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Beltway Media Cynicism? Yeah, You Built That

The 2012 campaign got off to a hopeful start in the never-ending battle between truth and cynicism.  When the Romney campaign put up an ad last November that took a 2008 line of Barack Obama’s blatantly out of context—“If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose,” a line that was paraphrasing a John McCain adviser—the political press corps jumped all over it, and essentially shamed the Romney campaign into backing off that attack, no easy thing to do given that Romney advisers initially defended the ad with an “anything goes” breeziness. Similarly, when Democrats jumped all over Romney’s “I like to fire people” line, plenty of reporters—including some at liberal outfits—dutifully noted that, amusing as the line was, Romney was actually making a point about health insurance, not laying off workers. And, to the Obama campaign’s credit, I’m not aware of any big ads they’ve run trying to snatch that line out of context for an easy hit. 

But cynicism has regained the upper hand this week, in a big way, with the Republicans’ out-of-context trumpeting of a single, infelicitous line from Obama’s recent riff, echoing Elizabeth Warren, about the need for public investment to sustain economic growth:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

There is actually a pretty good argument to be had over this riff—an argument that gets to the heart of what the 2012 election is about, as my colleague Jonathan Cohn noted this morning. How much public investment is needed? How much, and whom, should we be taxing to pay for it? But Republicans aren’t engaging in that argument. Instead, they have plucked out the single line—“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that”—which makes it sound like Obama’s ”that” refers to the business, not to the roads and bridges of the previous line. (If you have any doubt that Obama meant the roads and bridges, see David Weigel.) They’ve plucked out that one line and are using it in a huge barrage of multiple ads, the most brazen of which is probably this one, by American Crossroads. (The Romney campaign’s Web video using the line was also a tour de force of sneaky splicing.)

How has the press covered this? Well, there’ve been the requisite slaps from the factcheckers, which are mentioned in passing by other reporters writing about the attack. But in general, we’ve covered it as, well, sport. To cite just one of many examples, Buzzfeed went up with a dispatch last night noting that the attacks were drawing enough blood to force a major rebuttal from the Obama campaign: “Democrats Plan To Go Nuclear on Romney ‘You Didn’t Build This Attack.’” (Actually, I guess that’s less covering this as ‘sport’ than covering it as ‘world war.’) This approach prompted a rather lengthy late-night Twitter exchange between yours truly and Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins. McKay’s basic counter to my critique was this: “Do you deny that Obama’s broader point was controversial? It’s not just the gaffe they’re seizing on.” But it’s precisely the gaffe they’re seizing on. Democrats are not shying from the “broader point”—they like the broader point so much that they made Warren’s articulation of it into a YouTube sensation! Not to mention that the “broader point” has, in the past, been stated by one Mitt Romney as well. No, there is a broader debate that could be had here, but these ads are in no way giving rise to it—rather, they are playing to voters’ lowest instincts with rank cynicism, and we are facilitating it. Even Andrew Sullivan, this morning, essentially shrugged at the gambit, faulting Obama for having stumbled into the confused wording in the first place to produce his “biggest blunder yet”:

That quote, in other words, is going to be used and used and used to foment a story-line that is as dangerous to Obama as Romney’s massive tax-sheltering is to him. It adds a personal connection to a larger argument, being made on Fox News every other minute, that Obama is an alien to the “Anglo-Saxon” American way of life. And the chief architect of that propaganda campaign is, alas, the president himself and a lapse of self-discipline.

I’m genuinely perplexed that people who work with words for a living can be so blithe about the deliberate misuse of words to mislead. What are we in this business for if not to hold the people we cover to basic standards of context, rather than just scoring the marks left by the mistruths?

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis