Frame Game

Rubber Reversal?

Mitt Romney’s fake flip-flop on contraception.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on March 1 in Fargo, N.D.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Mitt Romney has been accused of another flip-flop on reproductive rights. It’s a bum rap. In fact, it’s another case of the media creating a gaffe and then blaming the candidate for it.

Wednesday afternoon, Romney sat for an interview with Jim Heath of the Ohio News Network. Heath, alluding to Rick Santorum, asked Romney this question:

He’s brought contraception into this campaign. The issue of birth control, contraception—Blunt-Rubio is being debated, I believe, later this week. It deals with banning or allowing employers to ban providing female contraception. Have you taken a position on it? He [Santorum] said he was for that, we’ll talk about personhood in a second; but he’s for that, have you taken a position?

Romney replied: “I’m not for the bill, but look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a women, husband and wife—I’m not going there.”

Shortly after the interview, Heath tweeted: “ALERT: Mitt Romney tells ONN he would not vote for senate bill which would allow employers to deny coverage for birth control.” The Ohio News Network trumpeted its interview with a bulletin claiming Romney had “switched positions on a proposed Senate bill that would repeal a requirement that insurance companies cover contraception for female workers.”

Let’s pause right there. Look at the difference between what Romney said and what Heath attributed to him. In the interview, Heath asked Romney about a measure that “deals with banning or allowing employers to ban providing female contraception.” (Heath didn’t specify whether the measure was a bill or an amendment, whether it was state or federal, or whether it was in the House or Senate.) That’s what Romney said he opposed. But in his tweet, Heath completely changed his characterization of the measure. He claimed that Romney had said “he would not vote for senate bill which would allow employers to deny coverage for birth control.”

Romney said no such thing. Romney, responding to an Ohio TV reporter’s question (about what Romney took to be an Ohio proposal) said he opposed a “bill”—not an amendment, which is what’s being debated in the Senate this week. Heath did call the measure “Blunt-Rubio,” which, according to many reporters, made clear to Romney that Heath was referring to the proposed federal amendment, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. Nonsense. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is one of 23 co-sponsors of Blunt’s amendment and one of 37 co-sponsors of Blunt’s related legislation, which isn’t under debate right now. There’s no such thing as “Blunt-Rubio.”

If you watch the interview, you can see how fast Heath was talking and how he mumbled his way into the topic. He set up and ended the question by talking about Santorum, not Blunt. In fact, the syllable “Blunt” is practically unintelligible in the blurred sequence “balontrubio.” It’s easy to see how Romney, trying to decipher the question, heard it as a query about Santorum’s views on exactly what Heath asked about: a “ban” on “providing female contraception.”

At a minimum, reporters should have cut Romney slack on this question, given the complicity of their colleague in creating the confusion. Instead, they pilloried Romney. “Romney’s campaign scrambled to clean up another unforced error by their candidate,” CNN blared, “after he came out against a controversial amendment pushed by Senate Republicans that would allow employers to opt out of health care coverage they disagree with on moral grounds.” The Associated Press, CBS News, NBC News, the Boston Globe, and many others paraphrased Romney as opposing Blunt’s conscience amendment, ignoring the obvious discrepancy between the amendment and what Romney had said he opposed. “Romney flips on contraceptives,” crowed the Concord Monitor, headlining an AP dispatch. ABC News said Romney had “waffled” on Blunt’s proposal. BuzzFeed snipped Heath’s opening reference to Santorum from its video clip of the interview (thereby removing the reporter-generated context that had led Romney astray) and then blamed Romney: “This the most recent in several instances of Romney wading, apparently unprepared, into a complex, high-profile fight, and getting tangled in the weeds of the policy argument.”

The haste and sloppiness with which reporters fell for this “flip-flop” spin exposes what’s really going on here. It isn’t Romney who lapsed back into a bad habit Wednesday. It’s the press. We’re so attuned to the idea of Romney as a flip-flopper that we sling and repeat this accusation (shamelessly prodded, in this case, by the Santorum and Obama campaigns) without scrutinizing the evidence first. And this isn’t the first time we’ve misrepresented Romney’s response to a poorly worded question. Remember when critics reported that Romney had endorsed a Mississippi-style personhood amendment? That, too, was a complete misunderstanding.

I’m not saying Romney is a model of consistency. I just spent 12,000 words showing that on issues of reproductive choice and unborn life, he isn’t. But if you’re going to criticize him when he really has changed his position—or, more disturbingly, when he has changed his story—you have to be careful not to falsely accuse him when the appearance of a shift is illusory. That’s particularly true when the illusion was created by the press. I’ve had my quarrels with Andrew Breitbart, the conservative media critic who passed away last night. But if Breitbart had been around today to fault the media for the Romney-Blunt feeding frenzy, he’d be right. (And he’d be right to point out that Slate is not infallible either.)

I’m also not saying journalists should ignore Romney’s gaffes. But when we scrutinize them, let’s try to illuminate who Romney really is and what he believes. In the case of contraception and conscience, it’s clear what Romney thinks. In last week’s Arizona debate, he denounced President Obama for “requiring the Catholic Church to provide for its employees and its various enterprises health care insurance that would include birth control, sterilization and the morning-after pill.” Romney went on to reject Obama’s proposed compromise on the issue.

When you look at Romney’s interview with Heath this way, instead of playing gotcha, the story looks completely different. Romney wasn’t talking about Blunt or conscience at all. He was picking a fight with Santorum over interfering in contraception between husband and wife. That’s a much more interesting story than the one we just manufactured and fell for. Why not drop the fake story and pursue the real one?