A visitor from outer space exposed to major news coverage the 2012 US elections might be forgiven for thinking that the President’s job description is the Namecaller-in-Chief. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney tries to paint Pres. Barack Obama as a feckless leader an enemy of American free enterprise at home and exceptionalism abroad. For his part, the President has tried to define Romney as a political opportunist and vulture capitalist whose company profited from eliminating American workers’ jobs and shipping them abroad. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen suggests the Romney camp is likely running a “post-truth” campaign. Pollsters say the attacks leave voters disaffected with both candidates.
As Factcheck.org notes, the campaign has become not just mean-spirited, but trivial:
“Besides being marked by a cavalier disregard for facts on both sides, the campaign also has become bitter and trivial. It is failing to engage the public in a fact-based discussion of the hard choices that will very soon be forced on Washington.
“In its triviality, the 2012 campaign so far resembles the infamous 1988 contest that pitted George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis. The ‘issues’ featured then included Dukakis’ support for a state prison furlough program and Bush’s knowledge (or lack of it) about aid to Nicaraguan rebels. Neither side said much about an unfolding debacle in the U.S. Savings and Loan industry, which eventually cost taxpayers more than $130 billion.
“This time the real issues facing the country are much bigger: A lagging recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s, a string of $1-trillion-plus deficits, inexorably rising medical costs that burden both state and federal taxpayers, and a Social Security system unable to pay full benefits for more than another 20 years or so. Just to name a few.”
It’s enough to make conscientious political journalists and commentators sick. Alex MacGillis despairs that journalists seem to have grown weary of holding the candidates’ feet to the fire for their campaign’s false and misleading statements.
All indications are that the vitriol will only increase as we stagger toward Election Day. What are responsible journalists and their spin-weary audiences to do? Here are three thoughts:
1. Shorten the shelf-life of the spin-counter-spin stories. Granted, when the candidates or their surrogates make claims about the other candidates, the press has to give it some attention. But fact-check the claim up front, and include the conclusions of that fact-checking in subsequent reporting.
2. Get to the policy questions implicit in the attack ads – and stay there. For example, with all that we’ve heard about outsourcing this election season, I would have hoped for some discussion of the proposed Bring Jobs Home Act, which was spiked by Senate Republicans earlier this month. The Obama administration backed bill would have ended tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas and offered breaks for companies that create jobs in the US. I haven’t found evidence that Romney’s taken a position on the issue.
Similarly, there seems to be broad recognition that Obama’s recent comments that entrepreneurs don’t succeed on their own is simply an argument that public investment can help private enterprise. Romney has made the same point himself. So the real debate is over the extent and nature of the kinds of investments the candidates support. That’s the question that needs to be continually asked, and those are proposals that need to be scrutinized.
3. More policy experts and voters’ voices, fewer political strategists, please. Stop focusing so many stories on what the candidate’s attack ads and speeches mean for their campaigns. Stop asking reporters to be commentators speculating on the candidates’ thoughts and attitudes. When a candidate advances a policy position, stick to the evidence about the soundness of the policy, instead of worrying so much about how the idea will play with some segment of the electorate. We should be seeing a lot more of the kinds of questions raised by Nieman Watchdog’s Ask This column, and a lot less focus on speculation and spin.