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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Romney Hijacks Credibility

A new Mitt Romney campaign ad passes off opinions of a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush as though they were from a newspaper’s reporters or editors. It’s a political trick used by both sides: hijacking a news organization’s credibility.

In this example, the Romney ad attacks President Obama’s mandate requiring employers to provide health insurance that includes free contraception. It attributes to the San Antonio Express-News the words: “Obama’s Insurance Decision Declares War on Religion.”

But the newspaper didn’t say that in any editorial or news article. That headline appeared over an opinion piece by a nationally syndicated columnist who has worked for Republicans in the past. And to make this example worse, the same columnist later softened his “war on religion” opinion after the president modified the mandate.

We’ve seen plenty of this sort of thing, from both parties. For instance, earlier this year, one ad, from a group that says it’s supported by veterans, claimed that the Washington Post said Obama had “shameless gall” to use Osama bin Laden’s death to score political points. But the Post didn’t say that. Instead, the words appeared in a headline over a piece by a long-time Republican operative and lobbyist. A recent Obama ad hijacks CNN’s credibility by attributing the opinions of two outside contributors to the network, using a barely legible disclaimer that it’s from an “op-ed.”

Campaigns also are fond of quoting themselves, but attributing the quote to a newspaper story that included the campaign’s or candidate’s words. For example, in 2008, an Obama campaign ad gave viewers the impression that the Washington Post had found that Obama’s health care plan would save the “typical family” $2,500. But instead of citing the newspaper, the campaign should have cited itself. The Post article simply reported that “[t]he senator’s aides estimated that his plan would save the average family $2,500 per year.”

The Romney ad says that Obama “used his health care plan to declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith.” Romney, it says, “believes that’s wrong,” and the ad goes on to use words and images of Pope John Paul II, and to note an endorsement of Romney by Lech Walesa, the former Polish president who helped defeat communism in the country. The ad doesn’t make clear that it’s talking about a policy, announced in January, requiring most employers to offer their employees insurance that covers birth control for free. The policy exempted churches, but initially still applied to organizations with religious affiliations, including universities and hospitals. That upset the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, among other groups. In February, the Obama administration changed the mandate to say that religious organizations would be able to opt out, but insurance companies would pick up the cost of the contraception.

Whether any of that amounts to a “war on religion” is opinion. But the Romney campaign implied that it was also the San Antonio Express-News‘ opinion, showing the words “Obama’s Insurance Decision Declares War on Religion” and attributing it to the newspaper. But, as in our other examples of this tactic, the Express-News didn’t say that. Those words were the headline over a piece by conservative columnist Michael Gerson, who writes for the Washington Post. Gerson’s column — which was very critical of Obama not exempting institutions with religious affiliations — ran in the Express-News on Feb. 1 and originally in the Post on Jan. 30. Gerson, who was extremely critical of Obama’s policy, said “the war on religion is now formally declared.” Gerson was a speechwriter and senior aide to President George W. Bush, a speechwriter for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, and policy director for Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana.

Obama amended the policy on Feb. 10, after Gerson’s column was published. The revised policy said that organizations with a religious affiliation wouldn’t have to provide or pay for birth control — instead, insurance companies would pick up the cost. Churches, as we said earlier, were already entirely exempt from the policy. That didn’t appease the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others, who argued that religious employers would ultimately pick up the cost through higher premiums. The Obama administration countered that free contraception coverage is cost neutral. We found conflicting and inconclusive evidence on those claims.

In a Feb. 13 column, after the modified policy was announced, Gerson still was critical of the president, but said that “an indirect requirement is less aggressive and humiliating than a direct one,” and that “Obama has partially defused a crisis of his own creation.”

Again, whether the Obama policy — either initially or after it was modified — amounts to a “war on religion” is a matter of opinion, and voters can make up their own minds about that. But the Romney ad doesn’t reveal exactly what it’s criticizing, and it hijacks the credibility of a newspaper to make its case.

— Lori Robertson

Footnote: This ad was approved by Romney but paid for by the Republican National Committee.

Update, Aug. 13: More examples of this tactic can be found on the Patterns of Deception page of our sister site, FlackCheck.org, under “Misappropriating the Credibility of News.”