Mitt vs. the Media: Why Romney Is Wrong About Campaign Coverage in the Digital Age

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Even if they can get a little preachy, I’m not one easily bothered by politicians critiquing the media. We write about them all the time–sometimes preachily–and as the principles in a whole bunch of news stories, their perspectives are worth something. But just as when pundits mouth off about politics, it would help press-critic politicians to make an argument that holds up in a light breeze. Here’s what Mitt Romney had to say at an Associated Press luncheon on Wednesday:

In just the few years since my last campaign, the changes in your industry are striking. Then, I looked to Drudge or FOX or CNN online to see what stories were developing. Hours after a speech, it was being dissected on the Internet. Now, it’s Twitter, and instantaneous reaction. In 2008, the coverage was about what I said in my speech. These days, it’s about what brand of jeans I am wearing and what I ate for lunch.

Most people in my position are convinced that you are biased against us. We identify with LBJ’s famous quip that if he were to walk on water, your headline would read: “President Can’t Swim.”

Some people thus welcome the tumult in your industry, heralding the new voices and the unfiltered or supposedly unbiased sources. Frankly, in some of the new media, I find myself missing the presence of editors to exercise quality control. I miss the days of two or more sources for a story – when at least one source was actually named.

How your industry will change, I cannot predict. I subscribe to Yogi Berra’s dictum: “Forecasting is very difficult, especially when it involves the future.”

But I do know this: You will continue to find ways to provide the American people with reliable information that is vital to our lives and to our nation. And I am confident that the press will remain free. But further, I salute this organization and your various institutions in your effort to make it not only free, but also responsible, accurate, relevant, and integral to the functioning of our democracy.

Romney can’t credibly complain about coverage of his dietary exploits as long as he’s paying a guy to follow him around filming it. The videos below are from the YouTube account of Garrett Jackson, Romney’s “body man,” and the candidate doesn’t look too conflicted when he’s explaining his passion for Juniors.

Now, Romney might say this is just a tiny part of his campaign message, but the same proportional point works for the media. I didn’t see the EggsCetera pancake breakfast make any frontpages. As the Internet removes space constraints, social media may obsess over the trivial, but there’s also room for more in-depth coverage–things like FivethirtyeightWonkblog and The Agenda rely on unfettered pixels. When taken in sum, Romney’s campaign is as much “about” what he’s eating as the media’s coverage of his campaign is: not much at all.

Moving past that absurdity, Romney does make some valid points: web churn doesn’t lend itself to painstaking editing, though it’s hyperbole to say everything is single-sourced anonymous sniping. Romney is also right that things are changing and that insta-reaction on Twitter is a new development since the last campaign, one that can act like an accelerant with many news stories.

But it’s not clear why he thinks that necessarily cheapens coverage. Romney pines for the days of the Drudge Report, Fox News and CNN, not all of which can exactly claim to be purveyors of deep sober thought. I don’t know what “Internet” he was reading in 2008, but hours of contemplation were never a prerequisite for digital publishing (or for all paper publishing, for that matter.) And as for the cable nets, they’ve been doing “instantaneous reaction” for years. When Frank Luntz chains undecided voters to sentimentometers in his opinion bunker during a debate, that’s instantaneous reaction.

If Romney wanted to hang lazy coverage on social media, he could have made a much stronger case for it. (Michael Scherer did so recently). For example, he could have pointed to the recent incident when the Internet went wild with reports that Rick Perry mistakenly called on a mannequin during a town hall Q&A session.  Perry was joking, as it turned out, but the first report failed to capture this nuance and so the “haha, look at Governor Numbskull” thing dispersed rapidly through the digital atmosphere. Now, I think even this example’s usefulness is limited because this kind of stuff happened before social media and the Internet. The story of George H.W. Bush’s wonderment at a run-of-the-mill supermarket barcode scanner in the 1992 campaign is as well known as it is fabricated. In that case, it was a New York Times reporter writing about an event he didn’t actually attend who created and spread the myth. He didn’t need Twitter to help him do it.

And yeah, dumb things got covered back then, too.

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