Yesterday I broached the tricky topic of the role of the press in dealing with blatant message manipulation by candidates, particularly Mitt Romney. Today, the Romney campaign offers up a great test case. I would genuinely love to see some serious discussion about how the news media might handle this.
At issue is this new ad: Right Choice. (It is paid for by the RNC, but authorized by Romney.)
It takes aim at a new policy proposal issued last month by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, which has gotten a lot of attention in the conservative blogosphere. If you don't spend much time on sites like hotair.com you probably haven't heard much of anything about it -- or to put it another way, most people seeing this ad will have no previous knowledge or context to judge it by.
The ad claims that Obama has quietly moved to "gut" the 1996 welfare reform law by "dropping work requirements." "Under Obama's plan you wouldn't have to work, and you wouldn't have to train for a job," it says. "They just send you your welfare check." Romney, the ad says, would nix this change.
Welfare-to-work reform remains enormously popular, so this could be a very effective ad -- especially since people will think that Obama tried to sneak this ultra-liberal scheme into place without telling anybody.
In reality, the Sebelius plan is a response to state governors who want some flexibility in how they implement welfare-to-work. The plan, at least as I understand it, would allow the administration to grant waivers to states who present an alternative plan designed to increase work placement by at least 20%; the states would be required to show progress in order to maintain the waiver.
Certainly one can oppose this plan -- although based on Romney's rhetoric and positions on other issues (including health care) you would think that he'd strongly favor it; he loves the idea of states as "laboratories" and hates "one-size-fits-all' federal schemes.
But, for it or against it, it's hard to see how this proposal could fairly be described as "dropping work requirements" and so on.
I'm sure some folks who know this policy better than I do will explain the ad's untruthfulness and hypocricy more accurately and in better detail than I can.
My question is for media critics, and it's a genuine and honest one. Let's imagine that the RNC is doing a huge buy with this ad, and it will be seen repeatedly by voters in swing states over the next several days. What can or should the news media do?