Dear media: here is why nobody trusts you anymore

Liar LiarAmericans don’t trust their press corps to tell them the truth. Why should that be?

I would submit that this story, published on CNN’s Political Ticker blog yesterday, illustrates one reason.

Gibbs: Romney has advantage in debates

(CNN) – A senior Obama campaign adviser said Mitt Romney has a leg up on President Barack Obama in the upcoming presidential debates.

“Mitt Romney I think has an advantage, because he’s been through 20 of these debates in the primaries over the last year,” Gibbs said Sunday on Fox News…

On Air Force One on Monday, Obama campaign press secretary Jen Psaki claimed Romney was doing more preparation for the debates “than any candidate in modern history.”

“They’ve made clear that his performing well is a make-or-break piece for their campaign,” Psaki said of the Romney team’s efforts.

The “news” in this piece is that two professional Democratic strategists claim that Republican Mitt Romney will have an advantage in the upcoming debates, because his path through the Republican primaries required him to participate in many debates, whereas President Obama’s path to renomination did not.

The problem with this “news” is that it, well, isn’t. It isn’t news at all. It’s 100% pure political spin, and fairly transparent political spin at that.

You see, it’s a fairly elementary bit of conventional wisdom in politics that when a debate approaches, you spend the time leading up to it talking up the debating prowess of your opponent. Why? Because doing so is a no-lose proposition; if your candidate loses the debate, you can say it was only because the opponent had such legendary debating skill, and if your candidate wins, you can say what an amazing feat it was to slay such a mighty opponent.

So that explains why Gibbs and Psaki are pushing this line — they’re running interference for President Obama. But why is CNN repeating it?

Neither Gibbs nor Psaki offers any evidence to back up their claims, after all. They just offer a theory, that the Republican primary process honed Romney’s debate skills to a fearsome level of keenness. Which might be an interesting theory, if only it didn’t run counter to everything we’ve seen from Romney over the last few weeks.

Can anyone look at the Romney campaign and honestly say that there’s a shred of evidence that Romney has matured into some kind of Great Communicator? This is a man whose biggest speech to date was upstaged by a man doing improv with a chair. It would take some serious evidence to convince an objective reader that Romney truly has a leg up on Obama going into the debates; but CNN offers none, preferring instead to just echo the spin they got from Gibbs and Psaki.

Beyond that, though, there’s another dimension that makes this offense worse. I guarantee you that nobody at CNN — nobodywho was involved with the production of this story actually believes its premise. They don’t believe that Romney’s been sharpened into a fearsome debater. They don’t even believe that Gibbs and Psaki are dealing with them honestly.

They know they’re being spun, and they know that all they’re doing is passing the misleading spin along to their readers. But they just don’t care. It was said by a political figure, so as far as they’re concerned, it’s worthy of passing along.

The cynicism of this line of thinking should be breathtaking. The only reason it isn’t is because we’ve had so many lies passed along to us uncritically by our media that one more lacks the power to shock.

“Spin” is a cute-sounding word, but we should be clear about what it really means. Spin is an attempt to mislead the listener in ways that benefit the spinner. I can understand why a political operative would want to do that. What I can’t understand is why a media outlet — an organization whose entire purpose is to inform its readers — would pass it along without comment.

It shows very clearly who exactly they believe they serve, and it isn’t you and I. It’s the players, the professionals in the game of politics. The assertion Gibbs and Psaki are making is part of the ritualized structure of American politics; it’s what flacks do before every debate. And CNN sees itself as part of that ritual. Not as a guide to it for the rest of us, a vehicle for cutting through the Kabuki to the reality underneath. As a participant. A player. 

In other words, they see themselves as peers of Gibbs and Psaki, chuckling at the suckers and rubes who might actually believe this nonsense — said suckers and rubes being, of course, their readers. And that’s an attitude that absolutely kills trust. Nobody’s going to trust someone who’s more interested in the approval of the person ripping you off than in helping you avoid getting ripped off.

UPDATE (Oct. 1): Charles P. Pierce makes the same point more eloquently, as usual:

[I]gnore any pundit who attempts to explain the strategy in advance, or who attempts to assess a candidate’s performance retroactively, through what the pundit calls, “the expectations game.”

The Expectations Game is a scam, perpetrated by the candidates themselves, which the elite political media know is a scam, but which they use as a metric anyway because all of them — the candidates, their coat-holders, and the media — think you’re stupid.