Why Does Obama 'Evolve' but Romney 'Flip-Flop'?

Most of the press has covered President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney differently in how they changed positions on issues, notes Brendan Nyhan, political science professor at Darmouth College, in a Columbia Journalism Review article. Nyhan believes that the differences can be attributed to less media scrutiny of Obama during his 2004 senate race, Obama's greater skill at explaining his changed positions, and the media's "authenticity fetish."

"Despite the media's portrayal of Romney as a uniquely craven politician, the recent controversy over Obama's views on gay marriage highlights the ways that both candidates -- like nearly all politicians -- have adjusted their positions over their careers for political reasons," Nyhan writes in the article titled, "Obama 'evolves,' Romney 'flip-flops'."

Vice President Joe Biden seemed to announce support for same-sex marriage in a Sunday interview, before administration officials backtracked. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he supported same-sex marriage the next day. During the controversy, there was much media coverage of how Obama had changed his position.

Obama supported same-sex marriage when he was a state senator representing Chicago, Ill., but changed his position before running statewide for the U.S. Senate, where opposition to same-sex marriage would be more favorable to winning election.

The difference in how the media covered Obama's changing positions and Romney's changing positions was "striking," Nyhan wrote in the article published Tuesday, before Obama announced Wednesday that he had changed his position once again to now supporting same-sex marriage.

The media has covered Romney's changing positions as saying something about flaws in Romney's character. As an example, Nyhan cited one Boston Globe reporter who wrote that Romney's position changes suggest that he has "few core beliefs that bind [him] to any governing or political philosophy."

With Obama, on the other hand, the story is framed as one of election challenges, but the media has not suggested that it says anything about Obama's character, Nyhan argued. Indeed, some reporters went so far as to suggest that Obama should "flip-flop" on the issue by favoring same-sex marriage.

Nyhan suggested three reasons for the differences in coverage. First, Obama easily won his U.S. Senate race in 2004. As a result, there was less media coverage of how he changed his positions for the more moderate statewide race. Romney, on the other hand, has been under much more scrutiny in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaign.

Second, Nyhan wrote that Romney has also been less skilled than Obama at "glossing over his changed views." The third explanation, which is the "underlying problem," is "the media's authenticity fetish."

"Reporters should of course fact-check false and misleading claims from political figures and pressure candidates and their surrogates to be truthful. Journalists have an important role to play in pushing back when candidates dissemble about their opponents or their policy proposals. But in a system in which politicians must adapt their own views to a shifting electorate, the media's focus on discovering the 'real' person behind the candidate's public statements frequently produces pathological coverage," Nyhan wrote.

Voters should come to expect, Nyhan believes, that politicians will modify their positions on issues as electoral circumstances change.

"The straight-talking politician who always says what he thinks and never changes his mind for political reasons is a fiction. In a democracy like ours, true honesty is the price of representation."

Nyhan, who describes himself as a "media critic" on his blog, co-authored All the President's Spin: George W. Bush, the Media and the Truth (2004), which argued that President George W. Bush was able to get away with half-true and ambiguous language because the media failed to hold him accountable.

The Columbia Journalism review, housed at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, is "both a watchdog and a friend of the press," its mission statement says.

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