“How is that not a tax?” Stephanopoulos asked. At issue was whether Obama had violated his 2008 campaign pledge not to raise taxes on the middle class. Recently the Supreme Court agreed with Stephanopoulos.
With similar tenacity, last month Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation” asked Romney about his plan to lower income-tax rates: “When are you going to tell us where you’re going to get the revenue? Which of the deductions are you going to be willing to eliminate?” When the candidate answered that “we’ll go through that process with Congress,” viewers could surmise that he considered a candid answer politically costly and therefore chose to be evasive.
Up against the conditions that encourage honesty — dire economic news and media accountability — are messaging machines that campaigns can’t directly control: super PACs and other third-party groups. From the 1988 Willie Horton ad that depicted Democrat Michael Dukakis as soft on crime to this year’s ads by super PACs, messages by outside groups are more misleading and malicious than those distributed by candidates. This year’s gems included the allegation that Republican Newt Gingrich supported China’s one-child policy when the legislation in question banned using the money to fund abortions, and the charge that Romney left Massachusetts more than $1 billion in debt when he was governor. That figure was a projected shortfall that never materialized.
Broadcast stations can reject these clear-cut deceptions by insisting on accuracy, as Ohio stations did in October by declining to run a third-party ad implying that a great-grandmother had endorsed a ballot proposition she actually opposed. Yet in a recent study I directed, only 13 percent of 260 station managers queried reported refusing to air a third-party ad in the past year.
The possibility that one candidate will substantially outspend the other (as Obama did in 2008 and Romney may do this year), and the likelihood that super PACs and other messengers will displace substance with slurs du jour, magnifies the need for the media to police deception and hold candidates accountable.
The victor’s reward for treating his opponent fairly and being faithful to the facts could be a majority that trusts its president and his administration — and awards him an enhanced capacity to govern. He might even earn a place in the history books for shepherding the country through a challenging time.
And that’s a prize more enduring than four years in the Oval Office.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, home of FactCheck.org and its sister site, FlackCheck.org. She is a co-author, with Kate Kenski and Bruce W. Hardy, of “The Obama Victory: How Media, Money and Message Shaped the 2008 Election.”
Read more from Outlook:
A challenge to Obama and Romney: Deliver one truthful campaign speech
Do campaigns really change voters’ minds?
When honesty hasn’t been a winning policy
The biggest flubs in campaign history
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