The hacks in the campaign press corps love nothing more than to frame their stories about bad behavior by politicians with a world-weary "both sides do it" sneer -- even if both sides don't do it or at least don't do it in anything like equal proportions. Still, the smart career play for such "journalists" is to find equivalence even if there is none.
The latest example is an article by Michael D. Shear for the New York Times on Friday in which he describes "The 2012 Cycle: Attack, Feign Outrage, Repeat." The article posits that both the Obama and Romney campaigns have taken quotes out of context or made false accusations against the other -- and then "feign" hypocritical outrage when it's done to them.
But the examples that Shear cites are more apples and oranges than rotten apples vs. rotten apples. He mixes in cases in which President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney made actual gaffes, which were legitimately pounced on by the opposing campaigns, with quotes that were presented in a consciously misleading fashion.
For instance, Obama's comment that the "private sector is doing fine" was a legitimate gaffe, as were Romney's lines that "I like to fire people" and "I'm not concerned about the very poor," along with his comment decrying more government spending to hire teachers and firefighters.
These gaffes reflected real tendencies of the candidates. Obama was putting some shine on the weak economic recovery and Romney was demonstrating his callousness toward common people. Yes, the quotes had broader context, but the gaffes were legitimate targets in a campaign.
But Shear equates them with other cases in which Romney's campaign mendaciously exploited Obama's words to mislead voters. Shear then makes fun of the Democratic protests against these willful lies.
"Democrats howled last year when Mr. Romney's campaign produced an ad showing Mr. Obama saying: "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.' It turns out, the clip was from 2008, and Mr. Obama was quoting an aide to Mr. McCain."
Shear then cites "Mr. Romney's turn to cry foul a few months later when Democrats gleefully jumped on Mr. Romney's saying 'I like to fire people' and 'I'm not concerned about the very poor.' They left out the context, he complained, though Democrats paid him no heed. "
"However much they [the Republicans] talked about the importance of context, Mr. Romney's campaign left most of it out in a barrage of ads showing the president saying: 'If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.' He was talking about roads and bridges, a point that was ignored."
So, Shear's tone is one of patronizing disapproval of both sides. But there are real differences in these cases.
Editing Obama's 2008 quote of what the McCain campaign was saying and making it appear to be Obama talking about himself was a lie meant to deceive voters. So was the selective editing around Obama's "you didn't build that" line, a conscious distortion that became a centerpiece of Romney's campaign, complete with T-shirts and signage.
To liken those examples to the Obama campaign citing Romney's remarks about firing people or not caring about the very poor -- or to Romney's pouncing on Obama's "private sector is doing fine" comment -- is simply bad journalism. There is a difference between exploiting an opponent's misstatements and lying.
Similarly, Shear lumps into his condemnations disputes over legitimate questions, such as whether Romney bears any responsibility for the actions of his Bain Capital firm after he went to work at the Winter Olympics in 1999.
For the next three years, Bain Capital filed dozens of filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission -- some signed by Romney himself -- saying that Romney was still in charge, though Romney now insists that he wasn't.