This week, one of the presidential campaigns said: “We defy the fact checkers. Your move, journalists.” The political press reacted with some signs of a push back. These are my notes and key links from that event, Aug. 26 to 31, the week of the Republican convention.
1. “You’re entitled to your own opinion. You’re not entitled to your own facts.” On Sunday I posted at PressThink about the coming conflict between the fact-checking press and the forces in politics who seem ready to override it:
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?
This week, it kind of happened.
2. “You have a news alert.” On Aug. 28 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. 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 wrote about on Sunday.
“You are not entitled to your own facts” is what the mainstream press had already said about the Romney ad, which claimed that Obama wanted to eliminate work requirements from welfare. (Sample.) The claim had consistently been called false or very misleading; and it wasn’t just the fact-checkers but also the regular narrators of news saying it. That’s unusual.
That’s Your Opinion! is what the Romney campaign said back. (“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs..”)
Notice that if the campaign had wanted to push back hard on the welfare ad ruling, but leave in 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. Here’s why…
But that is not where the Republican party is right now. It has set up camp in a more fearsome place, closer to the heart of the culture war. By investing more in the welfare ad after the nearly unanimous fact checking verdict of the mainstream press, and by sounding a deliberate note of defiance about it at the convention (we’re not going to be dictated to by fact checkers…) the Romney campaign had reached its Gary Hart “follow me around” moment with the 2012 campaign press. Go ahead: check our facts!
Professional journalists, whose self-image starts with: “We’re a check on…” then had to decide what to do about the truck that just ran their checkpoint, carrying the brain trust of the Romney campaign, laughing at how easy it all was.
3. Revolt of the savvy: first signs. It’s impossible to miss the anger in Ron Fournier’s Aug. 29th explainer for National Journal: Why (and How) Romney is Playing the Race Card. His piece is a high point amid the literature, journalism and noise of campaign 2012. It was reported from Macomb County, “a racially charged suburb long identified with so-called Reagan Democrats.”
Ron Fournier is a consensus figure in the press, a former Washington Bureau chief for the AP who had once been approached for a job with John McCain’s presidential campaign. He describes the strategy of “we have our own facts.”
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.
He makes a swift call on how false the no-more-work-for-welfare ad is:
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 some signs: a possible revolt of the savvy, triggered by an ideological event: The post-fact checked use of the “Obama says no more work for welfare” claim, a critically important piece of false information. Other signs:
* On the convention floor, Andrea Mitchell asks Rick Santorum about the “no more work requirement” fact check right after his speech. (Watch the Video.) “Whatup with that?” she says. (Direct quote.)
* James Fallows has 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 who is also on the story. A summary of where things stood in the revolt of the savvy on Aug. 29, after the Romney forces try 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.) That’s taking a side on whether it’s kosher to keep making the attack. “If you’re confident about putting it in print, you should be confident enough to put it in the lede, and if you’re confident enough to put it in the lede, you should be confident enough to put it in the headline,” says bureau chief David Lauter, who wrote the story.
* James Bennet in the Atlantic commented on this “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.”
Which is precisely what happened this week. Can our press handle it?
4. “Pay no attention to those ratings!” On Aug. 28, the editors of the National Review, premier conservative journal in the country, sent some advice to their readers: “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.”
Timely reminder. For on the same day Politifact said: “Rick Santorum repeats Romney claim that Obama is ending work requirement in welfare,” which it called Pants on Fire false, the worst rating it has.
Two days later, Human Events, a another conservative magazine, described Politfact as “left wing.” Initial evidence: it’s calling out Republicans way more: 9 to 1.
Think: If asymmetry counts as evidence for media bias, an asymmetrical situation can never be portrayed by the media in an unbiased way… by definition! Of course, Human Events also says that when you look at Politifact’s “proof” it is laughably missing. They got nothing! And this is from a Pulitzer Prize winning shop! Nothing. So don’t listen to them… At all. Ever.
5. Let’s recap.
Press forces: Sorry, you’re not entitled to your own facts.
Romney forces: Look, we’re not going to be moved off winning arguments by your flimsy attempt to “check” us.
Conservative opinion magazines: Politifact? That’s been discredited.
Conservative bloggers: Liberal, biased journalists don’t improve their arguments by re-titling themselves “fact checker.”
Press forces (well, some of them): Seriously, folks, these people are not entitled to their own facts.
6. Day five of the little push back that did. At the close of the Republican convention (Aug. 31) the New York Times reports: Facts Take a Beating in Acceptance Speeches. Notice: This beating the facts took was reported as regular news.
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.
Correct! And that is a campaign moment. The press should be on the lookout for it, within any wing or side of the American political house. Censure is allowed in the news columns and headlines and television reports, the whole stream, not just the official fact check item itself. Push back is public service.
Beware “the misguided conclusion that factchecking is a failure if it does not eliminate deception” and keep the pressure on! So says political scientist Brendan Nyhan in Columbia Journalism Review. His point: Push back has invisible victories, along with very public defeats. But Ben Smith of Buzzfeed thinks the fact-checking surge is a little silly. He’s worried about “the conflation of the new pseudo-science of fact-checks and policy differences.”
7. The revelation. I have never seen any Washington journalist come forward with a conclusion like this. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post on Thursday of convention:
Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation. Even if you bend over backward to be generous to them… you often find yourself forced into the same conclusion: This doesn’t add up, this doesn’t have enough details to be evaluated, or this isn’t true.
I don’t like that conclusion. It doesn’t look “fair” when you say that. We’ve been conditioned to want to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame, and the fact of the matter is, I would like to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame. I’d personally feel better if our coverage didn’t look so lopsided. But first the campaigns have to be relatively equal. So far in this campaign, you can look fair, or you can be fair, but you can’t be both.
It’s difficult for me to explain to you how much energy in political journalism is devoted to avoiding Ezra Klein’s verdict.
8. Hungry for your “both sides do it” moment? It has arrived. I bet you’re itching to know: Don’t I also recognize that the Obama forces have used deceptive, depraved and untrue claims in their attempt to stain Romney before his message gets through? Yes. I do.
These stand out for me: 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. An Obama ad about Romney’s position on abortion made false statements in order to position him as more extreme. That was stupid, unnecessary and wrong.
These are serious. In my view they do not compare to the use of falsehood and deceptive claims in the Romney 2012 campaign on a “falsehood x broadcast distribution x centrality to the campaign” index. Nor is there anything coming from the Obama machine that is like the open defiance of fact-checking that Romney and his team showed in their handling this week.
A crude name for the larger play is the post-truth strategy in electioneering, born of tensions like these 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 (more likely) it just sounds ridiculous to them, a substitution of political preferences for fair-minded analysis. That response, which flows constantly to me over social media, is part of the reality of culture war politics in the media bias division.
I stick by my report. The press showed some push back when the Romney for president project said it would defy the fact-checking press. That was a valid thing to do. The continuing status of #presspushback is now a story in the 2012 campaign.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links
This is one in a series of posts about the post-truth style in presidential campaigning and the fact checking efforts of the American press. In order they are:
July 12: If Mitt Romney were running a “post-truth” campaign, would the political press report it? No, they would not. This falls under: too big to tell.
August 5: Everything That’s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item. So what is the job of a political journalist today? Is it to describe the reality of American politics, as a “straight” reporter would? Or is it to defend reality and its “base” in American politics… more like a fact checker would?
August 24: “You’re not entitled to your own facts” vs. That’s your opinion. Kiss my ad. 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?
August 31: #presspushback. “Professional journalists, whose self-image starts with: ‘We’re a check on…’ had to decide what to do about the truck that just ran their checkpoint, carrying the brain trust of the Romney campaign, laughing at how easy it all was.”
September 18: The clash of absolutes and the on-air fact check. “Soledad O’Brien makes political television slightly realer-er when she comes ready to fight on air for a documented fact.”
The savvy hit back. I expect to see more of this in the coming days. First it was Ben Smith, writing about “the new pseudo-science of fact-checks.” Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo called that an act of positioning more than analysis. I would agree. The “position” desired is savvy analyst of what works. Getting all jacked up about what’s true or false just gets in the way.
Now comes Reuters press critic Jack Shafer, who insists he supports fact-checking while underlining how futile (his word) that activity is because politicians always lie. That’s how the game is played, says Jack. And if there’s one thing the savvy know (better) it’s the game:
As much as I applaud the fact-checker profession — it’s vital for politicians to know that we know that they know they’re lying — the enterprise is a mug’s game. Of course politicians and their campaigns lie. Of course they continue to lie even when called out. If you think otherwise, you’re looking for truth in all the wrong places.
Shafer objected on Twitter when I said he sees the recent fact-checking surge as “silly.” (Full exchange.) I’m not sure, but I think his position is this: He thinks fact-checking is great and there should be more of it, but it’s an exercise in futility because politics ain’t beanbag. It’s always been about deception and always will be. Because deception works. If voters wanted truth there would be truth but they don’t so there isn’t. Plus, politicians can just incorporate the fact checks they like into their next manipulative appeal. So knock yourself out, fact checkers! Just don’t expect any return on your investment.
The savvy always try to out-realism you.
However: it is true, as Mickey Kaus writes, that a key problem for fact-checkers is “the ease–rather, the constant temptation–of presenting debatable policy issues as right/wrong fact issues.” If there’s a discipline here, it’s to remain aware of that danger and avoid it. The more lightweight or dubious fact-checks often fail on that score.
Advice to fact checkers from Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum: Call out deception, not lies.
Bottom line: if you focus only on actual lies, you miss too much. But if you try to turn everything into a lie, you sound like a hack.
A better approach is to focus instead on attempts to mislead.
He has some smart things to say about how you do that. See his three-part test.
Pull the camera back. And the fact-checking thing is part of a much larger story: Making the Election About Race. Tom Edsall has written some outstanding books on that subject so I pay attention to what he says.
Off message. Former John McCain adviser and political consultant John Weaver has no doubt that Romney’s welfare ad states things that are not true. “GOP attacks on this issue are a lie,” he said on Twitter. He thinks Republicans will regret that they “decided to lie about welfare.”
Taking sides. Ezra Klein writes:
The fact checkers are changing political reporting in a way that, until now, I hadn’t really thought much about: They’re stiffening the media’s spine when presented with lies and deceptions. Previously, it was difficult for reporters to say that a politician said X, and that was a lie. That’s taking sides, even if it’s simply taking the side of the truth. But now they can say that a politician said X, and the fact checkers said it was a lie. This is a slightly weird arrangement, as they’re just another arm of the media (Politifact is run by the Tampa Bay Times, Glenn Kessler is employed the Washington Post, etc), but it seems to be what’s happening.
Which is why the Ben Smith/Jack Shafer position is noteworthy.
Diffusion graph. Wow. Not sure what it means, but it looks techy.
This is an international story. Australia. Because the reluctance to call out untruths for fear of looking one-sided or getting attacked, as well as the mounting pressure to do something as politicians exploit this fear, are both found in other democracies with “clubs” of professional journalists.
Dan Conover used to run political coverage for the Charleston Post and Courirer in South Carolina:
…if the Republican Party produces 10 fact-mangling whoppers to every arcane Democratic stat-fudger, you’ve got a serious problem as a journalist. You simply can’t present that ratio as-is without looking like a liberal hack.
So here’s what we did — what I did — and what others have certainly done as well: I downplayed Republican dishonesty while judging Democratic failings with an unfairly harsh bias. I applied this to assignments, to the tone and presentation of stories, and to the various gimmicks we invented to try to evaluate claims. The results didn’t reflect the true scale of the dishonesty gap, but they at least demonstrated that a gap existed.
He is pessimistic that fact checking as currently conceived can work. “You just can’t look fair if you’re disproportionately coming down on one side, and people won’t listen to you if they think you’re not fair. So to have public credibiltiy, you can’t judge fact the way a scientist would. You have to judge it as a political actor. Which kinda defeats the purpose of political fact-checking.” For a perfect example of his point, see this.
The unease that fact-checking generates has never been explored with more finesse than Conor Friedersdorf shows here.
Some disputes are matters of fact; other are matters of opinion. Surveying attempts at fact-checking, I’ve sometimes thought that individual fact-checkers are less adept than they ought to be at discerning the difference. It’s as if they have the urge to weigh in on matters of opinion, sometimes with very persuasive analysis, but are uncomfortable straightforwardly operating in the realm of opinion journalism. So they declare what they’re doing to be “fact-checking” as if to retain the fig-leaf of ostensible neutrality.
NPR on Sep. 5: “Independent fact checkers spent the first day of the Democratic National Convention listening for claims that don’t add up — and found them.”