Romney, BuzzFeed, and that “Hidden” Op-Ed

Is the press ceding policy-shift reporting to oppo artists?

It was four o’clock on a Friday afternoon when BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, a 22-year old student at St. John’s College, made a serendipitous discovery. Kaczynski, who has already generated a lot of buzz this election season for his talent at mining the Internet for embarrassing material on political candidates, was browsing the web archives of old Mitt Romney sites (Free Strong America, in this case), as he periodically does, looking for nothing in particular.

He found an op-ed Romney had written in July 2009 for USA Today, titled “Why the rush, Mr. President?” In the essay, Romney endorses the Massachusetts health care plan that became law during his governorship of the state—and its individual mandate—as a health care reform model for President Obama.

The op-ed proved that one of Romney’s frequent campaign claims—that he has always argued that the mandate was right for Massachusetts, but not the nation—was false.

In his blog post, “Romney’s Mandate Argument Gets Even Shakier,” The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn asked:

How good is Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski? How lame are the opposition researchers for Mitt Romney’s Republican rivals? We now know that the answer to both questions is “very.”

Accordingly, news of the “unearthed” op-ed—nevermind that it was only 2.5 years old and had been published in the nation’s most-read daily newspaper—spread quickly, shaking the pundit class and recharging Rick Santorum with a rock-hard talking point.

National Review’s Andrew McCarthy called the op-ed “very significant.” Joe Scarborough spoke of the revelation on Morning Joe as if Romney, the campaign’s most reputed flip-flopper, had committed his greatest betrayal: “He lied yesterday—it was on videotape.”

Since then, Santorum has made the op-ed central to his stump speech. Journalists, including Kaczynski, have been digging through archives trying to pin down when Romney thought what about health care. And last Wednesday, Fox anchor Megyn Kelly grilled the candidate over a statement he made in 2008: “I like mandates.”

Not everyone cried “flip-flop”. See Glenn Kessler and Jonathan Chait’s columns for two thoughtful, opposing takes. But, if we accept that there’s meaningful news here, why is the press only wrestling with the issue now? And why did the op-ed (and supporting video) only come to wide attention through the archive-surfing of a part-time BuzzFeed reporter?

Part of the answer may be the mythology that has developed around the college-aged Kaczynski himself. More often called an “opposition researcher” than a journalist, he has quickly built a reputation that commands attention among others in the press for his finds.

Having BuzzFeed, purveyor of “the hottest, most social content on the web,” as the platform for those finds, no doubt helps, as does the backing of Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s scoop-framing, meme-making editor-in-chief. In this case, so did the initially intriguing nugget that when you searched the USA Today site for Romney’s op-ed you got this. Rick Santorum (and surely some others) implied there were sinister forces at work, overlooking the easy-to-ascertain fact that the page could not be displayed for the same perfunctory and banal reason that other op-eds from that era could not be displayed.

I asked Kaczynski if he was surprised Romney’s op-ed, or more generally his position at the time, hadn’t emerged before.

He said no, because Santorum and Gingrich have only “bare-bones operations,” and don’t have teams in place for fundraising or opposition research.

And the media? Shouldn’t they be aware of the candidates’ positions, and question and report—not in the accusatory “gotcha” fashion of the day, but constructively—when they have revised their positions and why? That was a little more surprising to him, he said, given that the op-ed led him to a “whole Pandora’s box” of video clips and statements documenting that Romney advocated Massachusetts’ health care plan for the nation before he didn’t.

It is surprising to us, too. As a 22-year-old, Kaczynksi wasn’t following politics that closely in 2009. Most of the rest of the press corps doesn’t have that excuse and its collective amnesia about this relatively recent history is pretty bizarre.

The fact that a few of them had wrestled with the context—either to much less media traction or to traction that has since been forgotten—is also a sign of our noisy times.

Scott Helman is one. The Boston Globe reporter has chronicled Romney’s history on health care for his paper and in The Real Romney, a book he co-authored with Michael Kranish. “Romney’s words on health care have been under the microscope long before that op-ed resurfaced,” he said.

In the wake of BuzzFeed’s “scoop,” many journalists diligently took up the subject afresh, with the meticulous reporting on Romney’s past health care positions. But in doing so, they tended to absolve themselves from not having done so earlier. As if such awareness and reporting had been outsourced to oppo shops altogether, journalists have framed Kaczynski’s big “discovery” like he did; as a sign of weakness in the other candidate’s campaigns.

Per Alexander Burns of Politico:

Remember that shocking moment on the debate stage, when Santorum confronted Romney with his 2009 USA Today op-ed highlighting the individual mandate as a possible element of national health care reform?

…No, you don’t. And neither does anyone else because — thanks to the total failure of Romney’s opponents to do basic research and preparation — they never happened.

And New York’s Jonathan Chait:

Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, and Jon Huntsman’s campaign all possessed opposition research on Romney’s health care position, which they thought would make him radioactive. But they didn’t want to introduce themselves to the voters by launching harsh attacks. They wanted to establish themselves as popular alternatives, force a one-on-one race, and then go after Romney. But they all had to quit. The three remaining candidates include Ron Paul, who’s functionally allied with Romney, and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both running seat-of-the-pants campaigns.

Almost all the opposition research on Romney’s health care past has come from the media itself. Yet he has generally managed to squirm out of any serious damage.

Chait gives the press credit, but I’d argue it’s too much.

Here’s Noam Schreiber of The New Republic, about BuzzFeed being the first to turn up the “damning” op-ed and video footage:

That the GOP field had somehow overlooked these smoking guns for months was only the latest turn in the campaign’s most confounding subplot…

None of the challengers left standing had much in the way of an opposition-research staff to mine Romney’s health care record or a communications war room to transmit that record to the media and to voters.

Again, wait a moment. If the information is substantive and meaningful, why should the media need a campaign’s communications war room to prompt their reporting of it? In taking such cues, the media effectively drives coversation and primary coverage at only the precise moment a campaign calls for it, and only for the campaign’s purposes of attack.

This seems exactly like what we should not hope for from campaign reporters, an ominous sign of their growing dependence on campaign staffs and ‘gotcha’ stories—a phenomenon Joe Hagan foretold in his New York article “The Coming Tsunami of Slime”:

An Obama ally working for a super-PAC told me that NBC News’s Chuck Todd “doesn’t necessarily have time to sit there and Lexis-Nexis Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital personnel records. In some ways, reporters become traffic cops for information.”

“Research from campaigns has essentially replaced investigative reporting,” says Devorah Adler, a former research director for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “The free press is where people are going to get their information from, so that becomes your missile-delivery system.”

That’s a grim picture of political journalism, possibly, we hope, exaggerated.

BuzzFeed’s Kaczynski, can be seen, perhaps, as offering an alternative model, one of a specialized media landscape in which researchers like him do the digging and reporters elsewhere explain the meaning. Kaczynski says he reports inconsistencies he finds in candidates’ history; he doesn’t judge them or examine why the candidates have shifted their position.

But somebody certainly should. This is something that campaign reporters or pundits that chose to take up the BuzzFeed “scoop” could have done. So is contextualization, and reminding readers, as The Washington Post editorial staff did, that the individual mandate was once a widely-held Republican position, not just another thing on which Romney had changed his tune.

Some have done that, and good for BuzzFeed if it got some reporters to grapple seriously with Romney’s record. But journalists, that’s also your job. You shouldn’t need BuzzFeed to remember this.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , ,