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