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Blatant dishonesty matters more than who's 'mean'

Romney in Ohio, in front of some of the coal miners he lied to about welfare.
Romney in Ohio, in front of some of the coal miners he lied to about welfare.Getty Images

Following Mitt Romney's minor breakdown yesterday, in which he complained bitterly about President Obama not being nice enough to him, there were all kinds of media analyses today on the 2012 race reaching a "poisonous" level. Ben Smith speculated today on how the campaign "got so mean."

What these pieces overlook is any consideration of whether the candidates' attacks and counter-attacks are accurate. The media establishment seems to care a great deal about whether the major-party candidates and their respective teams embrace provocative rhetoric, but spent almost no time whatsoever examining whether the campaigns are being honest.

Apparently, there's a difference between deceiving the public and being "mean."

Alec MacGillis was in Ohio yesterday, covering Romney's remarks in Beallsville, where he spoke in front of a group of coal miners. The Republican spoke at length about one of this new favorite subjects: President Obama's non-existent decision to "take the work requirement out of welfare." MacGillis talked to several members of the all-white audience who said that was their favorite part of Romney's speech.

Yes, one of the more depressing parts of the job of being a political reporter is watching an audience fully absorb a blatant and knowing lie. [...]

Clearly, the campaign has reason to believe the attack is working, and why not? It's no secret that working-class Americans deeply resent those just below them on the economic ladder whom they see as getting undeserved assistance; it's also no secret that politicians have been especially effective at stoking this resentment among white working-class voters, such as the all-white audience in Beallsville, toward an unseen nonwhite other.

But at least in the glory-days of welfare-bashing, the attacks had some grounding in reality -- the system had grown rapidly was in need of some sort of reform. Now, at a time of drastically reduced welfare rolls, the attack is utterly unfounded. And Romney just keeps using it, at stop after stop, in ad after ad. How can this be possible? Well, maybe because very few of my colleagues in the press seem all that troubled by it.

Quite right. Romney's lying -- he knows it, his staff knows it; Democrats know it, and every journalist covering the race knows it. But voters remain in the dark. The folks in Beallsville didn't know the candidate was treating them as suckers because Romney lacks a basic respect for them, and many voters watching at home were probably fooled too -- in part because so many of them are uninformed, in part because they don't realize Romney is deceiving them and playing on their resentments, and in part because many in media are uncomfortable running headlines that read, "Romney Caught Lying About Welfare," even when that's exactly what happened.

It is, to be sure, Romney's responsibility to uphold political norms and tell American voters the truth -- a responsibility the Republican treats with disdain. But when news organizations treat this as routine, and fail to hold Romney accountable for his near-constant dishonesty, they enable and encourage him.

This is infinitely more serious and consequential than whether one candidate hurt another candidate's feelings in a spate of rhetorical excesses. Millions of people will elect a president in 12 weeks based on faulty understandings of basic truths because they ended up falling for a con -- a con made possible because media professionals let it happen.