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The Death of Truth in the 2012 Presidential Campaign

Jan16

Arthur Brisbane, public editor of the New York Times, last week asked readers to tell him “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” In doing so, he not only set off a furious debate within the news industry, but also unwittingly waded into territory Calbuzz staked out back in July 2010, when we first explained the feckless role of the mainstream media in the Death of Truth.

Brisbane was immediately and vociferously excoriated  by readers, journalists and commenters across the internets whose responses added up to something along the lines of: “What are you, a fucking idiot?” (see Daily Kos here and here) His own executive editor, Jill Abramson, replied, “Of course we should and we do. The kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists.”

But even Ms. Abramson’s vaunted New York Times has failed – going back at least as far as Judith Miller’s pass-through prevarications about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction – to boldly and consistently identify and call a falsehood what it is.

What brings this so sharply into focus today is that we are in the thick of a big, juicy election season when truth is in short supply – especially in the camp of one of those Brisbane used as an example in his column: Willard Mitt Romney.

. . . on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage.

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less:

“The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

Damning dog whistles: It’s ironic that Brisbane should have used, as one of his examples, Romney’s lie about Obama apologizing for America. That’s actually been demonstrated to be false. Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact-checker, concluded nearly a year ago after an exhaustive examination of Obama’s speeches, that “the claim that Obama repeatedly has apologized for the United States is not borne out by the facts, especially if his full quotes are viewed in context.”

What Kessler and others have come to understand is that this is a nasty Romney dog-whistle – packaged in 2009 by Karl Rove — designed to suggest that Obama is fundamentally untrustworthy and unAmerican. Every time Romney says Obama has apologized for America (or implies it by saying he won’t do it), the reporter covering him should make it clear to the reader or viewer that it is untrue.

But Romney has told bigger lies and more of them. Take, as Exhibit A, Romney’s opening TV ad in New Hampshire, in which he quoted Obama from 2008 saying: “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”

Pretty damning, right? Except what Obama had said was: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’”

Politifact, which monitors the accuracy of campaign statements, gave the ad a “Pants on fire” rating.

Does it matter to Romney? Not yet. Because the mainstream media, like the New York Times, allow his lies and distortions to slip and slide in their daily stories, like water off the back of an Irish Setter on the top of a car on a 12-hour ride to Canada.

Jobs and jingoism: As we explained in our earlier examination of the Death of Truth, candidates like Romney (and we were writing about his pal eMeg Whitman back then) get away with it because of the gnat-like attention span of the average citizen, a mainstream media “strangled by self-imposed, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand, false-equivalency,” and:

It’s now clear that a candidate with unlimited resources can and will blow off complaints, critiques and factual analyses of those who dare to speak up and will instead declare that the truth is whatever he or she says it is — in their paid advertising and the assertions of their mercenary prevaricators.

Let’s review a few other recent Romney lies which have been only sporadically challenged, let alone debunked, by the MSM:

– 100,000 new jobs: the Wall Street Journal found that of the firms Bain Capital, his former company, invested in under Romney, 22 percent “either filed for bankruptcy or closed their doors by the end of the eighth year after Bain first invested, sometimes with substantial job losses.” Which, as Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News wrote “is not really terribly surprising: Bain’s raison d’etre is not job creation but wealth creation for its investors.

The WaPo’s Kessler called the 100,000 jobs figure “untenable,” and said Romney and Bain “never could have raised money from investors if the prospectus seeking $1-million investments from the super wealthy had said it would focus on creating jobs.” Romney has made so much of the notion that he’s a job creator that the fiction now threatens his entire campaign narrative, Ryan Lizza argues in the New Yorker.

– Reversing Obama’s defense cuts: Romney has promised to “reverse President Obama’s massive defense cuts.” But Pentagon spending has gone up under Obama, to $666 billion from $594 billion*. Obama requested $739 billion in 2011.

– Entitlement society: Romney says Obama “is replacing our merit-based, opportunity society with an entitlement society,” where “everyone is handed the same rewards, regardless of education, effort, and willingness to take risk.” There is no evidence to support this assertion. Obama is not Karl Marx. This is utter bull.

– Obama, the job destroyer:  Romney told Time magazine that Obama “has not created any new jobs,” and he told Fox News that Obama has “lost” two million jobs as president. As Schlesinger reported, “When Obama took office, the economy was shedding jobs at a rate of nearly 1 million jobs per month, losing roughly 3 million during the first four months of 2009. But presidential policies don’t take effect as soon as the incoming chief takes his oath. Once Obama’s policies started to take effect, the trend turned. The country had added 3.2 million private sector jobs over the course of 22 straight months of private sector growth. By Romney’s definition, the president has created more than 3 million jobs.”

– Obama wants to grow government: Schlesinger again — The biggest drag on job growth is the 600,000 public sector jobs that have disappeared under the auspices of budget austerity. As Danielle Kurtzleben reported in September, “government jobs are being shed by the tens of thousands almost every month, hindering an already weak recovery.”

– “I’ve never called myself pro-choice:” Except in a 1994 Senate debate he said, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I have, since the time when my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S. Senate candidate. I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years that we should sustain and support it, and I sustain and support that law and the right of a woman to make that choice.” And in his 2002 GOP acceptance speech he said, “I respect and willfully protect a woman’s right to choose. That choice is a deeply personal one, and the women of our state should make it based on their beliefs, not mine and not the government’s.” How did lying about his past stands get downgraded to a flip-flop?

– Obama has no jobs program: As Benjy Sarlin of Talking Points Memo noted Monday night after Romney made this charge during the South Carolina GOP debate, this is simply not true. “President Obama has been pushing a bill called the American Jobs Act for months, a $447 billion package that includes billions in tax cuts, funding to prevent teacher layoffs, and investments in education and transportation infrastructure. You may remember it from the time he called a rare joint session of Congress in September to announce the legislation or from the many times the Senate debated its individual components throughout the rest of the year.”

Jay Rosen of NYU, a very smart guy, argues that the failure of the news media to routinely challenge falsehoods spewed by public officials was a gradual dolorous slide.

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truth-telling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

No one knows exactly how it happened, for it’s not like a policy decision came down at some point. Rather, the drift of professional practice over time was to bracket or suspend sharp questions of truth and falsehood in order to avoid charges of bias, or excessive editorializing. Journalists felt better, safer, on firmer professional ground–more like pros–when they stopped short of reporting substantially untrue statements as false. One way to describe it (and I believe this is the correct way) is that truth-telling moved down the list of newsroom priorities. Other things now ranked ahead of it.

Karl Rove’s reality: There’s some truth to that, certainly. But there are other factors, chief among them the rise of the Rovian Principle, aided by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and the rest of the Alternate Reality Network, which has emasculated traditional mainstream media.

Under the Rovian Principle, a political figure lays out a set of tailored assertions which he or she deems to be “facts.” These are hand-crafted ideas – John Kerry was not a war hero but a coward; Iraq has weapons of mass destruction; Barack Obama apologizes for America, etc. – that are repeated over and over and echoed as “fact” by hand-maidens in the Alternate Reality Network, seeping into the everyman bloodstream until they become accepted as true facts.

When someone in political life comes along and challenges them – saying Kerry is a war hero, Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction, Obama is not an apologist – that’s said to be presenting the “other side” – as if there were an “other side” to a fact. Which there is not. So the reader or viewer is left to agree with the “side” that fits his or her pre-conceived perceptions or to conclude that the “truth” must lie somewhere in the middle.

The traditional news media, afraid of being accused of taking sides in what is almost always an ideological or partisan argument, retreat to a neutral corner and create a false equivalency. “On the one hand, some people say the Earth is flat; on the other hand, some people say the Earth is round.” Climate change science is a good example: 99% of credible scientists on one side versus a handful of ideologues, kooks and mercenaries on the other.

With the rise of independent, widely-read and distributed reporting on the internet, the old mainstream order is breaking down. But the ultimate arbiters of “truth” – for now, at least — remain the major corporate newspapers, networks and magazines.

Bottom line: But here’s the catch:

Even if the New York Times and NBC News start including actual facts in stories where political figures are spewing lies – and reporting the lies is important when they’re exploded by facts – candidates with ample resources have proved, at least in California, that they will continue to put their lies in television ads and broadcast them without regard to the pestering news media.

eMeg Whitman tried this in California, and it might have worked if she hadn’t made so many other mistakes (like firing her Latina housekeeper and kicking her to the curb). Her mentor from Bain – Mitt Romney – seems intent on trying to use the same strategy, which seems weird since Romney’s chief consultant, Stuart Spencer — who ran the primary campaign for Steve Poizner that Whitman crushed – knows that the Whitman approach was ultimately a loser.

But it appears for now that as long as the mainstream news media continue to allow Romney (and all the other candidates, including Obama) to present the “facts” as they craft them, without ongoing, persistent and intrusive correction, the Death of Truth will govern Election 2012.

* number corrected from $59 — typo


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There are 9 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    I think it was Krugman who said a Romney campaign official had sneered at the notion of telling the truth in political messages, saying something to the effect that of course it was propaganda.

  2. avatar tonyseton says:

    What’s happened to the news? It’s been corrupted, Gordon-Gekko-style. It’s cheap, it’s lazy, and it’s unprofessional. Where once it was a calling, now it’s just a job for blow-dried narcissists and hob-nobbers.
    To wit, this from Russel Baker:
    In the classic example, a refugee from Nazi Germany who appears on television saying monstrous things are happening in his homeland must be followed by a Nazi spokesman saying Adolf Hitler is the greatest boon to humanity since pasteurized milk. Real objectivity would require not only hard work by news people to determine which report was accurate, but also a willingness to put up with the abuse certain to follow publication of an objectively formed judgment. To escape the hard work or the abuse, if one too many says Hitler is an ogre, we instantly give you another to say Hitler is a prince. A man says the rockets won’t work? We give you another who says they will. The public may not learn much about these fairly sensitive matters, but neither does it get another excuse to denounce the media for unfairness and lack of objectivity. In brief, society is teeming with people who become furious if told what the score is.

  3. avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

    The Left, such as CalBuzz, takes off on Romney before he is even annointed as our nominee. This sometimes well, sometimes poorly documented analysis is just another anti-Republican hit piece.

    CalBuzz, using truth as both a weapon and a shield, does not mind misstating the real truth to achieve their aims.

    CalBuzz fails to admit that Obama cut publicly a deal with Congress to, among other things, reduce the 10 year National defense budget starting in 2013. That ten year cut validates wholly Romney’s claimd and CalBuzz’s reference to only the uncut 2011 defense budget clearly misleading.

    Another one CalBuzz tries to snow us on is denying entitlement growth under Obama. Have you, for example, taken a look at the growth in food stamps and the expansion of Section 8 housing? But of course the general public knows Romney is right there so CalBuzz is wasting our time with that charge.

    CalBuzz is denying that Obama is a job destroyer, another monstrous political lie. Your column admits that millions of jobs were lost under Obama’s watch but CalBuzz implies that the failure of Obama’s economic recovery policies was not the key fault. It was Bush, CalBuzz claims, who was the sinner. Be a man CalBuzz and and admit on behalf of the Left that Obama was, in fact responsible for the things over which he was in charge.

    CalBuzz! Stop the mascarade under the shield of truthtelling. You used this space to simply kick some Republicans in the rear!

    • avatar Donald from Pasadena says:

      Honestly, Ernie, are you really that hyperpartisan and disingenuous? The U.S. economy was shedding an average of 645,000 jobs per month during the period of Jan. – June 2009 alone. If you seriously believe that President Obama is accountable for those job losses resulting from an economy that was already in obvious free fall when he took office, then you are fooling only yourself.

  4. avatar chuckmcfadden says:

    Ernie, I know it’s difficult for you, but try to deal with reality, to wit: The piece was about the news media. The news media, get it? It was an argument that journalists work harder to get at the truth, giving readers and viewers a more accurate picture than the one presented by campaigning politicians of either party. It presented a series of lies — that’s right, lies — told by Mitt Romney, and how the lies told by Mitt and Karl Rove gradually become accepted as truth, because, Goebbels-style, they are repeated and repeated. What you’re doing is attacking an apple for not being an orange. Now quit being silly.

  5. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Rosen left out one reason the media no longer does its due diligence–the profit motive. GE makes military hardware. They also own NBC. They have every reason to root for war, and none to expose falsehoods pushing us into useless military adventures. So there’s a basic conflict of self-interest involved.

    Plus I can’t imagine journalists have missed the lessons of truth-telling. Campbell Brown once memorably told Jon Stewart that she felt “if one guest says it’s raining and the other says it’s not, if I don’t stick my head outside to check and tell my audience which one is telling the truth, I haven’t done my job.” Surely most journalists can’t have failed to notice Ms. Brown no longer has a show. Lesson? Tell the truth, lose your job. None of the blonde bimbos (male or female) employed by Faux Noise has lost theirs. They’re paid to say whatever Roger Ailes tells them to, and they do. Ergo, they all still have shows.

    Finally there’s the modern-day phenomena of micro media segmentation. Folks who listen to Rush or Hannity wouldn’t believe anything they read on Calbuzz. Ernie is a good example. I could show him the charts on unemployment that demonstrate when it crashed and when it started to come back. I could give him links to Paul Krugman and others saying–before it was passed–that the stimulus was too small and would keep unemployment from getting worse, but not bring back enough jobs to bring it down. I could cite the CBO saying the stimulus did save or create millions of jobs. And he’d still repeat the same tired lies he’s heard over and over again about Obama being a job killer. Because he believes this as an article of faith, he tends to gravitate toward media outlets that reinforce his beliefs. And, as Calbuzz notes, a lie repeated often enough becomes accepted at truth. In the case of the right-wing, they hear it in the media, at church, at home, and at home schooling. They are, in short, brainwashed. And quite thoroughly.

    To demonstrate the efficacy of this sort of indoctrination, researchers did a study where they presented volunteers with information that contradicted their strongly held religious or political beliefs. It didn’t matter whether the new information was true or false, the result was always the same. When challenged, people clung more tightly to their beliefs. In other words, we don’t believe things because they’re true, but because we believe them.

    So you can save your breath Chuck. Ernie “knows” Obama is a job killer. He “knows” Obama grew social safety net programs because he believes in handouts for lazy people, not because the number of unemployed, uninsured, homeless, and hungry is higher than at any time since the Great Depression. And you’re not going to convince him otherwise.

  6. avatar sqrjn says:

    Does anyone know what time this post went up? I think godwin’s law need a special time function for topic subsets dealing with msm and truth telling. Reductio ad hitlerem isn’t supposed to happen instantly.

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      The post went live originally at 12:01 am Monday,
      1/16/2012 — the usual Calbuzz post time. It was updated for typos and one addition subsequently.

  7. avatar CarolineSF says:

    To expand the media criticism: The reason this issue — much discussed among advocates in my area of interest for many years — has suddenly burst upon the public scene is that it was raised by a non-marginalized voice (albeit a badly out-of-touch one).

    Here are some more quotes from Jay Rosen that I recently blogged about. (Rosen is actually citing the theories of media critic Daniel Hallin; sorry for the confusing triple layering.) “The sphere of consensus is the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ of politics, the things on which everyone is thought to agree. Propositions that are seen as uncontroversial to the point of boring, true to the point of self-evident, or so widely-held that they’re almost universal lie within this sphere. Here, Hallin writes, ‘journalists do not feel compelled either to present opposing views or to remain disinterested observers.’ (Which means that anyone whose basic views lie outside the sphere of consensus will experience the press not just as biased but savagely so.) …
    “In the sphere of deviance we find ‘political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.’ As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible. The press ‘plays the role of exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda’ the deviant view.”

    In a comment that rings painfully true to advocates in my area of interest — challenging the billionaire-backed corporate education “reform” fads that have been admired by the mainstream media for years despite their now-lengthy record of lack of success — Rosen writes: “Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance – as defined by journalists – will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition.”

    Here’s my full blog post: http://parentsacrossamerica.org/2012/01/why-the-press-promotes-the-powerful-marginalizes-dissent/

    This is all part of the same great question: Should the press print the truth, or just … whatever?

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