So what do we do about that divide? And what if the problem isn’t evenly distributed across the landscape or within a party, but pools and concentrates in certain spots? Do journalists go to those (malignant) spots and fight?
The lines are usually attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts.”
But suppose there arose on the political scene a practical caucus for the opposite view. We are entitled to our own facts, and we will show you what we think of your attempt to “check” us. If that happened, would the press know what to do?
We hear quite a bit about the partisan divide in Washington and around the country. We hear a lot less about the divide around Moynihan’s famous lines. Those who think you’re not entitled to your own facts vs. those who dispute the statement. Or feel unbound from it. Or they simply run right over it trying to win today’s battle or deliver today’s news.
“Hey, you’re not entitled to your own facts…” vs: That’s your opinion. Kiss my ad. Read my poll.
Dear media critics: OK, entire news media called Romney’s welfare attack a lie. Campaign still pushing it. Now what?
I don’t know the answer. I do know that it’s troubling to other journalists sifting through the 2012 campaign. Two weeks ago a bureau chief wrote to me for comment on a story he was doing about the same development. My reply:
If we start back in the 1990s and read forward to the current campaign, we see distinct phases of innovation as political journalists react to misleading ads: first, the ad watch phase in the 90s; there was some mention of misleading elements, but the final tally was about effectiveness, or what I call “savvy.” The limitations of the ad watch led to direct fact-checking by the press, where actual grades are handed out. The emphasis is on judging truth and falsehood, not assessing effectiveness. So now we’re in a new phase: fact checking alone is not enough. The campaigns seem able to override it, which does not mean they override it equally or with the same vengeance. So what’s the next innovation?
He wrote back: right, well what is the next innovation? Again: I don’t know. (Hit the comment button if you do know.)
Time magazine’s Michael Scherer, a political reporter, gives his answer in his August 10th post, Why Deceit Is Everywhere in the 2012 Campaign. Scherer complained on Twitter that I did not give the argument a fair summary, so I want to make sure I do that here.
Scherer is interested in why deceptive ads and misleading claims don’t receive more censure from the public and from allies of the deceivers. That would change the dynamic, far more than press coverage could. So why doesn’t it happen? Scherer’s answer is that we’re over-reliant on outrage as a “mode” of public action:
The elemental move in modern politics always looks like this: The other side is not playing by the rules. An injustice has occurred. Be outraged.
But who draws the lines when strategists for both parties believe there is little cost to peddling deliberate, carefully crafted falsehoods? The vast majority of the American voting public long ago demonstrated their willingness to simultaneously forgive fibs told by their own team and express umbrage at the deception offered by the other team.
“All of this creates a huge problem for the nonpartisan, less ideological core of the fourth estate,” Scherer writes about himself and his peers. “We journalists, after all, are supposed to be champions of facts, accuracy and truth. But audiences have left nonpartisan outlets for the comfort of organizations, like Fox News and the New York Times editorial page, that focus on one side of the outrage story.”
The audience for political news is fragmented, segmented, at times even regimented to think one way. And that fact check you’re calling for isn’t going to reach the people you think need it. So wake up. Scherer goes on:
Turn on Fox to find out the latest Democratic outrage. Turn to the New York Times editorial page for the latest Republican outrage. Neither outlet need confuse its audience by cross-pollinating its outrage with context. Both sides reinforce the divide, and, in preaching to the choir and building the team spirit and the sense of victimization, they both clear the way for more deception.
He thinks it folly to rage at political journalists or The Media for this state of affairs. The answer lies within. Within political coalitions. Outrage at the other guy/”we can have our own facts…” is a perverse pattern. But is it inevitable? Infuential supporters, active citizens, home team bloggers: all have to get mad at their own side when deception or rank bullshit is tried. Scherer says to the close readers of political coverage who assail him in the comment threads at Swampland, and to press bloggers in a lather about “false balance…” Where has all this activity in the key of outrage gotten you? Maybe you should try something else. The “next innovation” he has in mind:
… if we remove the outrage, or at least minimize it, then maybe we can focus not just on the deceptions of the guy we don’t like but also on the deception of the guy we like. For in the end, there is only one thing that will force these candidates, their campaigns and supporters to hue a straighter line: Their own constituencies must object.
That’s the real fact check, Scherer says. Politicians will feel less entitled to their own facts when voters and fans make them pay a price. Go ahead and rage at the press when it fails to call out the other guy. See how far that gets you.
Alec MacGillis of The New Republic has a simpler answer to, “Entire news media called Romney’s welfare attack a lie. Campaign still pushing it. Now what?”
Using whatever platform you have, speak up about it. If they keep using it, you keep speaking! His plea: “for the political press to do its job when it comes to the basic task of calling out blatant, repeated dishonesty on the campaign trail.”
Part of the problem is the lack of a handy index that shows which “we are sooo entitled to our own facts…” ads are drawing the most investment from campaigns and candidates. Money, TV time, visibility can flow toward the blatant misstatement that’s been fact checked and labeled toxic, or away from. When they move toward it that’s a story. Reporting that story is not like reporting: they all lie. (But hey, it works, right?)
“There is no question that what Romney is saying about Obama ‘taking the work requirement out of welfare’ is knowingly false,” MacGillis wrote. The fact checks already happened. But most of the political press still treats it as a controversy most of the time. Which side of the divide are they on? MacGillis said he was surprised when “of all people, a former Republican congressman used his morning talk show to call out Mitt Romney. Take it away, Joe Scarborough:”
“I’ve been looking for a week-and-a-half to try to figure out the basis of this welfare reform ad, I’ve scoured the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, I’ve scoured…. the ad’s completely false. It’s just completely false.
And I’m pretty stunned.”
So that’s what MacGillis recommends. Journalists should be speak confidently into the microphone and declare things “completely false” when their own judgment tells them so. That isn’t a moment you can outsource to fact-checkers. It’s a “which side are you on?” thing: The people who think “you’re not entitled to your own facts,” or those who say: Wait a minute, maybe you are?
Joe Scarborough “did the basic job of a journalist,” MacGillis writes. “He looked into whether someone was telling the truth, found that they weren’t, and said so, clearly. So, to the rest of the pack, I ask: what’s stopping you?”
One thing that’s stopping them: the production of innocence.
Entire news media called Romney’s welfare attack a lie. Campaign still pushing it. Now what?
David Bernstein, that DC bureau chief who wrote to me, Michael Scherer, Alex MacGillis: all are realizing that mainstream political journalism offers no clear instructions to its people about what to do in this situation. The only “pack” response available is to do nothing. But nothing isn’t working. So which side are you on? becomes unavoidable for people who thought there would never come a day when they had to choose sides.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links… Aug. 28-31
September 16: Margaret Sullivan, the new public editor at the New York Times writes a landmark column, and it cites this post: He Said, She Said, and the Truth. “The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be,” she writes. But some of the Times editors have a very different view.
Good background: David Corn, How to Beat the Fact-Checkers. Kind of a short history of the fact-checking movement in the press.
Readers: I revised it and turned this section into a new, more updated post. See #presspushback (PressThink, Aug. 31.)
Revolt of the savvy: some in the press push back against continued use of a false claim
The anger in Ron Fournier’s Aug. 29th explainer for National Journal: Why (and How) Romney is Playing the Race Card is to me a high point amid the literature, journalism and noise of campaign 2012.
Why ignore fact-checkers? First, internal GOP polling and focus groups offer convincing evidence that the welfare ad is hurting Obama. Second, the welfare issue, generally speaking, triggers anger in white blue-collar voters that is easily directed toward Democrats. This information comes from senior GOP strategists who have worked both for President Bush and Romney. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.
… Before explaining why these tactics work (and why Romney’s team knows, or should know, they are playing the race card), let’s quickly deal with this fact: The ad is wrong. As countless impartial fact-checkers have noted, the Obama administration memo cited by the Romney team actually gives states flexibility to find better ways of getting welfare recipients into jobs.
In Fournier’s column I saw the first signs: a possible revolt of the savvy, a case with a long build-up, triggered by an ideological and ongoing event: post-fact checked use of the “Obama says no more work for welfare” claim. Which is a heavily fact-checked claim. We now have different authors finding multiple ways to report on the continued pursuit of a critically important piece of false information, turning that falsehood into a stream of news.
Further signs of a push back. On the convention floor, Andrea Mitchell asked Rick Santorum about the “no more work requirement” fact check right after his speech. (Video.) “Whatup with that?” she said. (Direct quote.)
James Fallows has other sightings: news people, including NPR’s Morning Edition, openly struggling with the “we have our own facts” people. Media Evolution for the ‘Post-Truth’ Age.
From Greg Sargent, a Washington Post blogger. A summary of where things stood in the revolt of the savvy on Aug. 29, after Romney tries to overawe fact checking. His view: Might be a spasm. Might be a trend. Might get old fast and expire.
I track these things. This headline is not usually seen in a news story reporting on a speech: Rick Santorum repeats inaccurate welfare attack on Obama. (Los Angeles Times.)
Three bells went off for this post (“you have a news alert”) when Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith reported from a breakfast briefing at the Republican convention in Tampa the clarifying remarks of Mitt Romney’s pollster, Neil Newhouse: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”
Exactly! They’re not. Which is like saying to political journalists: your move, fellas. Ben Smith’s fuller report…
The welfare ad has been the center of intense dispute, with Democrats accusing Romney of unearthing old racial ghosts and Romney pointing out that the Obama Administration has offered states waivers that could, in fact, lighten work requirements in welfare, a central issue in Bill Clinton’s 1996 revamping of public assistance.
The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” awarded Romney’s ad “four Pinocchios,” a measure Romney pollster Neil Newhouse dismissed.
“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” he said. The fact-checkers — whose institutional rise has been a feature of the cycle — have “jumped the shark,” he added after the panel.
There it is. The conflict I just wrote about: “You’re not entitled to your own facts” vs. That’s your opinion!
What the mainstream press has said back to the Romney ad amount to “you are not entitled to your own facts.” The ad has been called false or very misleading; and it’s not just the fact checkres but also the day-to-day narrators saying it…
That’s Your Opinion! is what the Romney campaign said back. (“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by–”)
Notice also that if the Romney campaign wanted to push back hard on the welfare ad ruling, but leave in there a modicum of respect for the fact checking enterprise, it could have said:
We think fact checking is an important but fallible part of the campaign dialogue; we also reserve our right to contest in absolute terms some of the rulings. They are, after all, acts of judgment. And this is one of those judgments we completely reject and disagree with.
But that is not where the Republican party is right now. It has set up in a more fearsome place, closer to the heart of the culture war. Professional journalists, whose self-image starts with: “We’re a check on…” have to decide what to do about the truck that just ran their checkpoint, carrying the brain trust of the Romney campaign, who are inside laughing at how easy it all was.
Meanwhile, the editors of the National Review, the premier conservative journal in the country, write: “The website PolitiFact is going to be truth-squadding the Republican convention speakers this week, delivering verdicts on which claims are ‘mostly true’ and which deserve a ‘pants on fire’ rating. Our advice: Pay no attention to those ratings. PolitiFact can’t be trusted to get the story right.”
Human Events, a another conservative magazine, sees Politfact as “left wing.” Evidence: it’s calling out Republicans way more. Think about that: If asymmetry counts as evidence for media bias, an asymmetrical situation can never be portrayed by the media in an unbiased way… by definition! Human Events also says that when you look at Politicfact’s “proof” it is laughably missing. And this is from a Pulitzer Prize winning outfit!
Now comes James Bennet in the Atlantic on the “new assertiveness” in calling out lies: “Instead of being able to stand above the fray as some sort of neutral arbiter of the truth, the press may be finding that it is winding up on one side of a new kind of he-said-she-said argument.”
Precisely. Can our press handle it?
Signs of a push-back, cont. At the close of the Republican convention (Aug. 31) the New York Times reports: Facts Take a Beating in Acceptance Speeches. In other words, that was part of the news. There’s more: two bells.
The two speeches — peppered with statements that were incorrect or incomplete — seemed to signal the arrival of a new kind of presidential campaign, one in which concerns about fact-checking have been largely set aside.
This post has a name for the “new kind of presidential campaign” the Times mentioned. Call it the “We are entitled to our own facts” style in campaigning. The press should be on the lookout for it, wherever it appears. By the way, Mitt Romney said this on August 9:
“You know, in the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why, campaigns pulled the ad. They were embarrassed. Today, they just blast ahead. You know, the various fact checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them.”
Hungry for your “both sides do it” moment? It has arrived.
If you’re wondering: don’t I also recognize that the Obama forces have used deceptive, depraved and untrue claims in their attempt to stain Romney before his own message gets through? Yes. I do. These stand out: Romney didn’t say he likes firing people in the way some Democrats and TV personalities have suggested, so that counts as a kind of extended lie. The Priorities USA ad that suggested (without quite saying it) that Bain Capital was somehow responsible for the death of a steelworker’s wife: that goes in the depraved category, I think. When the White House claimed it knew nothing about the case that was clearly untrue– pathetic, really. The refusal to condemn the ad was a black mark, as well. Obama ads calling Romney “outsourcer in chief” were over the top and relied on false or overblown claims.
In my view these are serious transgressions, full stop. And in my view they do not compare to the use of falsehood and deceptive claims in the Romney 2012 campaign. Nor is there anything coming from the Obama machine that is like the open defiance of fact-checking we have seen from Romney and his team. I don’t think it’s a character issue but a kind of post-truth strategy in electioneering, which is itself a response to huge tensions within the Republican Party. I see the situation as highly asymmetrical, with just enough on both sides to make “both sides do it” sound plausible.
I also recognize, because I read my incoming, that this conclusion is bitterly contested by other critics looking at the same facts and by opponents of Obama. Or it just sounds ridiculous to them, a substitution of political preferences for fair-minded analysis. That response, which flows to me constantly over social media, is part of the reality of culture war politics, media bias division.