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The 2012 election was an irresponsible, deceitful, ignorant affair—the worst campaign in memory. But we’d better get used to it. Candidates are no different from pro athletes, used car salesmen, or Wall Street bankers—whatever they can get away with, they will do. And 2012 proved that candidates can get away with almost any kind of lie, prevarication, or absurdity.

Unprecedented lies, deceits, and cover-ups

This politically-savvy community doesn’t really need proof of how low the right wing has stooped. I’ll keep it short and focus exclusively on Exhibit A, the campaign of Mitt Romney.

Romney’s outright lies included: that the President went on a worldwide “apology” tour; that Obamacare would “rob” Medicare of $716 billion; that Romney favored the bailout plan which saved the U.S. auto industry; that Jeep manufacturing jobs would be shipped to China; that Obama didn’t denounce “terrorism” after the killings in Benghazi; that Obama curtailed the work requirement in welfare; that Romney’s tax plan wouldn’t reduce taxes for the rich; and that Romney’s “you didn’t build that” attack was something other than a disgraceful, dishonestly edited videotape.

In addition, Romney’s barely-disguised deceits included: claiming his budget numbers were anything but fantasy; asserting that he disclosed policy positions while refusing to give any detail whatsoever; and saying that Romneycare was materially different from Obamacare. And some of his obvious cover-ups were: he wouldn’t release much about his taxes despite years of precedent for disclosure; he wouldn’t provide a routine list of his fundraising bundlers; and he collaborated with SuperPACs in a manner that was never intended to be legal.

These lies and deceptions were not incidental to the Romney campaign—they were central to it. The Romney campaign lies would have made even George W. Bush (circa 2000) blush. Once upon a time there was a thing called shame. A candidate could be shamed into reasonably civil behavior. A party could be shamed into not sabotaging its own country. But Romney and his allies proved they will shamelessly say (and do) anything.

A democracy cannot function when truth is irrelevant to political debate, when facts are manufactured at will, when voter persuasion is no more elevated than a schoolyard shouting match. But in 2012, we sunk that low. How did this happen?

It’s the media, stupid

The media—newspapers, radio, and especially television networks—used to act as watchdogs, alerting the public when campaigns went just too far. News reporters weren’t always alert or objective, but candidates could not lie with impunity.

Over the last two decades the media have gradually changed.

First, right wingers created vast propaganda organs masquerading as sources of news. Obviously the biggest of them is Fox News, led by Republican operative Roger Ailes and owned by extreme ideologue Rupert Murdock. But there’s also Rush Limbaugh, Christian right broadcasting, and a flood of blatantly right-wing magazines, pollsters, and websites. If we look at them honestly, none are “news” media. They are news-themed entertainment for the conservative base.

People can now get all their political and policy information from sources that are not attempting to deliver facts. We can’t stop well-financed right wingers from abusing the First Amendment. But why do legitimate reporters and news networks insult themselves by pretending that they’re in the same business as Fox and that crowd?

Second, the mainstream media has slowly changed its “rules” to substitute balance for truth. In just about any mainstream news story (that is, not including editorials and columns), the reporter will quote one side and then the other, providing a balance of views. But this technique sacrifices the truth when independent research and objective reporting would find that one or both sides are lying—which is all too common. The right wing fully understands these “rules” and uses them to launch outrageous falsehoods. The mainstream media repeats the lies and balances them with a quote from the other side. The right-wing strategy relies on the fact that mainstream reporters will almost never state an obvious truth or call out an obvious lie. Just when we need reporters to act as referees, they impersonate play-by-play announcers instead.

A corollary of the “balance” rule is that reporters feel they have to blame both parties nearly equally. Gridlock, therefore, is the fault of both parties even when Republican obstruction tactics are unprecedented. Money in politics is a bipartisan problem, even when Republicans grab the lion’s share. And both sides must be blamed for lying, even when that assertion is itself a lie. On progressive blogs we call this “false equivalency,” but that’s an idea rarely expressed elsewhere. As a result of this corollary, the media’s so-called “fact-checkers” are frequently the worst purveyors of false information. Bending over backwards to balance their columns, they declare that some detail where they quibble with a Democrat’s interpretation of statistics is the moral equivalent of a calculated lie invented by a Republican’s campaign.

Why did these people become reporters in the first place? Surely most went to journalism school with an idealistic desire to expose truth—the profession doesn’t pay enough to justify another motive. Can’t they summon up a little pride and, at least when it really counts, tell readers the real-world truth in language that average voters can understand? For example, an editorial in Sunday’s Washington Post called out Romney for his “chronic, baldly dishonest defense of mathematically impossible budget proposals.” Shouldn’t objective news reporters have pointed out this obvious dishonesty, over and over, for the last several months?

Third, the media treats elections in a way that makes their stories useless to the democratic process. Months before an election a newspaper might run some serious comparisons of the candidates’ proposals. There may also be sporadic investigations of the candidates’ backgrounds. But overwhelmingly, campaign news coverage is limited to the very superficial matters of poll results, political strategy, and so-called gaffes. Again, reporters act like they are play-by-play announcers at a sporting event. And yet, democracy is not a sport.

Consider the first presidential debate. All of us—including Obama—agree that he didn’t play the game well that night. But what was really newsworthy about that debate was the unprecedented number of false statements from Romney. By any measure, Romney told more lies more outrageously than any major party nominee in any televised presidential debate—ever. That was the crucial “truth” of the evening, and it received virtually no news coverage in the mainstream media.

The choice for President is enormously serious—it affects who will live and who will die, who will prosper and who will starve. It does not matter to our country and our world how a candidate recites talking points, or whether a candidate smiles or frowns, or if a candidate delivers satisfying zingers—what matters is what he or she will do as President.

Perversely, the closer the election, the less substantive news coverage becomes. The last few weeks of coverage are devoid of substance. And yet, that is exactly when undecided voters are looking for information. Do reporters understand so little of politics that they don’t know this? Why have they completely surrendered the historic role of the press in a democracy?

Seven months ago a top Romney advisor told us that his candidate would reinvent himself after the primary season. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” That’s just what Romney did, on issue after issue, over and over again. And it worked! It’s true that, despite Romney’s tactics, we expect Obama to win tonight. But it won’t be because undecided voters understood and were persuaded on the crucial issues of our time.

What kind of campaign can we expect in 2014? An ugly one. We’ll probably see an escalation in lies and deceit, with many candidates refusing to disclose previously routine information. That is, unless we can persuade some portion of the mainstream media to do their jobs.

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The writer is a Senior Advisor at Progressive Majority Action Fund. He is the co-author of Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates (2012) and author of Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People (2008).

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