An attack on the truth

Late last month, a lot of media attention was devoted to latest GOP frontrunner Newt Gingrich using the word "humane" in a debate answer about illegal immigration, suggesting we should avoid policies that tear families apart. Will erring on the side of humanity sit well with "family values" voters?

There was another big story - the brazen dishonesty of former frontrunner Mitt Romney - that received a lot less attention from the media. Instead of obsessing over whether an element of humanity might disqualify Gingrich with some Iowa voters, the media would be better served focusing on whether out-and-out lying should disqualify Romney with all voters.

The lie is found in Romney's first television ad, which ran in New Hampshire. The ad shows President Obama saying, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." What the ad doesn't tell you is that this was from 2008 - and that Obama was quoting an aide to John McCain at the time. Here is the full Obama quote: "Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, 'If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.'"

This is so breathtakingly cynical it should cause us to question whether a candidate who would put it forth is fit for any public office - let alone the presidency.

This ad isn't about the economy - it's about character. Or at least it should be. Instead, for those in the media who bothered to cover it, it led mostly to a discussion about campaign tactics. Usually the media loves to play up these "character moments," and here was a moment that really did reveal a candidate's character.

Along with being deceitful, the ad is also a challenge to the media. It's like when a toddler looks right at you and slowly and deliberately spills a glass of milk. The child wants to see the reaction. It's a test of boundaries. If there's no reaction, then the message is that it's OK.

So, what message did the media send with its reaction? This is how The New York Times' Michael Shear covered the ad:

"Democrats reacted ferociously on Tuesday to Mitt Romney's first campaign commercial, which they said distorted comments by Barack Obama to make it look as if he was running away from his record on the economy."

"They said"? The ad did distort President Obama's comments. It was not a matter of what Democrats said versus what Republicans said - there is an objective reality, and it is the media's job to present it unequivocally.

According to Shear, the ad "let Republican voters know that Mr. Romney would take a combative posture toward Mr. Obama." Actually, it let voters know that Mr. Romney would take a lying posture toward Mr. Obama.

Politico mentioned the ad several times, mostly as a jumping off point for a discussion of - what else? - campaign tactics. In a story calling the ad "jujitsu" and the lying part of it "the buzziest part," the site wrote: "Today's impending back-and-forth will only elevate Romney and rally conservatives to his side. Most important, by the end of the day, the high command in Boston is confident they will win the argument with voters (especially independents)."

And they might well, with media coverage like that.

Another Politico story said that the ad is "a microcosm of what a general election fight between Romney and Obama might look like, with Romney leveling explosive attacks on Obama's economic record, and the president working to disqualify Romney as a liar."

But, in fact, the ad was not an attack on Obama's economic record (I have leveled plenty such attacks myself and they are perfectly legitimate). It was an attack on the truth. And, given the reaction, it is sadly very likely a microcosm of how the media plan to cover the race.

Take "FactCheck.org." Surely a group with a name like that must have been all over this ad, right?

"The Obama campaign is in a lather over Mitt Romney's first TV spot, calling it 'a deceitful and dishonest attack' because of an edited quote from 2008," the FactCheck site says. Their conclusion? "That's a matter of opinion." Actually, it's not. Maybe someone needs to launch a site called FactCheckFactCheck.org.

Fortunately, there are several in the media who have not yet succumbed to this disease. CNN's John King, for example, called the ad "reprehensible."

ABC's Jake Tapper tweeted that the ad was more than misleading, "it's TV-station-refuse-to-air-it-misleading," and that it was "so deceptive it's a lie."

In an essay called "Dickens, Dali, and Others," George Orwell wrote: "The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp."

And the first thing a campaign demands of an ad is that it shall promote the candidate. Yet even the best ad in the world deserves to be pulled - and roundly excoriated - if it is built on a lie. Focusing instead on whether it's a good or bad move politically is a major reason why our political system is so broken.

(Arianna Huffington's e-mail address is arianna@huffingtonpost.com.)

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