Commentary Magazine


Media Building False Narratives on Top of Already Debunked Ones

Today’s furious attack on Mitt Romney by the media—epitomized by reporters’ embarrassing behavior at a morning press conference—presented a perfect example of the media’s proud perpetuation of their own false narratives. These narratives don’t just win or lose the news cycle in which they are invented, but reappear later on as building blocks to the newest such narrative.

Today’s piece on the complaints about Romney’s statements on the embassy attacks over at Buzzfeed is a great illustration of this. Ben Smith writes (emphasis mine):

Romney keyed his statement to the American Embassy in Cairo’s condemnation of an anti-Muslim video that served as the trigger for the latest in a series of regional riots over obscure perceived slights to the faith. But his statement — initially embargoed to avoid release on September 11, then released yesterday evening anyway — came just before news that the American Ambassador to Libya had been killed and broke with a tradition of unity around national tragedies, and of avoiding hasty statements on foreign policy. It was the second time Romney has been burned by an early statement on a complex crisis: Romney denounced the Obama Administration’s handling of a Chinese dissident’s escape just as the Administration negotiated behind the scenes for his departure from the country.

I have corrected this mistake before, but it appears necessary to do so again. This narrative of the Chinese dissident holds that Hillary Clinton was in the process of successfully negotiating his release when Romney and other Republicans crudely turned it into a political game and almost jeopardized the rescue. In fact, this is, from what we’ve known now for a while, the exact opposite of what actually happened. From Susan Glasser’s glowing cover profile of Clinton for Foreign Policy:

Her final encounter with Dai came, at her request, in an early-morning session in a room at the Diaoyutai compound where, 40 years earlier, Nixon had stayed when he famously met Mao to reopen U.S.-China relations. It was just hours before the close of the formal Strategic and Economic Dialogue that was the ostensible purpose of Clinton’s trip; if Clinton had no agreement by then, they both knew it would open a rift in their relationship and create a political disaster back in Washington, where the secretary and her team were being accused of fumbling an important human rights case by delivering the sick dissident to a Beijing hospital and right back into the hands of his persecutors.

Still, the Chinese did not give in. At one point, an advisor who was present recalled, Clinton finally seemed to catch their attention by mentioning what a political circus the case had become — with Chen even dialing in to a U.S. congressional hearing that Thursday by cell phone from his hospital bed to say he feared for his safety if he remained in China. The Chinese team was visibly surprised. Eventually, Dai agreed at least to let the negotiations proceed. A few hours later, exhausted U.S. officials announced a deal.

Clinton’s diplomacy had failed, so she threatened her Chinese counterparts with a fraying of the relationship if they didn’t release Chen. They ignored her threat. Then the Chinese were told that the Republicans had drawn public attention to Chen’s case, and decided it wouldn’t be worth the trouble to hold him. The Republicans not only correctly recognized that American “quiet” diplomacy was failing, but understood the limited window of time they had to produce a game changer. The hearing to which the article refers was considered by many here in the U.S. to be an unnecessary spectacle; in fact, it may have saved Chen’s life.

Ironically, it’s been the media lamenting the rise of a post-truth presidential campaign. Yet they’re not exactly awash in credibility, are they?