Handling the truth


In the wake of Paul Ryan’s address to the Republican convention, there is much grinding of teeth in the United States over the reality of political dishonesty.

So, why would he lie about something so easily debunked by just looking at the dates on old newspaper stories? Well, because, there’s no downside to getting caught. This post, and the many like it across the Internet this morning will not erase the gain Ryan got with telling a pat anecdote on national television. As Slate’s Farhad Manjoo explained way back in 2008, there is little to lose by lying. One thing Ryan is taking advantage of is “media fragmentation.” You can find plenty of websites and email forwards to support whatever your version of reality is. Here’s Ari Fleischer, former spokesman for George W. Bush, this morning: “Ryan was right about Janesville GM plant. ‘Factchecker’ Politifact wrong. Check out Milwaukee Journal,” he tweeted, linking to a 2011 story saying the GM plant is on standby. This was retweeted by the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes. But even this supposedly exculpatory article contains this sentence: “The Janesville plant stopped production of SUVs in 2008 and was idled in 2009 after it completed production of medium-duty trucks.” But so what? Fleischer’s tweet was retweeted 236 times. Hayes’ retweet of it was retweeted 109 times.

Steve Kornacki concludes similarly.

But the reality, of course, is that most casual voters don’t read editorials and fact-checker columns and probably don’t get much beyond the headline, picture and (maybe) first paragraph or two of a news story about a speech like Ryan’s. The Romney campaign is clearly counting on this. (Earlier this week, a top Romney strategist stated that “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.) They are willing to take a hit on the editorial pages and in the 7th paragraph of a news story, so long as this doesn’t define the media’s coverage. This is why Ryan seems poised to get away with the deception he peddled last night. He and the Romney campaign, as Greg Sargent has been arguing, have no incentive to give up this tactic until and unless major, down-the-middle news organizations decide to make their dishonesty the focus of their reporting. It’s only at that point that the noise generated might begin to affect casual voters, which is all the Romney team is really worried about.

I dare say the typical Canadian politician is not (yet?) as shameless as his typical American counterpart, but the Canadian media still periodically (regularly?) faces the same challenge. Meeting the challenge requires explicitly and repeatedly pointing out the falsehood at least (or nearly) as often as it is repeated. And that requires a reporter to ignore the fear that he or she might be accused of bias or, worse, that he or she might bore his or her readers. (One thing the “media” must/could improve is its willingness to explain. Too often we explain the basics of an issue only when it emerges, not bothering to explain the basics again as the story develops for fear of repeating ourselves. This piece, written five weeks after Bill C-38 was tabled and after five weeks of coverage on this blog, is the best-read thing I’ve written this year. And, admittedly, I wouldn’t have thought to write it if my editor hadn’t asked for it.)

On a practical level, this needn’t always require long tangents or digressions. James Fallows has been relentless on the need to meet this challenge and pointed recently to an example where a single word—”falsely”—pointed out the dishonesty.


Handling the truth

  1. Oh, Canadian media is just as bad for glossing over lies, mistruths, etc. They’ll mention it the first time it happens. Maybe. But after that it’s old news.

    What’s sad is that part of the reason paid print media is dying is specifically because of their unwillingness to do this. If all the print media is going to do is present everything without pointing out what’s false and what’s not, then we might as well go straight to source.. something the internet makes simple for us to do these days.

    Traditional media simply hasn’t adapted to the idea yet that the average citizen no longer needs them to simply report statements. We can do that ourselves these days if we have any interest. Media needs to add value to their reporting. Which is where this trend toward opinion journalism comes from. It’s easier than doing actual research, and presents the audience with something other than what they can just look up themselves. That’s adding value.

    Unfortunately, what the audience needs is a media that adds truth. And for the purpose of advertising, there’s no relation.

    • Agreed….thank goodness we have access to more news than the old daily paper.

      I read numerous articles on a speech Harper gave overseas. All of them made it sound like the world had stopped in it’s tracks to listen to him….giving Canadians totally the wrong impression about his importance in the world. The last article….in one line….told us the awful truth…..the room he was speaking to….was empty. Everyone but his assistants had left.

  2. OK. Anyone with a kindergarten education or higher should be able to answer the following question, though it may require a second year journalism course. We’ll make it multiple choice to help those journalists out and at least give them a 50/50 chance.

    “A car plant produces SUVs and medium duty trucks. The plant stops producing SUVs in December 2008. It stops producing medium duty trucks in April 2009. What year and month does the plant stop production and shut down?”

    a) December 2008
    b) April 2009

    *Bonus question for extra credit. Below is the content of Ryan’s speech relating to the Janesville Plant. Extra credit if you can correctly identify the lie herein – regardless of whether you answered a) or b) above – or the accusation that Obama was responsible for closing the plant:

    “When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it,
    especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory.

    A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant.
    Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our
    government is there to support you. this plant will be here for another
    hundred years.” That’s what he said in 2008.

    Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is
    locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns
    today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.”

    Go ahead Aaron…do what you suggested above. Risk the bias accusation. Risk boring your readers. Throw caution to the wind…and point out the falsehood.

    • You get no points at all for taking the factory out of the context of the time, and negative marks for playing with the line trying to keep going

      To redeem yourself, answer this…..whose watch was the crash on?

      Bonus….who’s trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again?

      • heck the question i want answered now is “did the plant already announce it was being closed BEFORE Obama made his will be open 100 years speech”

          • Interesting but not the issue. The plant apparently announced it was dead in JUNE 2008 (during Bush, but not the point). Over 90% of the staff was permanently gone by end of 2008 and the last few trucks rolled off the line in 2009 (one wonders if any material was even purchased in 2009 and they just had a few people fitting together the last scraps left in the warehouse).

            June is the 6th month of 2008. I’m wondering if Obama said the plant would last 100 years when the plant had already announced it was dead and winding up its affairs (through the policies of democrats, republicans, neither, or both).

          • ..’Paul Ryan’s breathtakingly dishonest speech’. says the WaPo editorial. Most other media say the same.

          • i’m not disagreeing and shame on anyone who misrepresents otherwise. I’m also interested if it was essentially too late by the time Obama said with the proper measures it could last 100 years.

          • “Technically, the Ryan line is that the President
            failed to “keep it open”.

            Technically, the plant had a hundred workers paid after the main line closed
            Dec 23, 2008, to keep a small line open to fill out a truck order until April

            However, the basic fact that Ryan would have you not know is that
            the plant closing was accelerated by the Republican President who applauded GM
            for being “adaptable” in closing that and other plants. The plant
            was slated to close in 2010 but was accelerated and closed
            in 2008 except for an essentially inconsequential amount of work for a few

            Fact: It
            was all decided and finalized by time Obama took office.”

          • No, it’s depressing innit? I don’t know how anybody thinks they can run a country this way.

          • I’m also interested if it was essentially too late by the time Obama said with the proper measures it could last 100 years.

            If that’s the case, then you’re actually saying Obama is the liar, because Obama told everyone it would remain open if he were elected.

          • He would appear to have been mistaken at the very least. I can understand why you would choose a different, less honest and more damning word

          • I use that word because that’s the word wrongly used against Ryan, which is what this whole blog post is about. I’m not a journalist fact-checker falsely accusing someone of being a liar.

        • That question is irrelevant. Ryan never said it was closed when Obama was in office.

          Obama said “I believe that if our
          government is there to support you. this plant will be here for another
          hundred years.”

          Obama was then elected.

          The plant was then closed.

          That’s Ryan’s point. The “fact-checkers” did not even bother to acknowledge what he actually said.

    • “A car plant produces SUVs and medium duty trucks. The plant stops producing SUVs in December 2008. It stops producing medium duty trucks in April 2009. What year and month does the plant stop production and shut down?”

      Or, as Luiza Savage’s link put it earlier today:

      “The plant was effectively shut down on Dec. 23, 2008, when GM ceased production of SUVs there and laid off 1,200 workers. (Several dozen workers stayed on another four months to finish an order of small- to medium-duty trucks for Isuzu Motors.)”

      If your kindergarten education is the hurdle, let me draw a parallel for you: “The patient is shot in December 2008, although the pulse lingered for four months. One whose watch was this murder committed?”

      Believe what you want to believe, john g, and argue accordingly. But if you’re going to be a sneering jackass, you might want to pick some stronger material to make your stand.

      • You still don’t get it. Go back to kindergarten. Or Journalism 201.

        It doesn’t matter.

        It doesn’t matter when the plant closed, because nobody suggested that Obama was responsible for closing the plant.

        Read Ryan’s statement excerpt again. Read all of it. Then kindly point out the sentence which is false.

        You can’t do it. Because there isn’t one. Because Ryan’s point was that 4 years later, it’s still closed. The economy has remained in the tank. That’s the whole point of the speech. It’s the same speech, whether the plant closed under Bush or Obama. It’s a red herring. It. doesn’t. freaking. matter.

        The only reason the media is bringing up this “fact check” is to cast doubt on Ryan’s speech and to call him a liar…even though there is no lie to be found. Savage doesn’t care. Wherry doesn’t care. They just see the American media jumping up and down screaming about something, and just take them at their word and join in without even checking if what they are jumping up and down about is true.

        • john g, commenting on another post earlier today:

          “Luiza, the Janesville plant did not close until June May 2009. On Obama’s watch.

          …So why didn’t Obama, after taking control of GM in June 2009, ensure that this [plant staying open] happened?”

          John g, above:

          “What year and month does the plant stop production and shut down?”

          a) December 2008
          b) April 2009″

          john g, moving the goalposts:

          “It doesn’t matter when the plant closed, because nobody suggested that Obama was responsible for closing the plant.”

          Uh, sure dude. You go on and on about whether the plant closed in December or April, but suddenly that’s not the point, you guys!

    • Funny enough, it’s all completely true. The “fact-checkers” are the liars. But we knew that, because those fact-checkers are nothing more than liberal media trying to paint themselves as neutral to increase their persuasive powers.

      • okay.

    • When you say, “Risk the bias accusation,” are you suggesting there’s a possible world in which you wouldn’t make it?

      • Wherry came on here waxing poetic about how crucially important it is for the media to call politicians on their lies at every possible opportunity. So he did so here. I’ve challenged him, and all of you, to identify the lie that he’s challenging. So far nobody can do it.

        So as to the bias accusations. If Wherry wants to avoid accusations of bias, I have a humble suggestion…when you accuse a politician of lying, you’d better have an actual lie that you can point to. Wishing he was lying doesn’t make it so.

  3. Meeting the challenge requires explicitly and repeatedly pointing out
    the falsehood at least (or nearly) as often as it is repeated.

    It also requires not checking the party affiliation of the speaker before wondering if it’s OK to do so.

    • Absolutely. I’d give you 10 thumbs up for that comment if I could. That’s exactly what people like Wherry, or those so-called fact-checkers, do all the time.

  4. I think it would be great if msm in North America decided to point out all parties twaddle but that’s not what’s happening. It is left wing journos who are convinced they know the truth and right wing are liars. Left wing journos will act as an arm of the Democratic Party and that’s not ideal, not remotely.

    Jonah Goldberg ~ Republicans Have Bad Brains?

    “They do that because they were born that way.”

    If you say that about homosexuals, you are tolerant and realistic. If you say it about blacks, you are racist (unless you’re black yourself). If you say it about women, you may or may not be sexist, depending on who is manning (er, womanning) the feminist battle stations. If you say it about men, you just might be a writer for Esquire. But if you say it about conservatives, you’re a scientist.

    Over the past decade, a new fad has taken hold among academics and liberal journalists: call it the new science of conservative phrenology. No, it doesn’t actually involve using calipers to determine intelligence based on the size and shape of people’s heads. The measuring devices are better — MRIs and gene sequencers — but the conclusions are worse. The gist is this: Conservatives and liberals don’t just have different world views or ideas, they have different brains; the right and left are just hard-wired to think differently.

    Author Chris Mooney compiles much of this research for his new book The Republican Brain, which purports to show that conservatives are, literally by nature, more closed-minded and resistant to change and facts. His evidence includes the fact that conservatives are less likely to buy into global warming, allegedly proving they are not only “anti-science” but innately anti-fact, as well. “Politicized wrongness today,” he writes “is clustered among Republicans, conservatives and especially Tea Partiers.”

  5. The Obama campaign has been peddling one lie after another about Romney and Ryan, whether it’s claiming he’s a felon, whether it’s blaming him for events at Bain capital when Romney was no longer in the company, whether it’s claiming Ryan’s budget plan cuts medicare.

    In fact, Obamacare was built on lies, whether it was claiming people would be able to keep their current plans, or whether it was claiming it would reduce the deficit. Lies, lies, lies.

    What Ryan said was pale in comparison.

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