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Asymmetry in political discourse works more ways than one. For instance, there is the well-established asymmetry in the ideological sympathies of the working journalists who cover politics. (A 1997 survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, to cite one of numerous such examples, found that 61 percent of reporters identified with the Democratic Party, while only 15 percent leaned Republican.) As Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said, in the part of his Politico quote that didn’t get nearly as much press play, “Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs.”
Those beliefs, while not automatically determinative (ABC’s Jake Tapper is a fine example of a liberal journalist who pulls no punches in holding Democratic power accountable), are nonetheless evident just about every time you open a newspaper or magazine. “Obama has not been all that adept at telling his story as Commander in Chief,” Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel lamented in a special Democratic National Convention issue, swallowing the truthfulness line whole. “He likes to say that facts will win the day, but these days, people brandish their own facts. Obama is frustrated by this.” Poor Mr. President!
It is stunning at this late date that an allegedly skeptical press is still pushing string on the theory that Obama just needs to explain himself better, but more disturbing (and emblematic) is the notion that the sitting president of the United States hasn’t himself crossed the line between fact and fiction. Perhaps that conclusion is so widespread because the fact-checking exercise itself is not primarily concerned with the exercise of power.
In December the Pulitzer Prize–winning website PolitiFact, which is run by the Tampa Bay Times, announced its list of 10 finalists for “Lie of the Year.” Perhaps sensitive to conservative criticisms over prior Lie of the Year winners (Sarah Palin in 2009 for saying that ObamaCare will create “death panels,” and anyone in 2010 who said the law amounted to a “government takeover of health care”), the fact checkers came up with an evenly split list of 10 nominees: five that were Democratic lies about Republicans, and five that were Republican lies about Democrats. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell’s assertion that “Mitt Romney says he likes to fire people” was there alongside Rush Limbaugh’s claim that ObamaCare includes “the largest tax increase in the history of the world.” And so on.
But the real problem with such lists isn’t the lack of partisan diversity; it’s the glaring lack of lies told to the public in the service of wielding government force. Only one of PolitiFact’s Top 10—Obama blaming 90 percent of the 2009−12 deficit increase on George W. Bush—involved an official lying about his own record. The rest all focused on the way that politicians (and their surrogates) characterized their competitors’ actions and words. This isn’t a check on the exercise of power; it’s a check on the exercise of rhetoric.
And when it comes to rhetoric that motivates journalists into action, nothing beats culturally divisive figures from the opposing political tribe. So it was that in May 2011, the respected Nieman Journalism Lab set the mediasphere abuzz with an academic study of more than 700 news articles and 20 network news segments from 2009 that addressed a single controversial claim from the ObamaCare debate. Was it the president’s oft-repeated whopper that he was nobly pushing the reform rock up the hill despite the concentrated efforts of health care “special interests”? Was it his promise that “if you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan,” something that has turned out not to be true? Was it the way Obama and the Democrats brazenly gamed and misrepresented the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring of the bill, claiming it wouldn’t add “one dime” to the deficit?
No. The cause for reconsideration of the ObamaCare coverage was not the truth-busting claims made by a sitting president in the service of radically reshaping an important aspect of American life but rather the Facebook commentary of a former governor, Sarah Palin.
“Our data indicate that the mainstream news, particularly newspapers, debunked death panels early, fairly often, and in a variety of ways, though some were more direct than others,” survey authors Matthew Schafer and Regina Lawrence concluded. “Nevertheless, a significant portion of the public accepted the claim as true or, perhaps, as ‘true enough.’ ” Meanwhile, the president got away with abusing the facts while ramming through an unpopular law and continues to be hailed as a noble truth teller in a fallen empire of lies.
At the end of November, Politico published an article about how progressive journalists, now that Obama was safely elected, were beginning to consider criticizing the president a bit more. “He was the champion of our side, he vanquished the foe,” New Yorker political columnist Hendrik Hertzberg said. “[But] now liberals don’t have to worry about hurting his chances for re-election, so they can be tougher in urging him to do what he should be doing.”
It was a remarkable admission of what many have long suspected: Portions of the press are in the tank for Democrats. Now that’s a fact worth checking.