The Big Story of 2012

Here’s quite a lede from Dan Froomkin at HuffPost:

Post-mortems of contemporary election coverage typically include regrets about horserace journalism, he-said-she-said stenography, and the lack of enlightening stories about the issues.

But according to longtime political observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, campaign coverage in 2012 was a particularly calamitous failure, almost entirely missing the single biggest story of the race: Namely, the radical right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party, both in terms of its agenda and its relationship to the truth.

I’m going to have to plead innocence on that charge. But Mann and Ornstein, of course, in interviews with Froomkin, are talking about our powerful friends in the MSM:

“The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth,” said Mann, who has spent nearly three decades as a congressional scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution.

“I saw some journalists struggling to avoid the trap of balance and I knew they were struggling with it — and with their editors,” said Mann. “But in general, I think overall it was a pretty disappointing performance.”

“I can’t recall a campaign where I’ve seen more lying going on — and it wasn’t symmetric,” said Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who’s been tracking Congress with Mann since 1978. Democrats were hardly innocent, he said, “but it seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top.”

Lies from Republicans generally and standardbearer Mitt Romney in particular weren’t limited to the occasional TV ads, either; the party’s most central campaign principles — that federal spending doesn’t create jobs, that reducing taxes on the rich could create jobs and lower the deficit — willfully disregarded the truth.

“It’s the great unreported big story of American politics,” Ornstein said.

Unsurprisingly, notes Froomkin, Mann and Ornstein, who turned many heads with an April WaPo op-ed on asymmetrical polarization (adapted from a new book they published immediately afterwards), aren’t real popular sources for MSM reporters any more (and they use to be quote machines, with Ornstein in particular long reigning as the “most quoted person in Washington.”).

“It’s awkward. I can no longer be a source in a news story in the Wall Street Journal or the Times or the Post because people now think I’ve made the case for the Democrats and therefore I’ll have to be balanced with a Republican,” Mann said.

Neither Mann nor Ornstein have been guests on any of the main Sunday public affairs shows since their book came out. Nor has anyone else on those shows talked about the concerns they raised.

And no wonder, if you consider what the two former Mega-Pundits told Froomkin they would have to say to reporters and editors:

Here is what Mann would say: “First of all, I’d sympathize. I’d say I understand that you have the responsibility to use professional norms of accuracy and fairness and not let your own personal feelings get in the way.”

But, he would add: “You all have missed an incredibly important story in our politics that’s been developing over a period of time. You’ll slip it in here and there, you’ll bury it, but you really don’t confront it.”

Ornstein said his message would be this: “I understand your concerns about advertisers. I understand your concerns about being labeled as biased. But what are you there for? What’s the whole notion of a free press for if you’re not going to report without fear or favor and you’re not going to report what your reporters, after doing their due diligence, see as the truth?

“And if you don’t do that, then you can expect I think a growing drumbeat of criticism that you’re failing in your fundamental responsibility.

“Your job is to report the truth. And sometimes there are two sides to a story. Sometimes there are ten sides to a story. Sometimes there’s only one.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.