This weekend, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched on attack an the Obama campaign that is unambiguously based on a lie. On his Facebook page, Romney posted a note directly accusing the re-election effort of working to undermine the voting rights of military members in Ohio:
President Obama’s lawsuit claiming it is unconstitutional for Ohio to allow servicemen and women extended early voting privileges during the state’s early voting period is an outrage. The brave men and women of our military make tremendous sacrifices to protect and defend our freedoms, and we should do everything we can to protect their fundamental right to vote. I stand with the fifteen military groups that are defending the rights of military voters, and if I’m entrusted to be the commander-in-chief, I’ll work to protect the voting rights of our military, not undermine them.
The background is that, while all Ohio voters used to enjoy in-person early voting privileges for three days, Republicans in the state legislature this year restricted that right to military members only. The Obama campaign subsequently filed a lawsuit asking that the privileges be extended to all voters:
Plaintiffs bring this lawsuit to restore in-person early voting for all Ohioans during the three days prior to Election Day—a right exercised by an estimated 93,000 Ohioans in the last presidential election. Ohio election law, as currently enacted by the State of Ohio and administered by Defendant Ohio Secretary of State, arbitrarily eliminates early voting during the three days prior to Election Day for most Ohio voters, a right previously available to all Ohio voters.
The injunctive relief sought by the lawsuit is the restoration of early voting rights to all Ohioans, not the cancellation of those rights for military members. One doesn’t need to be a lawyer to understand that—any sentient reporter would get it upon reading the lawsuit in question—but just in case, legal experts have also characterized Romney’s allegations as “extremely misleading.”
Yet many mainstream political reporters are unable or unwilling to discern that a lie has been told, and say so in their reporting. Eric Alterman recently described the pernicious so-called “even-handedness” of much of the political press, and it’s on display in no clearer fashion than in this case—there is zero room for interpretation about what the Obama campaign lawsuit seeks.
Here are the first round of stories from many major outlets, however.
“Romney Says Obama Lawsuit Blocks Ohio Military Voters,” from ABC News’s Matthew Larotonda:
Republicans say a lawsuit brought by Obama for America in July seeks to eliminate additional time for in-person early voting allotted to service members in the battleground state. Democrats, on the other hand, contend the presumptive GOP nominee is deliberately trying to distort the facts.
"Biden Calls Ohio Election Law Efforts 'Shameful'" from Time's Mark Halperin:
Republicans are clearly trying to use an otherwise slow Saturday to gin up a redux of their successful 2000 Florida recount gambit regarding military personnel voting rights. Their various statements and tweets are clearly just the beginning of an echo chamber effort on national security and (let’s face it) patriotism that will mirror in faux umbrage and techniques what they have done on the President’s recent remarks on small business.
“Romney campaign calls Dem challenge to Ohio voter law ‘despicable,’” by The Hill’s Cameron Joseph:
Mitt Romney’s campaign is mounting pressure on an Obama campaign lawsuit challenging Ohio’s early voter laws, claiming it unfairly targets military personnel…. Democrats say they want all voters to enjoy the extended early-voting period, and not just those in the military…. But the optics may be damaging to the Obama campaign.
“Obama sues Ohio over early voting rules,” by USA Today’s David Jackson. (This piece at least accurately describes the Obama lawsuit immediately, but outsources the charge that Romney has launched a false claim to an Obama flack.)
President Obama’s campaign has sued the state of Ohio over new rules for early voting designed to benefit members of the military, saying the extra hours should be available to all voters. That lawsuit prompted claims by Mitt Romney and aides that the Obama campaign is targeting military voters—a false claim, Obama’s team quickly responded.
“Obama camp slams Romney’s claim about Ohio early-voting lawsuit,” by the Los Angeles Times’s Sheema Meta:
The suit, which Romney has seized upon to argue that Obama is trying to undermine service members’ voting rights, calls for all Ohioans to be able to cast early votes up until the Monday before election day…. A spokesman for the Obama campaign said Romney was trying to restrict access to the polls and was fabricating the notion that Democrats sought to restrict voting rights.
A good template for how to cover the dispute actually comes from Politico, which can often fall victim to phony even-handedness—but reporter Reid Epstein noted in his lead that Romney made the claim “without pointing to any evidence.” A subsequent piece by Maggie Haberman says plainly that “The [Obama] suit doesn’t actually say this.”
There are much more punishing stories that could be written about this—like how a political party clearly dedicated to restricting voting rights can have the audacity to attack Democrats for doing the same, especially when Democrats were, with that very lawsuit, trying to expand them.
But the first step is getting the facts right, and calling lies what they are—something many political reporters seem unable to do.