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Media Circles the Wagons Amid Accusations of Bias Against Romney

Politico may have ulterior motives for accusing the Washington Post and New York Times of bias against Romney. But they also have a point.

5:30 PM, May 31, 2012 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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More on the bullying story: one crucial reason to publish a story like Horowitz's is to see how a campaign will respond to it. The response tends to be as revealing as the story that spawned it. Politico knows this better than anyone. And one of the reasons that the prep-school bullying story lingered as long as it did was because of ... Romney's evasive response to it. First he said he had no recollection of the incident, then he apologized as though he did. It seemed slippery, vaguely dishonest, lacking conviction--and it came the day after President Obama spoke out in favor of gay marriage, a contrast that wasn't lost on anyone who writes about politics for a living. Which includes Politico! As the Poynter Institute's Andrew Beaujon notes, Politico sure did spend a lot of time covering that bullying story it so abhors.

Wait, what? Media outlets are justified in publishing unduly negative stories because forcing the campaign to respond is "revealing"? Excuse me? This is not journalism--this tactic has far more in common with the LBJ school of leveling accusations against political opponents for the sole reason of having your opponent deny them. As for Romney's response, I don't know where Gordon is coming from. Personally, I didn't think the story lingered that long, considering the initial splash it made, largely because a) the reporting was over-the-top and a bit slipshod and b) Romney's response was a model of how to handle the situation. He apologized immediately, even though he--quite plausibly--said he didn't remember an incident that occurred almost 50 years ago.

But maybe I'm inclined to give Romney the doubt because of my personal biases. Then again, if you doubt that Gordon isn't biased against Romney here, just go to the next sentence: "It seemed slippery, vaguely dishonest, lacking conviction--and it came the day after President Obama spoke out in favor of gay marriage, a contrast that wasn't lost on anyone who writes about politics for a living." Next to Romney's prompt apology, Obama's gay marriage reversal was a real profile in courage. As it happens, I write about politics for a living, and I seem to recall many journalists were appropriately cynical about Obama's expedient change of heart. But even if the press isn't always reflexively defensive of the president, does anyone think it's a coincidence that the Post's gay bullying story came out immediately in the wake of Obama's gay marriage reversal? And what does that say about Gordon's contention that it's unfair to suggest the media are biased against Romney?

Point five, I'll just note, is interesting and insightful, such that Josh Marshall at TPM also seized on this

Let’s get macro for a moment. This Politico story was written by Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, two people at the very top of the organization’s masthead. It’s effectively an unsigned house editorial. And it levied a charge of journalistic malpractice at two of Politico’s biggest rivals. The house position of Politico, as evidenced by this piece, is that they are fair and their chief competition is not. It’s a thinly disguised, fundamentally craven argument for Politico’s superiority in the world of political coverage. Let’s call this article for what it was. It wasn’t journalism. It was business.

It's entirely true that VandeHei and Allen might have had ulterior motives for running this piece. They may well want to knock their rivals down a peg. I have little doubt that they would have published the same anti-Romney "scoops" as the Times and the Post had they stumbled on them first. They certainly covered those same stories in detail as Gordon rightly notes up above. But even if Politico is completely hypocritical on this issue -- and I hinted that this was the case earlier -- this is totally beside the point in many respects. What about the substance of VandeHei and Allen's contentions? Does putting Ann Romney dressage hobby on the front page, while burying Obama's heroic consumption of weed in high school in a brief on A15 amount to fair coverage?

All that said, at the very least Gordon's right to be rankled by Politico's underlying business angle for publishing this story. And issues of what constitutes journalistic balance are complex--it's hard to actually quantify how Obama was vetted vis a vis other candidates, even if there is a pretty good case to be made that he got off easy. For a different take on all this, I can't say I agree with much of what Dave Weigel says, but it's worth reading. Similarly, Michael Calderone has a great round up of the Post and Times's responses to Politico's accusations. The Post in particular makes note of some of their stories where they have been deservedly tough on Obama.

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