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Mitt Romney, Dead People, and Attack Ads: When Events Become Issues

August 17, 2012

Last week, the Obama and Romney campaigns added a new chapter to their ongoing struggle for the high ground with some back-and-forth about an ad created by a pro-Obama super PAC. The hubbub focuses on the ad’s alleged implication of Romney in the death of a former steelworker’s wife by lung cancer. I say “alleged” because, well, if you watch the ad, I think it’s arguable that it’s making a point a little more nuanced than “Mitt Romney killed my wife.” Still, the entire thing has turned into a Gordian knot of finger-pointing and name-calling that’s kind of fascinating in the way it illustrates how complexities are often smoothed over and lost as public issues gain attention.

The story so far: Priorities USA Action, a super PAC run by former Obama spokesperson Bill Burton, releases an ad featuring Joe Soptic, a former steelworker whose place of employment was closed by Bain Capital a few years before his wife was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Next, Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the Obama campaign, attempts to distance Obama from the ad, claiming to not have “any knowledge of the story of the family,” but this turns out to be false; Soptic and his story have been used in promotional materials by the Obama campaign before. After this fact came to light, the Romney campaign created a response ad cherry-picking quotes from news stories about the debacle, including this one. And as you can see, Psaki responded as any middle schooler would by pointing out that this ad was made by a third party and even though Obama and that third party are bros Obama isn’t the kind of dude to tell his bros what to do and besides the Romney campaign has said a lot of mean stuff too so this is all like totally not fair.

Blame game aside, what is there to observe here? I think this story illustrates in a nutshell how complex incidents get redefined as “issues.” First off, as I said earlier, the original ad tells a slightly more complicated story than “Mitt Romney closed the plant and then my wife died so it’s his fault.” Rather, the ad says that Soptic lost his job and his health insurance (and later, as this article points out, his wife lost her own source of insurance—a fact not mentioned in the ad). Later, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. Soptic says in the ad that he thinks “maybe his wife didn’t say anything [about feeling sick] because she knew we couldn’t afford the insurance.” He says “I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he’s done to anyone, and furthermore I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.” To me, the overall message of the ad seems to be in keeping with the whole “Mitt Romney is out of touch with the middle class” tenor of every argument made by the Obama campaign to date. It seems to be saying, in the most broad, charitable reading I can muster, “decisions made at the upper echelons of capitalist enterprise have consequences that affect the middle and lower classes more than leaders of industry seem to be aware of or concerned with.” It might just be my inner radical talking, but that doesn’t really seem too contentious of a statement, especially because it’s basically the central idea of both The Wire and A Christmas Carol, and one is the best television show of all time and the other is not only over a century old and therefore a bit quaint but also the basis of a movie starring Michael Caine and Kermit the Frog, both of whom wouldn’t take any of that commie crap from anyone. But I digress.

In the case of this ad, the argument may be being made in a way that’s certainly exploitative enough, but it’s still a point that’s a little more complex than “Mitt Romney is responsible for the death of this man’s wife,” which seems to be the basic premise of the uproar (see the two articles I linked to above, and also this one and this one for examples). Even the Romney response ad itself doesn’t say that Romney is being blamed for the death of Soptic’s wife, but rather that the Obama camp is trying to “use the tragedy of a woman’s death for political gain,” which, I mean, yeah. What I’m getting at here is that we have a complex if somewhat tacky argument that really highlights “The Dickensian Aspect” of a now-tired anti-Romney argument that loses that complexity the more it’s talked about. The further we get from the ad, the further we get from “the actions of a company run by Mitt Romney resulted in my family being unable to afford adequate healthcare for my ailing wife” and the closer we seem to get to “I hold Mitt Romney personally accountable for my wife’s illness and death.”

This smoothing over nuance and the slight alterations to the actual story is a common occurrence in the transition events go through from actually occurring to being talked about. Certain aspects (in this case the implied link between Romney and Soptic’s wife’s death) are focused on. Devoid of the original context, where these aspects meant something specific and particular, they can take on new meanings, often shaped into something quite different by the individuals presenting the story. This is the sort of thing that happens incredibly often in news reporting and discussions of public events in general; to some extent it’s inevitable. As media consumers, it’s therefore incredibly important that we bear this in mind as we seek out information and make decisions about issues—it’s always best to seek out original speeches, quotes, documents, whatever, whenever we can instead of just reading summaries. Barring that, we should try to find as many summaries as we can to form a more complete picture.

If you want to know more:

  • What I call “events becoming issues” in this article has a name in rhetorical studies: entextualization. It refers to the process by which interactions, language, happenings, etc. become “texts,” or decontexualized objects of discussion. For what I think is the clearest explanation of the theory, as well as an excellent exploration of how the process is affected by all sorts of social power structures, check out “Notes on a ‘Confession’: On the Construction of Gender, Sexuality, and Violence in an Infanticide Case” by Charles L. Briggs.
  • I put “The Dickensian Aspect” in quotes above because it’s the name of season 5, episode 6 of The Wire. Have I mentioned how it’s the greatest television show ever? Slight spoiler alert: Scott Templeton is in no way a victim of unfavorable entextualization, though. The more you know about the context of his actions, the more of a douchebag he turns out to be. But I digress again.
  • In the interest of space above, I didn’t have the time to point out another interesting little nugget of entextualization going on in this whole incident: the matter of what the Obama campaign “knew” before this ad aired. Near as I can tell, the Obama campaign knew that Joe Soptic’s story was a good one for their purposes, but from my reading of the Romney counter-ad, it seems as though they’re attempting to imply that that the Obama camp also knew that this super PAC ad would be using Soptic’s story. It doesn’t seem as though this point has been picked up on as much in the surrounding news stories, but it’s another interesting example of how a phrase like “Obama campaign admits knowing,” out of its original context, can take on an entirely different meaning—in this case one that can be deliberately suggested.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2012 4:36 pm

    Really great article. This particular “issue” feels pretty typical of this whole campaign season- events and sound bites get blown out of proportion and just result in both sides looking petty.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      August 18, 2012 1:59 am

      Thanks for your comment, Anna! I’m totally with you, and you raise a point that I didn’t really have the time or space to comment on in the above article: how petty this all seems. I feel like this isn’t even anything close to the most vicious attack ad this season (Doug has a great post from a few months ago about Santorum’s “Obamaville” ad, which is an ad that I think is particularly brutal). I think it’s interesting that both sides are tripping over each other trying to claim the high ground by calling one another on what by this point is pretty banal election season behavior.

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