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.