BOB GARFIELD:For weeks now, the Obama campaign has been hitting Mitt Romney hard over claims that during his tenure as CEO of Bain Capital he outsourced American jobs. As you might imagine, the Obama campaign has aggressively pushed this claim in ads in crucial swing states.
ANNOUNCER: Mitt Romney's companies were pioneers in outsourcing U.S. jobs to low-wage countries. Running for governor, Mitt Romney campaigned as a job creator.
MITT ROMNEY: I know how jobs are created.
ANNOUNCER: But as a corporate raider, he shipped jobs to China and Mexico. The Washington Post has just revealed that Romney’s companies were pioneers of shipping US jobs overseas.
BOB GARFIELD: And the President has hit the same point hard in speeches.
Let me tell you, Tim, we do not need an outsourcing pioneer in the Oval Office. We need a president who will fight for American jobs!
BOB GARFIELD: The problem is that Romney denies the charge, and the Obama campaign cannot prove it’s true. FactCheck.org, among others, has written that the outsourcing at Bain Capital took place in the years after Romney surrendered management of the company and its assets to run the Salt Lake City Olympics in February of 1999. It’s a murky issue, made murkier by Thursday’s Boston Globe report revealing numerous government filings by Romney from 1999 to 2002, indicating he remained sole owner of the company and was getting compensation for management duties.
Romney’s camp has asked for a correction, The Globe has refused. According to political scientist and media critic Brendan Nyhan, the story would be a lot less confusing if the media would just do a better job.
BRENDAN NYHAN: The Obama campaign has released a series of ads that suggest to viewers that Romney was actively participating in shipping jobs overseas, in particular to China and Mexico. While the legal status of his employment at Bain is murky during the period in question, they haven’t been able to provide any direct evidence that he had day-to-day control or operational responsibility for any of those decisions.
BOB GARFIELD: Your piece not only took off on the Obama campaign for making these unverifiable charges, but also the press for continuing to report the charges without bothering to take note of fact-checking and without going out on its own to see if the Obama campaign’s claims hold water.
BRENDAN NYHAN: We’ve seen a lot of “he said, she said” reporting. The Obama campaign says X, Romney says Y. Who knows who’s right? And, you know, the other thing we’ve seen in a lot of analysis of tactics. Is this a successful approach for the Obama campaign? Who’s likely to win this debate? Who’s going to gain the advantage from it? And that sort of punditry is often not especially useful.
BOB GARFIELD: Among the news organizations you say that have done exactly this kind of “he said, she said” reporting, you know, we’re not talking about minor players. We’re talking about the L.A. Times, the AP, CBS News. If I understand your charge, the big boys are kind of carrying the water for the Obama campaign by simply not doing enough truth-squading on the claims.
BRENDAN NYHAN: News organizations have to take some responsibility, when they air these claims, for trying to verify them, particularly if they’re central to the campaign in the way that I think Romney’s experience at Bain will be. They need to invest the time and resources in reporting the story out or, at the least, for those publishing after the FactCheck.org piece came out, they could always refer their viewers or readers to that story to give them some sense of the evidence supporting these claims.
BOB GARFIELD: On Thursday, the Boston Globe broke a story that said, according to SEC filings, Romney was in full financial control of Bain as late as 2002, three years after he had previously said he left the company. The Globe story doesn’t provide evidence that he was still wielding the levers of power there, but that at least on paper he was in charge.
BRENDAN NYHAN:And to many people’s minds, that may make him morally responsible for decisions made by Bain in that period, and that’s a perfectly fair argument to have. But it’s important to note here that FactCheck.org has considered this evidence already, as have other media outlets and reporters. Just to quote from their response, “Nothing in the SEC documents contradicts what Romney has certified as true, which is the statement that he was not in active operational control of Bain during this period.” So these SEC filings, to those of us who have following the debate closely, don’t change the answer to the question of who had operational control, as far as we know.
BOB GARFIELD: So we actually know not much more than we did a day ago, but suddenly Obama doesn’t have to answer for his claims, Romney has to answer for his.
BRENDAN NYHAN: That’s right. The news here is Romney’s campaign’s evolving denials, as opposed to the Obama ads which, at this point in our 24-hour news cycle, are old news, as people shift to parsing the various responses from the Romney campaign it gets harder and harder for them politically.
BOB GARFIELD: What’s so frustrating about this is that these issues are not unknowable. Every company that was owned or controlled by Bain had employees who either were on the phone and in contact with Mitt Romney or were not. There’re lots of them. As far as I know, there is not a single reporter who has been able to locate these live human beings.
BRENDAN NYHAN: It’s amazing that more of this hasn’t come out. It certainly seems like a knowable, answerable question. The story isn’t going away. Obama would love nothing more than to keep talking about the potentially negative side of Romney’s wealth and business experience from now until November, so the press does need to sort this out.
And it needs to figure out not just what the truth is, but how to present that truth in a way that’s both accurate and succinct enough to fit into the kind of day-to-day campaign stories we typically see.
BOB GARFIELD: Is this story most indicting of one of the following: the Obama campaign’s ethics, Mitt Romney’s veracity, or the American political system that makes this a story along Jeremiah Wright lines?
BRENDAN NYHAN: I’ll go with C. I think A and B are, are matters of personal opinion. But what we do see here are some of the institutional weaknesses of the American press. The objective ideal of journalism has many virtues but, unfortunately, it provides a disincentive for getting to the truth when there are conflicting claims because that’s an awkward thing to do. And so, we see a lot of reluctance to dig deeper. But this is a case where we just don’t have any other choice.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you, Brendan.
BRENDAN NYHAN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Brendan Nyhan is a writer and assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.