Something interesting happened to political journalism on the night of Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's speech at the GOP National Convention. After months and even years of grumbling that, as Grist's David Roberts tidily put it this summer, "The left's gone left but the right's gone nuts," mainstream journalists and self-described "fact-checkers" declared that Ryan had crossed over some brand new threshold for un-truthiness, and that they were no longer going to stand idly by and pretend that both major parties were equally prone to telling lies.
"Media turns a fact-check corner," was the way Melinda Henneberger celebrated these developments over at The Washington Post. "As I listened to Paul Ryan, I couldn't remember ever hearing an acceptance speech so rich in untrue un-facts, either: No, the federal government is not 'in charge of health care,' and it isn't remotely fair to blame the president for 'a downgraded America.'" Hellenberger wasn't alone:
[M]ainstream outlets prominently tagged a number of the points he made as flatly inconsistent with the facts. Of the five best-read pieces on the Post's Web site Thursday, No. 1 was a column headlined, "Paul Ryan fails — the truth," No. 2 was an editorial, "Mr. Ryan's misleading speech," and at No. 5, another column, "Paul Ryan's breathtakingly dishonest speech." Are you sensing a pattern? If not, I recommend David Firestone's "Beyond Factual Dishonesty," in the New York Times, or a look back at clips of CNN's Gloria Borger, who noted in real time that Ryan was wrong on several points. Even FoxNews.com had a post that labeled the oration "dazzling, deceiving and distracting."
Following those links is an interesting exercise. Ryan is universally condemned for mentioning that an auto plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, was shut down during Obama's presidency the year after candidate Obama had vowed that the plant would be there another century. "The plant was closed in December 2008, before Obama was sworn in," Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote. But Kessler and his fellow fact-checkers turned out to have been wrong; the plant did close in 2009.
Also cited as an untrue "fact" worthy of correction was Ryan's assertion that "a presidency that began with such anticipation now comes to such a disappointing close….It began with a perfect AAA credit rating for the United States. It ends with a downgraded America." What on earth is unfactual about this? The implied blame-emphasis, said Sally Kohn at FoxNews.com: "Fact: While Ryan tried to pin the downgrade of the United States' credit rating on spending under President Obama, the credit rating was actually downgraded because Republicans threatened not to raise the debt ceiling."
The fact-checkers counted as a "lie," rather than hypocrisy compounded by non-disclosure, Ryan's assertion that President Obama "did exactly nothing" about the recommendations given to him by a bipartisan debt commission. In fact, President Obama did exactly nothing of substance about the recommendations; it's just that Ryan failed to disclose that he sat on the commission and rejected its findings.
As the Republican National Convention gives way to the Democrats this week, the political press is still aglow with its newfound #presspushback role. Which allows the rest of us a rare opportunity to judge the media by its own new, vigorous standard of calling out political lies in real time. How will they fact-check a president and party who are already in power?
A preliminary answer: By worrying out loud that Americans aren't ready to accept the "facts" of President Obama's success, from the stimulus to Obamacare.
"One theme running through this special Democratic Convention issue," writes Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel in his editor's note of same, "is that Obama has not been all that adept at telling his story as Commander in Chief….He likes to say that facts will win the day, but these days, people brandish their own facts. Obama is frustrated by this."
Time's flattering cover profile of the president, headlined "What Obama Knows Now," is filled with questionable assertions ceding whole chunks of factual policy narrative to Democrats, such as that "virtually all economists" agreed that the stimulus was necessary (tell that to these 200 economists, including a handful of Nobel laureates). "People still need to find out…how his health care reforms will affect them," author Michael Scherer writes.
The quotes in the article underline that the party of facts is trying its best to deal with a facts-averse universe. White House strategist David Plouffe clucks that Obama "is a very rational person, so when you're faced with irrationality that can be a jarring thing." The president, laying out a possible narrative for his defeat, says "I believe that if you do the right thing, then public opinion will eventually follow. But public opinion doesn't always match up precisely with the election cycle, right?"
In an interview with Time, Obama expanded on the theme:
[T]he fundamental difference between Governor Romney and myself, aside from some of our life experiences, I think is really a matter of how do you grow an economy that is strong and healthy over the long term. […]
It's a hardheaded assessment of what makes our economy grow. And the facts are on my side in this argument. The question is whether, while we're still digging ourselves out of this hole that we found ourselves in, the facts will win the day.
It's a question shared by an impressively large number of journalists and commentators. "The president's Republican critics are dead wrong. The stimulus worked," Michael Grunwald asserted recently in Foreign Policy. "When it comes to the Recovery Act, the facts are on Obama's side." New York Times columnist Paul Krugman this morning went so far as to boil the whole campaign down to a contest over the truth.
"So what is this election about? To be sure, it's about different visions of society — about Medicare versus Vouchercare, about preserving the safety net versus destroying it," Krugman wrote. "But it's also a test of how far politicians can bend the truth. This is surely the first time one of our major parties has run a campaign so completely fraudulent, making claims so at odds with the reality of its policy proposals. But if the Romney/Ryan ticket wins, it won't be the last."
It's a delicate proposition, warning voters that they might be too stupid and/or venal to understand a politician's brilliance. We don't know yet how that strategy will pay off in the voting booth, but if the president and his party get the kid-gloves treatment from the media this week after the RNC festival of overheated fact-checking, then the institution of political journalism may creep into still more unchartered territory: taking sides in the very polarization it usually claims to abhor.