Campaign Reporting Run Amok

Campaign Reporting Run Amok

Debunking pseudo-journalism on Romney's business dealings with Russia and China.

Nothing appears to make some reporters drool quite like the prospect of accusing a public figure of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, in many cases runaway salivary glands seem also to affect optic nerves and synapses too—not to mention good judgment. Stephen Braun’s October 10 AP story, “Romney’s Bain Advisers Aided China, Russia Growth” is a prime example of the resulting pseudo-journalism. While the article is perhaps not too important on its own, it deserves special attention because it echoes central themes of President Obama’s reelection campaign.

Braun essentially elaborates on efforts by Bain & Co. to do business in China and Russia in the early 1990s and juxtaposes this work with Governor Mitt Romney’s positions as a presidential candidate in 2012, implicitly suggesting that there is something wrong with trying to make money in China and Russia twenty years ago and then criticizing their conduct today. However, it fails to meet a fundamental standard of journalistic writing: the “so what?” test.

First, it is flawed to suggest that decisions twenty years ago in a totally different context are somehow relevant today. In fairness to Braun, this is a widespread failing in U.S. political debates, where the Internet has transformed “opposition research” by exponentially increasing the information available to anyone who wants to target someone else for any reason. That said, as I tell my children, the fact that everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right.

Second, setting aside the general point that it would be irresponsible as a nation to select leaders incapable of changing their views in response to evolving international conditions over two decades, what is the problem with trying to make money in China and Russia in the early 1990s (or now for that matter)? At the time, U.S. government policy—in both cases—was to increase political, economic and security engagement with both countries in an effort to integrate them into the U.S.-led post-Cold War international order. Actually, this has been a bipartisan policy toward China and Russia for the entire period since then and remains so today.

More narrowly, Russia’s leadership in the early 1990s was basically pro-American—perhaps too pro-American, in that its approach proved unsustainable domestically. Before the USSR’s collapse, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev supported the United States and its allies in pursuing the Gulf War. After the collapse, Russian president Boris Yeltsin was quite accommodating toward Washington until the NATO interventions in Bosnia and then in Kosovo poisoned his relations with President Bill Clinton. This occurred well after the Bain work in Russia that Braun describes—and did not lead the Clinton administration to reverse its efforts to strengthen U.S.-Russia commercial ties.

Likewise, notwithstanding trade tensions with China at the time, both the George H. W. Bush administration and the Clinton administration worked to expand U.S.-China economic ties in the early 1990s. And China’s foreign policy in the early 1990s was generally timid; it was not until the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, when Beijing launched missiles into the strait and the United States sent two aircraft carriers to the area, that serious foreign-policy tensions emerged. Moreover, China’s economy in 1992 was a fraction of the size of its economy today—something that had a major impact on U.S. and Chinese perspectives on their relationship.

Beyond this, Romney’s job at the time was to turn Bain & Co. around and to make money. By all accounts, he was successful. Had the company and its leaders not pursued opportunities in China and Russia in the early 1990s, they would likely have been perceived as shortsightedly missing a major opportunity. If Governor Romney is elected president, he will have a different job with different responsibilities and different standards of success, centered around restoring U.S. growth and advancing U.S. economic and security interests. Overseeing Bain & Co. work in China and Russia, or other domestic and international business, contributes directly to his qualifications and experience for that role.

What exposes Braun’s article as journalistic wishful thinking is its faux-impartial statement that “it is not clear whether Bain’s 1990s work abroad conflicted with Romney’s current stances” followed by a quote from a former Democratic senator and ambassador to China asserting that Romney’s China policy statements seem “a little hypocritical” because of his former firm’s work there. This is a transparent attempt to solicit a hoped-for statement from a predictable source after preparing the ground with fake neutrality; it is especially important because it is the thesis of the article. In fact, there is nothing at all contradictory in trying to earn profits in China while simultaneously seeking to defend U.S. economic interests in the U.S.-China relationship. Americans don’t want to cut off U.S.-China trade and investment, which contributes significantly to the American economy and jobs, they just want a fair deal—and Romney sees that.

The Obama campaign is likely to continue targeting Romney’s business background as the election approaches, and journalists will continue to explore his past as well. In view of President Obama’s rhetoric in addressing American businesses, this is a predictable line of attack that confirms his apparently instinctive suspicion of business, particularly big business. And however ideological and unfounded the Obama campaign’s criticism may be, Governor Romney’s background is a legitimate topic of inquiry for journalists. Too bad Stephen Braun was unable to approach it with the seriousness it deserves.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.

Image: Gage Skidmore