extended GOP primary season? Romney was long derided, even by Republicans, as phony, uninspiring, and lacking an honest core. And for good reason.

All the way back in November, the Romney campaign itself gave us a taste of the shameless propaganda to come with an ad doing terrible injustice to the context of an Obama statement (an ad which is still on their website by the way). But when called on it, a Romney operative took political cynicism to its highest highs (or lowest lows):

“…ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…. Ads are agitprop…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. 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.”

That quote foreshadowed the “post-truth campaign” that was to follow – a campaign which has consistently proven that, in the words of one its pollsters, it wouldn’t be “dictated by fact-checkers,” – a campaign that has doggedly refused to provide substance and disclosure – a campaign that somehow doesn’t “have the time” to show us the math.

In short, while nearly all political campaigns spin and weave and, yes, tell lies, Romney’s campaign is an operation that has shown an exceptional amount of callous and lazy disregard for the truth and disrespect for its audience. They’ve essentially dared the media to call out their lies time and time again and then have simply marched on unchanged and unconcerned when fact-checkers and some reporters actually do. Romney himself has shown reckless opportunism and deceit during a crisis and voiced disdain for 47% of the country when he thought only big donors were listening.

But, OH! Never mind all that now! Romney managed to look presidential, confident, and concerned for everyone in the theater of the debates! The Etch A Sketch has been shaken clean! The slate made new! The media finally have themselves a close, exciting race, so this guy Mitt Romney will just have to do!

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