In May 2012, the Washington Post published the findings of its deep dive into Mitt Romney’s past. The paper had been working on a big investigative journalism piece that would finally reveal what no one else could uncover about Romney. Utilizing the resources that only major dailies can marshal, and proudly speaking truth to power and defending the people’s right to know, the Post threw the 2012 election into pure chaos, upending everything voters thought they knew about the candidates.
Mitt Romney, as a youngster, once cut someone else’s hair.
It didn’t sound like such a bombshell at first blush, but then the Post–in a bid to make this as embarrassing as possible for the family of the victim–openly speculated about his sexuality. The family of the victim (who has since passed away), thoroughly humiliated by the Post’s behavior, denied the Post’s story and asked the newspaper to please stop spreading stories about their family “to further a political agenda.” Indeed, it was one of the low moments of the 2012 cycle. So why do I bring this up now? Because that same Washington Post reports today on a new Pew study showing that the media is increasingly echoing, instead of investigating, politicians. The Post, unsurprisingly, isn’t happy about this:
“Campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans,” according to the report. “Only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists in the 2012 race, while twice that many came from political partisans.” …
When news organizations are pushed out of the information pipeline, voters alone are left to sort through messages that are tested in focus groups and opposition attacks tailored with great specificity. And on the heels of a presidential campaign in which one candidate’s pollster said he refused to let the campaign be dictated by fact-checkers, such a strategy is growing easier to execute.
The facts are these: Campaigns and candidates have more power than ever before to frame both their positive narrative and their opponents’ negative one. And, if the Pew numbers are right, both sides are spending much more time on the negative side of the ledger — at least in 2012.
Think of those numbers the next time you run down the role of the political media.
Yes, you think about that the next time you feel like complaining about front-page stories in papers like the Post. In fact, you’ll probably have that opportunity again soon, because like clockwork the Post identifies the Republican it deems most dangerous to the liberal agenda and fires off a gobsmackingly absurd–and often factually incorrect–story about them. The Post usually follows that story with an article about its previous story, in which it drums up a fake controversy and then drums up fake outrage about it.
The truth is, if the Post is unhappy about the press acting “as megaphones, rather than investigators,” it only has itself to blame. Before Romney was the target, Democrats felt threatened by Texas Governor Rick Perry. So the Post published a story meant to be damning toward Perry’s character, in which it breathlessly reported the existence of a hunting property leased by Perry’s family that once had a rock with a racial epithet painted on it but which no one can find today. Before the Post went after Perry, the paper decided to weigh in on the 2009 Virginia governor’s race by attacking Bob McDonnell’s 20-year-old college thesis and publishing about a story a day on it for the first week or so. McDonnell won the election easily, needless to say. And the Post tried to dig up dirt on Marco Rubio, found nothing, and pretended it found something anyway. The Post story was quickly debunked.
None of this is to suggest that modern newspapers publish only nonsense. They do plenty of good work. And the fading of investigative journalism–a function of tightening budgets and lack of resources, mainly–is to be mourned. But too often investigative journalism as currently practiced discredits just this kind of reporting–especially when election season rolls around.