Emotional inferences vs. transparent lies

Updated
 

We talked yesterday afternoon about Mark Halperin drawing a parallel between two controversial campaign ads: a Priorities USA Action ad showing a widowed steel worker and a Mitt Romney ad on welfare policy. Halperin suggested both are equally problematic, while I argued this is misleading – one ad is blatantly dishonest and the other isn’t.

To his credit, Halperin elaborated in a subsequent piece. Unfortunately, however, Time’s senior political analyst is moving in the wrong direction.

Here’s the thing: both sides already have made ads that, unfortunately and undeniably, stretch the truth on various matters of policy. Pinocchios have been given out left and right like speeding tickets on the Connecticut Turnpike. […]

This new super PAC spot, called “Understands,” which the White House and the Obama campaign decline to repudiate, is a horse of a different color. It really isn’t about policy (although some Democrats will claim otherwise). It is meant to use the emotion of a tragic story told by a bereaved widower to make voters think Governor Romney is callous and indifferent, and even is accountable for a woman’s death.

Responsible journalists will continue to do their best in the Freak Show environment to truth squad every ad, video, and communication. But when lines of decency are crossed, more strenuous efforts are required.

In other words, I expressed concerns about a false equivalence, and Halperin’s response, in effect, is, “Fine, there is no equivalence; the Democratic ad is worse.”

But it’s really not. The super PAC’s ad is obviously provocative, but a detailed analysis shows that it’s clearly defensible. Jonathan Cohn and Michael Kinsley published thoughtful pieces on the substance of the commercial overnight, and both make compelling cases that the Priorities USA Action ad is based on fact, even if the ad makers took some liberties. It’s probably fair to say the Democrats are close to the line on this one, but didn’t quite cross it – the super PAC could have been fairer, but it didn’t lie.

Indeed, Halperin appears disgusted by the Democratic spot, but he doesn’t point to any inaccuracies. Rather, he’s concerned about the “use” of “emotion” that crosses “lines of decency.”

But at the root of Halperin’s argument is a flawed premise: he sees an emotional inference from an independent group as being far more offensive than a racially-charged, unambiguous lie from a man who may soon be the leader of the free world. I think that’s backwards.

What’s more, Halperin is inclined to overlook Romney’s welfare lie as par for the course. It’s upsetting, the argument goes, but nothing out of the ordinary.

I strongly disagree. Romney, desperate to change the subject away from his still-secret tax returns, has made up policy claims out of whole cloth. It is as demonstrably dishonest as any ad ever aired by a major-party presidential candidate – it’s not spinning details; it’d not hiding in gray areas; it’s just lying to the public. The racial subtext of the disgusting smear only adds insult to injury, raising questions anew about the character of the man who would put this garbage on the air, and say “I approve this message” at the end.

If media professionals treat this as routine, we encourage more dishonesty. If politicians knew they’d be confronted with headlines that read, “Candidate A caught lying about B,” they’d be far more deliberate about telling the truth.

For Halperin, some fact-checking websites can scrutinize the mendacity, but the political world should reserve it’s true outrage for emotional inferences from an independent group that aired a defensible ad that’s largely based on fact.

This is a mistake.

Mark Halperin and Welfare

Emotional inferences vs. transparent lies

Updated