Political journalists pushing back on politicians’ misleading claims, and politicians pushing back on journalists, are debating the value of honesty. (More)

The Savvy Herd, Part III: Push-Back on Post-Truth (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers our political media through the lens of New York University journalism professor and PressThink founder Jay Rosen. Thursday we looked at what Dr. Rosen calls “savviness,” how journalists respect and focus on political strategy at the expense of policy and facts. Yesterday we saw how the media act as a “herd of independent minds,” coalescing around narratives in a bubble of mutual support-seeking. Today we conclude with the emerging push-back and see journalists finally starting to challenge a “post-truth campaign.”

Jay Rosen is a professor of journalism at New York University, where he has taught since 1986 and served as chair of the Journalism Department from 1999 to 2005. Since 2003 he has also authored PressThink, a weblog about his profession. PressThink won the Reporters Without Borders 2005 Freedom Blog award for outstanding defense of free expression. He formerly served on the Wikipedia Advisory Board and currently serves on the advisory boards of Digital First Media, Post Media, and the Gazette Company. He has written for numerous newspapers, magazines, and websites, and earned a Ph.D in Media Studies from NYU.

The Post-Truth Campaign

Back in December, the New York Times‘ Paul Krugman brought the phrase “post-truth campaign” into the public dialogue. Dr. Krugman noted that a core premise a Romney campaign speech – that President Obama wants to “create equal outcomes … regardless education, effort, and willingness to take risk” – was patently false, yet political journalists reported Romney’s attack with no challenge to its inaccuracy. Dr. Krugman concluded:

So here’s my forecast for next year: If Mr. Romney is in fact the Republican presidential nominee, he will make wildly false claims about Mr. Obama and, occasionally, get some flack for doing so. But news organizations will compensate by treating it as a comparable offense when, say, the president misstates the income share of the top 1 percent by a percentage point or two.

The end result will be no real penalty for running an utterly fraudulent campaign. As I said, welcome to post-truth politics.

Political Journalists Push Back

Dr. Krugman’s prediction seemed likely, yet as Dr. Rosen wrote last Friday:

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.

The “We defy the fact checkers” was Dr. Rosen’s paraphrase of this statement by Romney pollster Neil Newhouse:

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.

This had the predictable effect of waving a red flag in front of a bull, with fact-checkers picking apart both Romney’s and especially GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s acceptance speeches at the Republican National Convention. The Atlantic‘s James Fallows cited three cases of political journalism evolving to meet the challenge of post-truth politics, and James Bennet highlighted a panel discussion on fact-checkers’ debunking the Romney welfare attacks. The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein lamented that “the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation,” and concluded:

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.

Politicians (and some Journalists) Push Back on Pushing Back

Equally predictably, the fact checking elicited cries of liberal bias. Both a National Review editorial and a Human Events article by Jon Cassidy accuse the Tampa Bay Times‘ PolitiFact of bias, because the column has scolded Republicans for outright lies nine times more often than Democrats. BuzzFeed‘s Ben Smith joined in, calling the fact-checking of Ryan “how a bogus political narrative gets built” and Reuters‘ Jack Shafer concluded:

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.

That prompted a Twitter debate with Shafer, Dr. Rosen, and other journalists on the value of fact checking.

The Value of Honesty

For me, all of this points to a deeper debate on the civic value of honesty. PressThink commenter Andrew Tyndall brings the issue into sharp focus:

[PressThink] has always viewed politics in a democracy to consist of more than a mere struggle for political power; it is also a civic discourse that informs the populace and enables its self-government. Thus political actors whose speech categorically disregards truth are disqualified from participation.

So one of the roles of the political press is to enforce such ostracism. As such, the press has a role inside the body politic, enforcing its neoliberal, republican norms.

But what if we are not living in such a republic? What if politics is not a civic discourse? What if it turns out to be a naked power struggle, pure and simple? If so, the press, by following PressThink‘s precepts, would run the risk of misinforming its readers. If it portrayed non-truth-tellers as disqualified (per Klein) rather than as viable participants (per Smith), it would run the risk of letting its republican idealism get in the way of accurately reporting how real power works.

Tyndall has a point, but what were “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and “We the People, in order to form a more perfect Union” if not the Framers’ attempts to change “how real power works?” Were those merely flowery phrases written to justify a process George Carlin summarized as “slave owners who wanted to be free?”

We can argue whether and what different Framers intended, but that argument would miss the point. Whether “We the People” work together “to form a more perfect Union” is up to … “We the People.” That’s us, here, today.

As Brendan Nyhan writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, journalistic integrity will not stop politicians from making misleading statements, but it’s better than the alternative of letting them mislead voters with no check at all. And as Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum argues, journalists should focus less on outright lies and more on attempts to mislead. Drum offers this three-point test:

1. What was the speaker trying to imply? This is necessarily a judgment call, but it’s what gets us away from “lying” and instead focuses our attention on how badly a speaker is trying to mislead us.
2. What would it take to state things accurately? This is the most important part of the exercise. Without getting deep in the weeds (nobody expects politicians to speak in white paper-ese), what would it take to restate things reasonably accurately?
3. How much would accuracy damage the speaker’s point? Obviously, if accuracy dents the speaker’s point only a bit, not much harm has been done. If it demolishes the speaker’s point completely, it’s as bad as an actual lie.

If a politician needs to mislead voters in order to gain their support, if the campaign relies on voters’ believing demonstrably false claims, “We the People” can and should reject that politician as unqualified to represent us.

At issue is the moral virtue of honesty, yes, but we can make an equally compelling argument on ‘savvy’ political grounds. Government is one way “We the People” work to find solutions for real problems. If facts have no relevance, then we cannot hope to find those solutions. Quite simply, in any “naked power struggle” with Realworldia … Realworidia will win and those who deny it will lose.

The efforts of Dr. Rosen and others – including, ironically, the Romney campaign’s rejection of fact checking – have pushed political journalists to reevaluate their role. Many of them are rising to that challenge. “We the People” should stand with journalists who fact check well, and “We the People” should reject politicians whose campaigns rely on false claims.

In a democratic society, citizens doing so is “how real power works.”


Happy Saturday!