Let us now praise the unknown reporters! Let us acclaim those stolid scribes who, at the conclusion of Mitt Romney’s overseas trip to England, Israel, and Poland, told Politico—anonymously, of course, and presumably with a straight face—that the days of going easy on the Republican nominee were over.
You see, the former governor of Massachusetts occasionally visits his traveling press corps, to whom he distributes baked goods. But our nameless heroes have had enough. "You can’t hand out cookies now when there are serious questions to ask, and there are very serious questions to ask that the campaign has refused to answer," one said. A second brave but unidentified journalist agreed: "I don’t think anyone wants cookies anymore. This is the rough and tumble, now."
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What audacity, what daring! To whine on background that the Romney campaign has not treated you well, to threaten reprisal without having the courage to go on the record, even as your colleagues tar Romney with allegations of gaffes and racism—are there two more fitting spokesmen for the immaturity, insularity, and idiocy of the political press in the age of Obama? Let us celebrate these unknown reporters. Only they had the gumption to reveal to the world that the liberal media would no longer pull their punches for a box of Samoas. And only they have managed to display fully the elite media’s sense of self-entitlement and lack of self-awareness. After the pummeling these cookie monsters gave Romney last week, dessert should have been the least of their concerns. They were lucky to get a ride home.
Perhaps it was the Romney campaign’s choice of tasty treat that provoked the media beast. After all, Obama is just as removed and wary around the White House press corps as Romney is around his, but somehow the moaning and groaning, the wailing and gnashing of teeth, is not the same. When Ann Romney wore a $990 shirt, the Washington Post’s "She the People" blog deemed it "indicative of a tone-deaf campaign"—but Michelle Obama’s $6,800 jacket earned hardly a mention. When Obama made his snide remarks about individual success at a campaign rally in Virginia last month, the nation was subjected to a media-led semiotics seminar on the meaning and importance of "context"—yet those lessons seem to be forgotten whenever Romney opens his mouth. One wonders why. Is it because Obama distributes birthday cake to reporters, whereas Romney only delivers cookies? Would the media treat the Republican more fairly if he sent campaign manager Matt Rhoades to wait in line at Georgetown Cupcake?
It was the height of lunacy to suggest, as our unknown reporter said to Politico, that the foreign trip somehow represented a turning point in media relations with the Republican campaign. That is only possible if the turn was 360 degrees. The media have never liked Romney. They have always thought him to be a rich stiff, a well-tailored-but-empty suit, a fake. Their preferred narrative of last week’s journey—that Romney has a penchant for "gaffes"—was set in concrete months ago. As far back as February the Wall Street Journal published a handy list of "Romney’s Top 10 Wealth Gaffes." The Week assembled a similar catalogue. Among the "gaffes": Romney owns a couple of Cadillacs and is friendly with some NASCAR owners.
Obviously this disqualifies him from the presidency.
As Dan Quayle, John Ashcroft, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Charles and David Koch know all too well, once the Democrats and their allies in the media have determined the story they are going to tell about a conservative political figure, nothing can change the emphasis or tone of their coverage. The media portrayed Quayle and Palin as airheads, and that was that. They called Ashcroft a religious fundamentalist, and he was berated and dismissed from polite society. They said Limbaugh was a racist and a sexist, and entire public relations campaigns were launched to deprive him of sponsors. They "reported" that the Koch brothers’ political giving was entirely self-interested, and hardly anyone who edits our major newspapers or produces our network news gave these philanthropists the benefit of context—let alone the benefit of the doubt.
With Romney the storyline had proven more elusive. Before settling on "gaffe-prone" the media had difficulty choosing between extremes. They shoot at Romney coming and going. One day he is a bully, the next day he is a wimp. One day he has "no core," the next day he is a radical. One day he is out of touch, the next day he is pandering to his base. In the morning they say Romney is too vague, in the evening they say his specific policies will be ruinous. Romney is too secretive, but what we know about him is scary. The whiplash from attack to attack provokes nausea. Some, like Harry Reid, have taken simply to making things up.
And who can blame him? The media have displayed an insatiable and indiscriminate appetite for negative stories about Romney, his wealth, his company, and his religion. The narrative of Mitt Romney, gaffe-machine, colored media coverage of the foreign trip before it even began. As Romney was making his way to England, journalists were asking his campaign to follow-up on a Daily Telegraph report in which an unnamed "adviser" said the United States and the United Kingdom "are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and [the governor] feels that the special relationship is special. The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have."
Whether the quote was true or false, it was nevertheless unremarkable. The United States and the United Kingdom do share the same heritage. And the White House has seemed particularly dismissive of our longtime ally—its communications director, for example, did not even know that it had returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British Embassy. The Obama campaign and the media were just waiting for a moment to accuse Romney of criticizing the president on foreign soil. David Axelrod called the banal, possibly fictitious quote "stunningly offensive." Joe Biden said it was "beneath a presidential campaign." Points scored.
The pattern was established. Throughout his trip Romney would say something perfectly well meaning and true, and the press would declare it a gaffe and the voyage a horrible failure. He stated the obvious to Brian Williams: There were concerns over London’s preparedness for the Olympics. From the ensuing coverage you would have thought he had just spat on the Queen.
The British press, the original practitioners of combat journalism, had a field day. MSNBC anchors would hold up to the camera with undisguised glee the front pages of the Daily Mail and the Guardian and the Telegraph. The American journalists were living vicariously through their British counterparts. The gaffe hunt was on.
What Romney told supporters in Israel—that a culture of free enterprise fostered the prosperity of the Jewish state, while the political and economic culture of Gaza and the West Bank has hindered the material progress of the Palestinian people—was just as uncontroversial as his remarks to Brian Williams. Yet his praise for Israel’s entrepreneurial, democratic, capitalist culture provoked charges of "racism." Obama adviser Colin Kahl was on hand to tell the New York Times that Romney was undermining America "being seen as an honest broker." But how exactly do Kahl and Obama explain the difference between the Israel and Palestinian economies? And hasn’t Obama himself repeatedly criticized various aspects of Palestinian and Arab society?
A fascinating and vibrant debate is taking place over the causes of poverty and prosperity. When did the U.N. General Assembly pass a resolution forbidding Mitt Romney from stating his view? There is a school of thought that it is not weather or geography that influences economic prosperity but culture and institutions. Nor is it only the eminent historian David S. Landes who makes this argument. Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity takes a similar line. So does Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest. Are they racist too?
Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart, deals with the relationships between culture, behavior, and economic outcomes in the context of white America. Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their excellent Why Nations Fail, say the "roots of these problems are political," that poverty results from "the way political power in Egypt [and elsewhere] is exercised and monopolized by a narrow elite." But surely culture influences a society’s politics, and the institutions built by those politics.
Crying "racism" upon hearing opinions with which one disagrees has become routine in American politics. The Romney-Palestinian flap brought this annoying habit to the international stage. Here was a mode of discourse—the rhetoric of ethnic grievance—with which the American press was happily familiar. They continued to dog Romney and his staff over his alleged missteps.
The absurdity reached bizarre heights in Poland when, as Rich Lowry observes, reporters hustled and shouted questions at Romney "emanating from deep within the media’s own narrative." Questions such as: "What about your gaffes?" and "Do you feel that your gaffes have overshadowed your foreign trip?" and "Do you have a statement for the Palestinians?"
When a reporter complained, for the umpteenth time, "We haven’t had another chance to ask him questions," Romney’s traveling secretary told him, "Kiss my ass. This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect."
Whereupon the media began filing stories—on how the Romney campaign had committed another gaffe.
By now Romney must have noticed that there is no way he can win the communications battle. The deck is stacked against him. But that does not mean he will lose the election. His victory depends on enthusiastic and oversized turnout from the white working class and GOP base. He may recall that Newt Gingrich’s biggest applause lines during the Republican primary debates came whenever the former speaker trained his rhetorical artillery on the press, and criticized self-important television anchors as much as he criticized Obama.
Imagine the delight and excitement that would flood Republican hearts if their nominee—or his running-mate—gave a stem-winder attacking the "tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by Government," whose views "do not—and I repeat, do not—represent the views of America." The press would lose its mind, but Republican enthusiasm would jump 10 points.
Take the cookies away. It’s time for Romney to find his own Spiro Agnew.