Distortion

03.21.14

When Campaign Spin Becomes Fact

Mitt Romney never said all Jeep production would move to China, yet Democrats and the media exaggerated his claim until it became something they knocked down as untrue.

Let’s be honest: Al Gore didn’t really invent the Internet.

And John Kerry isn’t really French.

But both were asserted in various forms by Republicans in 2000 and 2004. It was campaign spin and gamesmanship and seemed to be understood by everyone as such. 

Fair enough.  Exaggeration and hyperbole are constant campaign companions, as useful and expected as hammers and saws on a construction site.  Those wishing to make a point pull them out as needed. 

Lately though it seems the line between spin and reality is harder to discern.  Maybe it’s a sign of the increasing throw weight of campaigns – billions spent instead of mere millions – and the ways in which campaigns flood the information zones of paid and social media. But whatever the reasons, campaign myths are increasingly likely to be accepted as truth.

Take my former boss, Mitt Romney, and the flap over a Jeep plant in Ohio. The fact pattern, as the lawyers say, is simple and clear. On October 21, 2012, Bloomberg News ran an article with a quote from the Chief Operating Officer of Fiat, which was then the majority owner of Chrysler and is now the sole owner.

The Bloomberg article was headlined, “Jeep Output May Return to China As Demand Rises.” The COO of Fiat was clear that Jeep was considering “localizing” IE moving Jeep production to China:

“The volume opportunity for us is very significant,” Manley, who is also president of the Jeep brand, said in an interview at Chrysler’s Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters “We’re reviewing the opportunities within existing capacity” as well as “should we be localizing the entire Jeep portfolio or some of the Jeep portfolio.”

A few days after the story came out, Romney appeared at a night rally in Defiance, Ohio. The largest employer in town is a General Motors supplier and there is a heavy United Auto Workers presence and long tradition of involvement in the car industry. The comments by the Fiat COO had received attention and been mentioned often by voters on the campaign trail.

So in his speech that night, Romney put in a line about the Bloomberg story and the COO’s quotes: “I saw a story today that one of the great manufacturers in this state, Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China. I will fight for every good job in America, I’m going to fight to make sure trade is fair.”

That’s it. It was not a big story. The New York Times and Washington Post did not mention it in their coverage.

The next day, Chrysler panicked and tried to walk the story back, though they never challenged the accuracy of the COO quote. They did what nervous corporations – and politicians - do all the time. They told the public not to believe that the COO meant what he said even though, yes, he said it. Their release read:

“Let’s set the record straight: Jeep has no intention of shifting production of its Jeep models out of North America to China. It’s simply reviewing the opportunities to return Jeep output to China for the world’s largest auto market.”

It was a self-contradictory statement meant to obscure the facts. “Returning Jeep output to China” is a benign description for shifting Jeep production for China from the US to China. At the time 100 percent of the Jeeps sold in China were made in the US and Chrysler/Fiat were considering moving that production to China.

In fact, that is exactly what they did.  In January 2013, Fiat announced that it was shifting production for the China market to China. “Fiat and its Chinese partner are near a deal to begin producing Jeeps in China for the Chinese market for the first time since 2006,” reported Automotive News. “Jeep already sells several models in China, including the Grand Cherokee, Wrangler and Compass, but they are imported,” reported the Huffington Post.  Yes, imported from the U.S. where they were built by Americans.

Chrysler/Fiat’s desire to produce Jeeps in China is driven by the 25-percent import tariff the Chinese impose on U.S.-built cars. It’s one more example of China crushing American workers with unfair trade policies. The Jeeps that were made in America and sold to the Chinese will now be made in China and sold to the Chinese. That’s a lost battle in the trade war. Trade with China was an interesting point of contention in the campaign as conservatives frequently criticized Romney’s tough stance on trade with China.

What the COO of Fiat said in October 2012 should have been embraced as a warning of the dangers of continuing a trade policy with China that is hurting Americans. Instead, it became a campaign flash point with a narrative driven by both the Obama campaign and Fiat/Chrysler, both eager to paint a rosy picture of American autoworkers and America’s trade policy with China.

That’s not surprising. Campaigns are superheated environments and everyone, including journalists, gets caught up in the moment. Mistakes happen, nuance is often lost, and everything is seen through a prism of who is winning and who is losing. It’s just the reality of our system.

But after the campaign, it’s reasonable to expect that a process will begin to separate campaign myth from truth. When campaign myths continue as fact, no one is well served.. Last week, Bloomberg published a story headlined, “The Jeep Plant Mitt Romney Said Was Moving to China is Hiring 1,000 workers in Ohio.” This is Bloomberg contradicting Bloomberg.  Romney never said the plant was moving to China; he basically quoted the COO of Fiat in saying that the company was considering shifting production for China from the U.S. to China, which they have done.  The story goes on to marvel that “15 percent of the Cherokees built at the Ohio plant” are “destined for international markets.”

Nowhere does it acknowledge that Cherokees will now be built in China by Chinese and previously, 100 percent of Cherokees for China were made in U.S. Nor does it mention that Jeep, saved by U.S. taxpayers, is now a wholly owned subsidiary of an Italian company now hiring Chinese workers to manufacture an American icon..

But if there is one thing we have learned over past 50 years, it is that the Big Three have a powerful ability to push their side of a story. This Bloomberg piece even puts a positive spin on the fact that the vast majority of the additional workers are temporary workers. It notes that of the 380 temp workers hired so far in Ohio, 50 had become full-time employees. That means that if they do hit 1,000 new temp workers, fewer than 150 will work full time. Meanwhile, they are hiring full-time workers in China.

In a rush to keep political score, a nuanced story of mixed success is supplanted by the Chrysler-Fiat spin that somehow shifting production from the U.S. to China is a great success.  “This is all great news for the workers and their families, for Ohio and for Jeep,” the story claims. Not really. It’s actually a parable of the mixed blessing in competing with a country that doesn’t give U.S. workers a fair shot.

The same phenomena of campaign spin being accepted as fact has occurred on the foreign policy front.  Romney famously called Russia “our number one geopolitical foe,” distinguishing it from Iran which he described as our greatest “threat.” The Obama campaign tried to muddle the two, attacking Romney for calling Russia our greatest threat and using it as a sign of his “Cold War mentality.” OK, that’s what campaigns do: they exaggerate and spin. But now the Obama spin seems to be taken as fact with New York Times’ White House correspondent, Helene Cooper remarking on Meet the Press that Romney had called Russia  “our No. 1 strategic threat back during the campaign."

Well, no.

All campaigns, Democrat and Republican, twist facts into the best light and spin their hearts out, but when this spin becomes accepted as reality it serves the public poorly. As campaigns spend more money, go on longer and dominate more of our public discussion – 2016 is already tiresome – the tendency for campaign truth to become “truth” will be all the greater. Soon we’ll just accept that every news cycle is a campaign cycle and all truth is campaign truths.

Well, let’s hope not.