Commentary Magazine

Press Man: Johnny Deadline vs. the Dreaded PowerPoint

Newspapers suffer from a terrible case of multiple personality disorder if they’re any good. From page to page you never know whose voice you’ll hear, but you won’t mistake it when you do. In the magnificent New York Post, there’s no confusing Andrea Peyser with Cindy Adams, or even husband Joey when Joey was alive. Indeed, the decline of great papers like the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times is most evident in the joyless, self-satisfied monotone that emanates from page to page and section to section, from Dining to Living to Preaching (the editorial pages). Place your hand over the byline and after several droning paragraphs you won’t remember whether you’re reading Gail Collins or Frank Bruni or Alessandra Stanley or Andrew Ross Sorkin or…I don’t know, one of those other writers. They all come with the standard-issue Times point of view, as though their attitudes arrived in the same packet with their guild card. But it’s nothing a good jolt of schizophrenia couldn’t fix. Less Gray Lady, more Sybil!

The pages of the Washington Post, I’m happy to report, still disclose multiple personalities, though they are often wan and understated. The owners have shifted their resources to a wobbly Web presence and cut the newsroom staff by half, losing their most distinctive writers along the way. Still, even as it croaks out its death rattle, it retains echoes of the pleasing cacophony that a good newspaper offers its readers.

If it were a person and not a paper, the many personalities of the Post could land it happily in the psych ward. A splendid example of its hydra-headed nature came this summer when it launched an attack on Mitt Romney, right there on page one.

“Bain’s Firms Sent Jobs Overseas” read the headline. The tone reflected the Post personality I think of as “Johnny Deadline, Boy Reporter.” The company founded by Mitt Romney, the first sentence announced breathlessly, “owned companies that were pioneers in the practice of shipping work from the United States to call centers and factories” abroad. The next two paragraphs oddly shift focus, quoting Romney on the campaign trail, talking tough against cheap labor in China and pledging to “bring employers back to the United States.”

Neither quotation is relevant to whether Romney and Bain “shipped jobs overseas,” so it takes a while to figure out why Johnny Deadline plopped them in the story. I can save you time: Readers are meant to understand that Romney is not only a callous businessman but a hypocritical candidate.

Mere hours went by before David Axelrod, Obama’s majordomo, got the message. He released a statement expressing his shock and revulsion at Romney’s “breathtaking hypocrisy.” The Obama campaign peppered reporters with the Post’s story, which already had the smell of a campaign press release. The next day, the president showed that he was particularly impressed with Johnny Deadline’s use of the word pioneers.

“Pioneers!” the president hollered in Florida. “Let me tell you, Tampa, we do not need an outsourcing pioneer in the Oval Office.” A few days later: “Just last week, it was reported that Governor Romney’s old firm owned companies that were ‘pioneers’—this is not my phrase, but how it was described in the report—‘pioneers’ in the business of outsourcing American jobs to places like China and India!” Over the next 10 days, Obama’s radio and TV ads repeated the word so often, it’s surprising they didn’t show Romney and his Bain colleagues wearing coonskin caps.

The reaction of Romney’s campaign was scattered and dilatory—showing multiple personalities of its own. First, Johnny Deadline wrote, “Campaign officials declined requests to comment on Bain’s record.” Then officials said the story was “unfair.” Even Romney himself gave rare TV interviews to pronounce the president’s Post-inspired attacks “disgusting.” And then the campaign went silent again, hunkered in its bunker at Boston HQ.

Some Romney sympathizers and armchair quarterbacks—here I blush shyly—wondered whether the candidate and his campaign might use the Post article to underscore the philosophical difference between the two candidates: one a businessman who can articulate the benefits of globalized trade and the free movement of capital, the other a politician whose ignorance of how an economy works has been on display since January 2009.

Instead the campaign produced a PowerPoint.

Six days after the original article appeared, Romney’s communications director demanded a meeting with Post editors to present the slide show rebutting the story. The PowerPoint would have been quite effective if it had been released six days earlier, for it demonstrated that Johnny Deadline’s story was at best an exercise in sly insinuation. A reader with a law degree might have read the original story carefully enough to see that Romney himself wasn’t being accused of “shipping jobs” overseas, only companies in which Bain Capital had invested—and only after 1999, when Romney gave up operational control of the firm’s investments. The facts were technically correct. Only their presentation was a lie. Why front-page the story in the middle of a heated campaign if the candidate did nothing controversial?

The PowerPoint was unavailing, of course, and the Post officially announced it stood by its story.

But then “Official Post” gave way to its other, more charming personalities. A diffident story appeared about the Obama “pioneer” ads. The article was almost a disavowal of Official Post: “The language in the commercials went beyond the Post article by calling Romney himself an ‘outsourcing pioneer.’” Next came the newspaper’s ombudsman, a world-weary flak catcher whose job is to police the news columns for malefactions. “The [Romney] campaign makes a pretty good argument,” he shrugged. At last the Post’s “Fact Checker” columnist weighed in—but not on the Post story: “The Fact Checker does not check the facts in the reporting of Washington Post writers,” he said sternly. So he checked the facts in the Obama ads about the facts in the Post story and found them “misleading.”

By this time, of course, the damage had been done. The Post’s outsourcing story, unrebutted by Romney for nearly a week, led to further stories. Instead of explaining the virtues of a globalized economy, Romney’s rebuttal relied on his having effectively relinquished control at Bain in 1999. This put a new fact in play, opening up another ancillary storyline. What if he didn’t leave Bain in 1999? What if he was still running the show when Bain was investing in outsourcing companies?

Predictably, left-wing outlets such as Mother Jones and Talking Points Memo produced evidence pretending to prove that Romney was in fact running Bain until 2002. And the campaign found itself bickering again. The office laptop must have billowed smoke as it churned out the PowerPoints. By the time this new question was resolved—1999 is indeed the year Romney left Bain—the debate had moved on to another pressing issue: Why won’t Romney release his tax returns?

Multiple personality disorder is great for newspapers and for readers: It essentially allowed the Post to retract its story without retracting it. But it’s unnerving in a campaign organization, as Romney’s supporters learned. Romney might have avoided this grueling metastasis at the outset by rejecting the premise of the attack, which he has yet to challenge.

“If economists are agreed on anything,” he might have said, “it is the net benefits to society, both in the U.S. and abroad, of the free movement of investment capital, and the jobs it creates.” He could have cited recent studies from the London School of Economics and the Congressional Research Service in support of the view that cheap labor abroad means better jobs at home. And he could have turned the argument back to Obama. “The president knows that the globalization of markets, including the market for labor, is irreversible,” he would have said, “which is why he hasn’t proposed policies even remotely commensurate with his campaign’s alarmism.”

He could have quoted an editorial that effectively rejected the premise of the Post’s outsourcing story. Which is what I just did. It appeared in the Washington Post.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, who appears monthly in this space, is the author of Crazy U, now out in paperback and on the Kindle.

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