It was the headline read around the world: Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.
It is because of these four words that Mitt Romney could not make meaningful gains with voters in Ohio, a swing state positively affected by the resurgence of the United States’ automobile industry. The federal government’s auto industry bailout was largely responsible for this resurgence and had the full support of President Barack Obama. Following the 2012 election, there is little doubt that these four words played a large role in Romney’s loss of Ohio—as well as Michigan—on election night and, by extension, his failed bid for the presidency.
Romney’s seemingly innocuous op-ed demonstrates the ongoing power of print newspapers, which many have written off as archaic and irrelevant in our digital world. Even as the op-ed was available in digital editions through The New York Times’ website and mobile apps, its staying power and recirculation was astounding in an in an era where a rogue Tweet or an offensive blog post can be wiped away from the record in real-time. The fact that Romney’s op-ed was printed, and could not be modified or revised, is meaningful. Does print maintain a certain quality of credibility or permanence over digital material?
It is no surprise that The New York Times, the U.S.’s newspaper of record, played arbiter of the most recent presidential election. The Times is the inventor of the modern-day op-ed, which are the pages opposite of the editorials that are open for contributions from persons outside the newspaper. The op-ed pages are opinion pages that engender conversation in the public sphere and have become an essential part of this nation’s discourse. (See The Times’ special feature on the 40th anniversary of the op-ed.)
Politicians have many ways of articulating their positions on policy and issues to the public, such as writing a memoir, detailing their points on their website or giving an interview on a TV news program. But it is the op-ed that has, for many years, provided a forum for politicians and candidates running for public office to state their positions “on the record.” Romney’s op-ed was just that: an official proclamation of his disapproval of the federal government’s then-plan to bailout the automakers. His position went on the public record on Nov. 18, 2008, and—not surprisingly—resurfaced after he won the Republican nomination for candidacy last spring.
In Romney’s op-ed, he focused on the federal government’s plan to bailout General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. In looking back, his recommendations were shallow and imprudent for a man with the intent to again run for public office just a few years later.
He wrote about his recommendation for the Big Three to undergo a managed bankruptcy, “rather than seal their fate with a bailout check.” But he did not stop there in his 872 words. He also covered management, sales, pensions, unions, taxes and research—all important and complex policy issues that became part of the discourse in the 2012 election. In this single op-ed, Romney provided the very arguments and evidence that worked against his bid for the presidency just four years later. While no one—not even a politician—can predict the future, it’s easy to wonder why he didn’t have the foresight to know that these on-the-record positions would later affect him.
Many scholars and those working in the media by now understand that traditional forms of media, such as print newspapers, maintain great eminence in society. In this particular instance, the power of print was not just in its credibility, journalistic tradition and editorial power, but also in its permanence. Newspapers in the U.S. have operated for more than two centuries as cultural and social archives. The daily chronicling of the goings on in towns and cities across the nation and world preserves and organizes the world for generations to come. Romney’s op-ed was no different, and it served as a reminder of the role and power of newspapers in the U.S. in the 21st century.
Romney declared in his op-ed, “But don’t ask Washington to give shareholders and bondholders a free pass — they bet on management and they lost.” Well, Romney bet on the American people’s amnesia and he lost, which makes The Times’famous motto more relevant than ever: “All the news that’s fit to print.”
Andrew Lewandowski is a Georgetown University graduate student in the Communication, Culture & Technology program.