The reaction by a large portion of the media to the release this week of, first, a Romney video tape from this past May, and then an Obama audio tape from 1998 revealed once again a desperate search for “false equivalence” to maintain a sense of covering the current campaign, and so much of politics and other vital subjects, right down the middle.
It’s a subject I’ve written a good deal about this year, even noting not long ago that some news outlets and individual reporters were considiering dropping what Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere.” That is, the rejection of the notion that readers and viewers are best served by giving near-equal weight to “both sides” of a contentious story, facts and truth be damned, if need be, or even if it needn't be. [UPDATE: Just now, Brian Williams' primetime NBC show featured a lengthy segment by Ted Koppel on TV partisans with the usual false equivalence denunciations of left and right, MSNBC and Fox, Maher and Coulter.]
And so this week we witnessed this sad and damaging scenario played out again, even if one episode did get more weight overall than the other.
Less than two days after the Romney damn-the-47-percent speech to funders in the video obtained by Mother Jones emerged—which even caused consternation among many conservative pundits—an audio tape of Obama speaking on a panel back in 1998, when he was a young state senator in Illinois, surfaced, via right-wing circles and pushed by Drudge. In the brief snippet, Obama seemed to be calling for “redistribution” of wealth, which made some of us flash back to the wacky emergence of Joe the Plumber almost exactly four years ago.
But this was no joke. Romney mentioned it twice in a Fox interview that he gave to blunt criticism of his outrageous dissing of “the 47 percent.” So you knew where this was heading. Paul Ryan picked up on this on the stump and so all day Wednesday, and now into Thursday, it has been the GOP battlecry, a flailing attempt to take the focus off Romney’s faltering campaign and offensive rhetoric.
Most of the media played along with this, giving the Obama tape (a video snippet later appeared) wide play and prominence—no surprise to those of us long familiar with the “false equivalence” tendencies. To anyone with half a memory or common sense, however, there were at least a couple reasons to give pause. One was captured by Jon Stewart last night on The Daily Show, when he brilliantly mocked Fox News for claiming the Romney video didn’t matter because it dated “way back” to this past May—while treating something Obama said fourteen years as very relevant today.
Far worse than this, however, was the fact that most in the media, apparently learning nothing from the years of Drudgery and Breitbartism—anyone remember Shirley Sherrod?—simply took the snippet at face value, quoting it as if it was a brief statement from the candidate’s press office, and characterizing it, in short hand, in news reports or “analysis” as Obama’s call for “redistribution.” The Romney camp couldn’t have been happier.
Inevitably, as could and should have been predicted, someone (I think NBC was first) got their hands on a video (a fuller version) of Obama’s 1998 talk, and sure enough, the context for the “snippet” turned out to be nuanced, with explicit statements about “competition” and the “marketplace” that shifted its emphasis from that of, you might say, a born socialist to a confirmed capitalist. Media Matters summarizes it all here.
What’s astounding is that many in the media treated the two leaked tapes as sort of equal in terms of deciding how to cover them, even though the Romney tape, right from in its initial appearance, was several minutes long with plenty of surrounding material—while the Obama tape was just a broken little piece. Of course, the full Romney speech, at forty-seven minutes, was then released and Romney has not questioned any of it—while the Obama camp has contested the context of his 1998 remarks from the start.
Now what happens? It’s kind of like the “you didn’t built that” distortions, which the media also helped “build,” then backtracked a bit. We’ll see if that plays out again in this case. And it must be acknowledged that there was certainly more coverage of the Romney tape, in volume, than the Obama tape—but that would seem only sensible. For one thing, plenty of conservatives condemned Romney for his remarks but you don’t see that from liberals re Obama now. [UPDATE: In that Brian Williams primetime show, the host opened it with a mention of the Romney tape--and then the Obama tape, which he stated flatly found the president calling for "re-distribution."]
But what’s depressing is that reporters and editors and producers seemed so desperate to prove they were honest brokers seized on a mere snippet from sources who have shown in the past that wrenching quotes out of context is their stock and trade. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…