Quote of the Day: “Ads are Agitprop”

A couple of weeks ago Mitt Romney ran an ad in which Barack Obama was heard telling an audience, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The obvious implication was that Obama was desperate to avoid talking about his own dismal handling of the economy. But that was untrue. It was actually a clip from the 2008 campaign in which Obama said “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’ “

Today, Thomas Edsall gets the following defense of this lie from a “top operative” in the Romney campaign:

First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business….Ads are agitprop….Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context….All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.

I wonder if this guy actually believes what he’s saying? He didn’t have to talk to Edsall in the first place if he didn’t want to, so I assume he does. He’s genuinely aggrieved that anyone holds this against Team Romney.

Edsall’s conclusion is that this spot is “the latest step in the transgression by political operatives of formerly agreed-upon ethical boundaries. What was once considered sleazy becomes the norm.” The rest of his column is a history of such transgressions, and it’s interesting reading. But this sort of thing strikes me as different from the changes in campaign financing and lobbying that he devotes his piece to, and it would have been even more interesting to read a column about the history of changing norms in how baldly you can lie on the campaign trail.

(My guess is that a real history of this would be U-shaped. Flat-out lies were quite common throughout the entire history of the nation but started to decline after World War II in favor of more subtle distortions. Then, over the last few decades, they’ve risen again as candidates began to learn that they could manipulate — or ignore — the mainstream media in ever more brazen ways without penalty.)

In any case, it would be nice to think that this episode has wakened the media a bit from its nonjudgmental stupor. It’s true that campaigns engage in artful distortion and simplifications all the time. So do bloggers. I don’t pretend to be writing austerely evenhanded and neutral posts here, and I’m certainly guilty of cherry picking my topics and my evidence on occasion. At the same time, I’m well aware of some boundaries here. It’s one thing to present evidence in a way that helps me make my point, but it’s quite another thing to flatly lie about what the evidence says or to flatly ignore evidence that I know perfectly well undermines my point entirely. Likewise, I might highlight a damaging quote from someone I dislike, but there’s a bright line there: the quote has to be accurate and it has to be offered in its proper context. If it’s still damaging, great! That’s legitimate blog fodder. If it’s not, then it’s not.

The same is surely true of political campaigns, even if the stakes are massively higher than the integrity of someone’s blog. If Romney and his people genuinely don’t get that, or if they get it but they don’t care, they shouldn’t be allowed to pretend that this is just part of some normal evolution of political norms. It’s not.