- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mitt Romney urged the country’s news editors on Wednesday to delve more deeply into what he said were President Obama’s secret second-term plans, telling them they have a duty to “do the seeking” to expose what the White House has in store.

He made the remarks to the American Society of News Editors, meeting in Washington, a day after Mr. Obama met with them and told them not to buy into an equivalence between the two parties, saying Democrats have remained mainstream but the Republicans have tilted far to the right of where they were a couple of decades ago.

The exchange marked the first time Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, have gone tit-for-tat in a dueling format like that. It gave both men a chance to work the referees, trying to sway the reporters and editors whose coverage will help determine which man is victorious in November.

“I find myself missing the presence of editors to exercise quality control. I miss the days of two or more sources for a story — when at least one source was actually named,” Mr. Romney told the editors, huddled for a convention in downtown Washington.

Mr. Romney even noted a decline in standards since his last run for the presidency, four years ago: “In 2008, the coverage was about what I said in my speech. These days, it’s about what brand of jeans I am wearing and what I ate for lunch.”

Mr. Obama told the editors that Mr. Romney and the Republican Party he seeks to lead have moved to the right and said it’s not fair to blame both sides equally for political gridlock in Washington.

“This bears on your reporting,” he said. “I think that there is oftentimes the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And an equivalence is presented, which reinforces, I think, people’s cynicism about Washington generally.”

He said that when it comes to the budget debates, health care and the environment, his side has been prepared to move, but Republicans have not. This belies the belief that both sides are intractable, he added.

“So as all of you are doing your reporting, I think it’s important to remember that the positions I’m taking now on the budget and a host of other issues, if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago or even 15 years ago, would have been considered squarely centrist positions,” Mr. Obama said. “What’s changed is the center of the Republican Party.”

The press is a popular target for attacks by politicians, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, said each candidate now can tell his supporters that he took on the news media.

As for the press, she said editors and reporters have heard the complaints before, so “the remarks are unlikely to affect either attitudes or behaviors.”

Still, Ms. Jamieson said the two men likely managed to boost the preferred story lines they hope reporters will pursue: in Mr. Obama’s case that Republicans have tilted far to the right, and in Mr. Romney’s case that Mr. Obama is hiding his second-term plans from the public.

“Featuring some rather than others is the equivalent of choosing to air one attack ad rather than another. That line of argument will be closer to top of mind as these individuals write. The object is not persuasion but increasing [the] salience of one line of attack over others,” she said.

They aren’t the first candidates to bash the press as a way of pushing for more favorable coverage or to show their supporters they are fighting.

Sen. John McCain, who won the 2008 Republican presidential nomination by defeating Mr. Romney, among others, only to fall to Mr. Obama in the general election, pointedly took on the New York Times during that campaign and helped rally conservative voters to his side.

All campaigns rely on reporters’ conclusions to back up claims in their campaign ads and to blame the other side for going out of bounds.

After their speeches this week, news organizations jumped to pick apart both men’s claims. In the case of Mr. Obama, various organizations said he shaded the facts in his criticism of House Republicans’ 2013 budget plan. Mr. Romney’s remarks Wednesday earned the same treatment, with the Associated Press saying he went too far when he accused the president of “apologizing for America abroad.”

“These were not apologies, formal or informal,” the AP reporters concluded.

Mr. Romney also called on the press to take a closer look at what Mr. Obama has planned for a second term and said the exchange last week between Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, caught by a hidden microphone, was telling.

Mr. Obama was heard, when he thought no open microphones were nearby, asking the Russian government not to pressure him before the election on missile defense, and he signaled he will have more “flexibility” to negotiate afterward, when he won’t need to vet those positions with voters.

“He does not want to share his real plans before the election, either with the public or with the press,” Mr. Romney told the editors. “By flexibility, he means that ‘what the American public doesn’t know won’t hurt him.’ He is intent on hiding. You and I will have to do the seeking.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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