What It Do: Who Controls The Past?

“Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.” ~ George Orwell, 1984

During the economic boom of the 1990s, the practice known as outsourcing—where a company reduces labor costs by transferring manufacturing operations to a locale with less stringent requirements on worker rights—was hailed as a miracle of modern economics. Competitive advantage perfected.

A few lonely voices raised questions about the true cost of gutting the American manufacturing sector in return for inexpensive consumer goods. But most of us were too busy enjoying affordable televisions that didn’t require an aluminum foil enhancement to really take notice.

Only in recent years has the idea seeped into the public consciousness that perhaps cheap DVD players weren’t worth the effective destruction of the middle class. This concept has become particularly widespread in recent years, as the economy has grimly shambled along the road towards recovery—so widespread, in fact, that Mitt Romney has made attacks on outsourcing a central tenant of his campaign.

So when the Washington Post recently reported that Bain Capital—the investment and consulting firm helmed by Romney until 1999—was a driving force behind the growth of outsourcing, the Boston headquarters was understandably nonplussed. Given that the voting public already has major “trust issues” with Romney, it clearly doesn’t help his case to be identified as a major player in the practice he now decries at nearly every campaign stop.

Most campaigns would have immediately deployed ink into the waters of the media narrative, attempting to confuse the issue and transform the conversation into a debate about whether attacks on Bain’s practices were equivalent to attacks on capitalism itself. And that’s exactly what a significant number of Romney surrogates have been doing ever since Bain became a legitimate campaign issue—and indeed what Romney himself has often done in the past.

This time, however, the Romney campaign took a different approach. Granted, they prepared what they described as an extensive defense of each of the Bain subsidiaries mentioned and made the argument that the reporters fundamentally misinterpreted the SEC filings that formed the basis for the article.

But they didn’t take this response to the cable networks, the internet, or even the opinion pages. Instead, Romney campaign officials went straight to the upper echelon of the Post’s editorial staff, demanding they retract the story while refusing requests from numerous media outlets to publicly address the issue.

Perhaps they had become so accustomed to the corporate-owned media reliably knuckling under to the demands of society’s elite that they assumed they could just delete the story like a drunken Facebook post. And once the paper printed a retraction, they could parry further attacks on Romney’s time at Bain by claiming that the story had already been addressed and dismissed.

This tactic was actually employed successfully by the Bush campaign in 2004, when Dan Rather reported a story critical of Bush’s time in the National Guard based on records that turned out to be possible forgeries. After that moment, Bush’s questionable military record ceased to be a valid campaign issue—at least as far as the national media was concerned.

Thus the mythical tale of George W. Bush, the “cowboy hero,” went largely unchallenged. Meanwhile, John Kerry—an actual combat veteran—was successfully painted as an effeminate weakling who would presumably issue a surrender to al-Qaeda upon assuming office.

This time around, however, the Karl Rove playbook did not produce similar results. In a somewhat surprising display of actual journalistic integrity, the editorial staff of the Post not only refused to issue any type of retraction, but further stated that they were “very confident” in their reporting.

And so the Romney campaign has now been forced to fight this battle the old fashioned way—through public denials and misinformation.

Converting the argument rejected by the Post into a 10-page web presentation, the campaign is aggressively pushing back against the implications raised in the article. However, the damage may already be done. And given the fact that Romney’s clumsy attempt to suppress the story very publicly blew up in his face, the American electorate may well be that much less inclined to buy what the former governor is selling.

Because of this controversy, the national conversation has briefly turned to issues of substance, as people question the virtue of Bain’s massive profits and the methods by which the company obtained them—and, by extension, the ramifications of the policies that would be put into place by a Romney administration.

But there is a somewhat deeper issue that has largely gone unmentioned. The Romney campaign attempted to suppress the story because they assumed they would be successful in that effort. They assumed they could simply rewrite the past to their liking, for the purpose of misleading the public and gaining power. They assumed this because all too often in our nation’s history, the assumption has been correct.

It remains to be seen whether Romney’s failure to control the past was simply an anomaly or an indication of a new paradigm. Time will tell.