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The media keeps calling Obama-Romney campaign “nasty” — it isn’t

Posted by Mark Leccese  July 16, 2012 08:45 AM

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Perhaps journalists’ most popular adjective to describe a campaign is “nasty” (“dirty” is a whole 'nother level) even when the campaign isn’t nasty. They’re doing it now, in the presidential campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Over and over again, we read and hear how “nasty” the Obama-Romney campaign is, and over and over again I wonder why reporters and editors persist in calling vigorous, contentious campaigns “nasty.”

In just the past few days, we have been assured repeatedly nasty business is afoot.

David Nakamura in The Washington Post:

The intensified hostility and persistent name-calling dominated the campaign news Friday and signaled that the presidential contest was entering a new phase, moving from relentlessly negative to downright nasty.

Jean MacKenzie on GlobalPost.com:

Obama and Romney have both unleashed campaigns that are breathtakingly nasty, and not too particular as to facts.

Chris Cillizza in "The Fix" blog on WashingtonPost.com:

An already-nasty presidential campaign has just gotten even nastier.

Wyatt Andrews on CBSNews.com:

It's getting nasty in the presidential campaign with each side accusing the other of lying about Mitt Romney's role at Bain Capital, and Romney demanding an apology.

Even The Australian’s Washington correspondent, Brad Norington, is telling folks Down Under how nasty our presidential campaign is:

The US presidential election campaign has turned nasty as Barack Obama escalates attacks on Republican challenger Mitt Romney for allegedly sending American jobs to China and Mexico, and keeping much of his vast wealth in offshore investments.

Spike Lee told Politico.com a week ago he thinks he Obama-Romney race “is going to get nasty,” although why a serious news organization that covers politics and government would interview a movie director about politics is beyond me.

Over the past week, the Romney campaign and Mitt Romney himself have:

  • Continued to argue the health care reform Obama championed and signed is “killing” job creation.

  • Told the NAACP he will “open up energy, expand trade, cut the growth of government, focus on better educating tomorrow’s workers today, and restore economic freedom,” and that Obama has failed to accomplish any of these things.

  • Charged Obama with being hostile to small business.

  • Sharply criticized Obama for saying Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez does not pose a “serious” threat to the United States.

  • Accused Obama of not telling the truth in a campaign ad and put out a press release titled “The Obama Campaign’s Top Ten Lies and Exaggerations.”

These are some highlights of the past week from the Romney campaign’s “Press Releases” page on the campaign website.

What’s nasty about any of that? Every campaign accuses its opponent of lies, exaggerations and omissions. (“Stop lying about my record,” Bob Dole famously told George H.W. Bush.) Whether health care reform will hurt the economy is a legitimate argument, as is the danger Hugo Chavez poses to the U.S. And saying the incumbent failed to do things that you will do if elected is how a politician campaigns against an opponent.

Obama’s campaign and Obama himself have, in the past week:

  • Continued to press Romney to release his tax returns from before 2010 and continued to criticize Romney for having money (legally) in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands and for having had a Swiss bank account.

  • Released a campaign ad stating a company led by Romney shipped jobs overseas, that as governor of Massachusetts Romney outsourced jobs to India, had a Swiss bank account and kept his money in offshore tax havens.

  • Released a video quoting a Boston Globe story about SEC filings that reported Romney remained an officer of Bain Capital until 2002.

  • Called on Congress to extend tax cuts for only households earning less than $250,000 a year, which Romney opposes.

Again, these are some highlights of the past week from the Obama campaign’s “Blog” page (which is really a collection of press releases) on the campaign website.

And, again, what’s nasty about any of that? That Romney kept money in offshore accounts, had a Swizz bank account, and was listed on SEC filings as an officer of Bain Capital until 2002 are facts. The information in the Obama ad about jobs being moved overseas all comes with the sources of the information listed so you can look it up for yourself.

There are many adjectives journalists could apply to this campaign: contentious, spirited, hard-fought, aggressive, vigorous. Grab a thesaurus and have at it. But I don’t think nasty applies.

Nasty, for me, includes personal attacks (there is nothing personal about examining Romney’s business record or finances, or the statement of the pastor of Obama’s church), hurtful and unsubstantiated rumors, that sort of thing. Not lies — lies are a tool in the politician’s toolbox. It is up to the voters and the journalists to looks at the facts and figure out who’s lying.

Political reporters want a campaign to be nasty for the same reasons a baseball reporter wants to cover a pennant race: it’s more fun, more people read and watch your stories, and your stories seem more important.

Nasty is a subjective adjective, but let’s try to reserve the adjective “nasty” for when things really do get nasty. Joseph Cummins, the author of the 2007 book Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises, recounts in an interview with the website freakonomics.com that in the election of 1964 people working for the campaign of President Lyndon Johnson created a children’s coloring book in which little ones could color in pictures of Republican challenger Barry Goldwater dressed in Klu Klux Klan robes. That's nasty.

Journalists editorialize when they call a political campaign nasty. It is a word of judgement — journalists use that word to tell the reader his or her opinion of the race. No source is cited. According to whom is this campaign is nasty?

I listed some alternative adjectives for this campaign a few paragraphs above — contentious, spirited, hard-fought, aggressive, vigorous — that are evocative but not nearly as judgmental as nasty.

We've got enough divisiveness in our political culture. There's no reason journalists should speciously add to it just to pump some air into a story.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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