In a satirical debriefing of Paul Ryan’s nomination acceptance address on The Daily Show, “RNC correspondent” John Oliver considers the theme of the Republican National Convention’s second night, “We Can Change It.” A slogan clearly designed as a commonplace strategic appeal in the “challenger style” of campaign rhetoric — the challenger calls for change, and argues that s/he is better than the incumbent to achieve change, Oliver takes it in a very different direction:
Oliver’s commentary not only echoes that of many media observers following Ryan’s address, but gets at a function of party convention narratives that has been a mainstay of the presidential campaign process — as least in the age of conventions as televised spectacles. An important question this year seems to be whether the GOP has risen to a new level of creativity with reality — a “post-factual” campaign, if you will, and whether the Democratic response is powerless to counteract it. Let’s consider these points in Part 2 of the Denizen’s three-part series on the Republican National Convention, corresponding with the central theme of the convention’s second night.
Part 2: We can change it.
Paul Ryan’s nomination acceptance address has been regarded as a rhetorical and political high point for the convention. Media observations have included the following:
McClatchy Newspapers (e.g., The Denver Post): “Rep. Paul Ryan on Wednesday stirred the Republican National Convention with an energetic appeal as the vanguard of a new generation unafraid to offer a sharp contrast to President Barack Obama while taking politically risky steps to reshape the government. . . . The 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman triggered the most emotional, longest-lasting cheers of the week. Until him, the convention had been slow to erupt in long, appreciative cheers, even for Ann Romney on Tuesday night. But Ryan is immensely popular within the party, and his address was designed not only to introduce the seven-term lawmaker to the American public but to energize the many delegates who have only reluctantly embraced Romney.”
Sally Kohn, Fox News: “The personal parts of the speech were very personally delivered, especially the touching parts where Ryan talked about his father and mother and their roles in his life. And at the end of the speech, when Ryan cheered the crowd to its feet, he showed an energy and enthusiasm that’s what voters want in leaders and what Republicans have been desperately lacking in this campaign. . . . [F]or a lot of voters, what matters isn’t what candidates have done or what they promise to do —it’s personality. On this measure, Mitt Romney has been catastrophically struggling and with his speech, Ryan humanized himself and presumably by extension, the top of the ticket.”
Candy Crowley, CNN: “He brought it … he really did blow the roof off this place. . . . This was the tee-up for Mitt Romney tomorrow.”
At the same time, the speech has generated a firestorm of negative attention in the media, regarding its seemingly casual disregard for easily checked factual distortions. As I perused the internets via Google and LexisNexis searches in the days following the speech, I was overwhelmed by the number of stories focused on Ryan’s factual inaccuracies. BY contrast, finding any articles that focused on post-speech audience reactions were next to nonexistent. Ryan’s relationship to the truth in the speech has dominated the media frame.
Leave it to late-night comedy to perhaps crystallize the case against Ryan most vividly — John Oliver’s TDS commentary, and the biting response of Stephen Colbert:
We’ll get back to Colbert’s invocation of Joseph Goebbels in a bit. Two other references made by Colbert in this bit need some attention first.
One is a reference to an online column written by Sally Kohn, a media commentator and progressive movement activist who often appears on and writes for Fox News (as part of their “fair and balanced” positioning). Colbert cites part of this widely shared passage from a column written for Fox News.com:
[T]o anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.
The good news is that the Romney-Ryan campaign has likely created dozens of new jobs among the legions of additional fact checkers that media outlets are rushing to hire to sift through the mountain of cow dung that flowed from Ryan’s mouth. Said fact checkers have already condemned certain arguments that Ryan still irresponsibly repeated.
Kohn’s column went viral — no doubt because GOP-friendly Fox News published such a scathing indictment of an otherwise peak rhetorical moment for the Republican ticket — being shared, retweeted, commented upon and praised by tens of thousands of readers and commentators from a variety of sources.
The other reference made by Colbert that demands our attention is that to a remark made by Neil Newhouse, a Romney campaign pollster. The comment is in response to media fact-checker critiques of a recent argument made by the Republican National Committee that has become a campaign centerpiece: that President Obama has “gutted” the work requirement established in the 1996 welfare reform act spearheaded by President Bill Clinton and the Republican House of Representatives. This argument is highlighted in what Romney TV strategist Ashley O’Connor has called “our most effective ad,” and what the Washington Post Fact Checker gave a grade of “four Pinocchios.”
Here’s how the Washington Post’s Fact Checker reported on what Obama actually did:
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the centerpiece of the 1996 legislation, established work requirements and time-limited benefits for recipients. Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services, without much fanfare, issued a memorandum saying that it was encouraging “states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF, particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment.” As part of that, the HHS secretary would consider issuing waivers to states concerning worker participation targets.
On the surface, one would think conservatives would applaud the federal government giving greater flexibility to the states. But the administration appears to have done this without much consultation with Congress, and it also asserted a novel waiver authority that took GOP lawmakers by surprise. (Essentially, work provisions are contained in section 407, which cannot be waived, but because 407 is mentioned in section 402, which allows waivers, the administration asserted waiver authority.)
The text of the memorandum states that HHS “will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals” of the legislation. “States that fail to meet interim outcome targets will be required to develop an improvement plan and can face termination of the waiver project,” the memo added.
Moreover, while the GOP may be rightly miffed by the move by the White House to exert waiver authority without consulting Congress (a party foul, pun partly intended), the state waivers being considered are from Republican governors that would not weaken the work requirement. The conservative think tank Heritage Foundation’s claim, therefore, is based solely on speculation on an extreme hypothetical case that has not (and likely will not) ever materialize.
‘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,’ he said. The fact-checkers — whose institutional rise has been a feature of the cycle — have ‘jumped the shark,’ he added . . ..
What is notable about this assertion is that it parallels, in many ways, the response from the Romney campaign to fact-check critiques on the very first ad of the Romney 2012 presidential campaign. That ad took a 2008 public statement by Obama, who was quoting a McCain campaign operative, wildly out of context to claim that Obama said himself, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” (The clip is 19 seconds into the ad, entitled “Believe in America.”)
PolitiFact, who graded the ad with its worst “Pants on Fire” rating, reported that the Romney camp planned for the fact-check rebuttal:
The Romney camp seems to have anticipated this complaint. In a blog post published around the time the ad was released, Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho acknowledged that, “Three years ago, candidate Barack Obama mocked his opponent’s campaign for saying, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’” She went on to say Obama is trying to distract voters from his economic record.
When questioned on the blatantly out-of-context edited clip, according to CBS News, the Romney campaign’s responses were surprising in their transparency regarding the intentionality of their strategy:
In an email to Politico, the Romney camp said it used the out-of-context quote “intentionally.”
“We used that quote intentionally to show that President Obama is doing exactly what he criticized McCain of doing four years ago,” said Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom. “Obama doesn’t want to talk about the economy because of his failed record.”
. . . . .
Romney senior New Hampshire adviser Tom Rath tells CBS News the ad is “exactly what we want.”
“They were using McCain’s words to make fun of McCain. And we’re using the exact same technique,” he said.
Pressed on whether it was unfair to lop off the top of Mr. Obama’s comments — which would show the president was quoting the McCain camp — Rath said, “He did say the words. That’s his voice.”
He then suggested that the more people discuss the ad, the better it is for the Romney campaign.
This was the first campaign ad from the Romney team — the entire presidential advertising campaign launched its first impression by relying on a distortion of an Obama statement taken out of context, on purpose. The same strategy was used on the welfare ad in advance of the GOP convention, an event which itself kicked off with its central defining theme for the first night based on an out-of-context distortion.
The Romney campaign would go on to game-play with the truth scores of times. Indeed, Steve Benen, a blogger for MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, has been featuring what he calls “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity” — to date a 32-part series delineating factual manipulations and distortions coming out of the candidate and his campaign.
Let’s be crystal clear: presidential campaigns have engaged in factual manipulation and distortion for as long as we’ve had contested presidential campaigns, literally.
[Thomas] Jefferson’s camp accused President [John] Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
The Obama campaign is by no means pristine in this area, as fact-checkers have found anti-Romney whoppers on everything from his economic record as governor of Massachusetts, to claims that he is a “corporate raider” who outsourced jobs overseas while at Bain Capital and while serving as governor, to his record on supporting anti-abortion legislation that eliminated the rape and incest exceptions. Sadly, it seems, nearly everyone lies in politics. Regarding the convention, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler suggests that Paul Ryan’s Wednesday night “misinformation” was actually a typical, to-be-expected practice that both parties have exercised regularly.
But I’m not so sure. These three falsehoods — Obama’s 2008 statement on “talking about the economy,” the “if you have a business, you didn’t build that” statement, and the “gutting of welfare reform” — as well as the now ubiquitous distortion that Obama’s removal of $716 billion dollars from Medicare deprives seniors of healthcare benefits (simply not true, and time and temper preclude me from getting into it further here… just click the link above to unpack this gem) that was repeated incessantly at the RNC for all three nights, are more than just a number of examples of factual distortion.
These four pants-on-fire, Pinocchio-nose whoppers have been framed as the defining centerpieces of the Romney/Ryan campaign’s rhetorical strategy. While Romney has also labored to leverage (and defend) his business record at Bain Capital and his time saving the Winter Olympics as a warrant for his ability to lead on the economy, the primary policy arguments against the incumbent — the central rationale for change, apart from Obama’s inability to fix the greatest national economic damage since the Great Depression in less than four years by himself — is predicated on falsehoods that can be (and have been) easily refuted by professional and amateur fact-checkers alike.
This is the kind of thing that either gives my students in political communication fits (“how can they get away with that?!?!?”) or reinforces their worst cynicism (“of course they can get away with it… that’s why not of this politics stuff is worth my time”). It is important to note that, gut reactions of many of us notwithstanding, a wide and diverse body of research on deceptive negative ads complicates the conventional wisdom that such advertising leads to political disillusionment and apathy. While some studies have linked such ads to voter disaffection, for the most part the research tells us that attack ads work not only to influence voter attitudes in the intended direction, but often have little connection to depressed voter turnout — indeed, such ads can mobilize and increase voter turnout.
At least this year, though, many may well be wondering how such negative, deceptive messaging can function effectively in the age of the new media fact-check. Since the infamous 1988 presidential campaign (the one that brought us Willie Horton), calls from political media scholars such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson have led to the development of “adwatches” and fact-checkers. Jamieson made an argument for adwatches in her 1992 book Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy. Jamieson’s case includes three criteria for evaluating political discourse: argument, engagement, and accountability.
- argument: Is a claim backed up by identifiable evidence and reasoning, which can be evaluated for its soundness and validity?
- engagement: Does the discourse facilitate comparison and contrast with opposing positions such that the audience can decide by the force of the better argument?
- accountability: Is the sponsor of the message clearly identifiable, such that they can be directly connected to the message and its consequences?
Elements of the accountability criterion have surfaced in campaign finance reform legislation that requires ad sponsors to clearly identify themselves, and the “Stand By Your Ad” provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act compelling federal candidates to appear in voice and face to “approve this message.” Candidate debates sponsored by non-partisan entitities such as the Commission on Presidential Debates are an imperfect attempt to tackle the engagement criterion in election campaigns. And fact-checking that examines the argument criterion is done with now nearly ubiquitous frequency by non-partisan organizations like Factcheck.org, run by Jamieson’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, as well as media fact-checkers such as the Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, and various other print, television and internet media sources. Acccess to information via the internet makes fact-checking easy enough for many to wonder why political candidates and campaigns would bother lying when the falsehood can so easily be found out.
Nonetheless, various journalists have observed that this year’s campaigns (both parties, but particularly the Republican Party) have seemed to double-down on the strategic falsehood, fact-checkers be damned.
Michael Cooper, New York Times: The two speeches [Ryan's and Romney's] — peppered with statements that were incorrect or incomplete — seemed to signal the arrival of a new kind of presidential campaign, one in which concerns about fact-checking have been largely set aside. . . . The growing number of misrepresentations appear to reflect a calculation in both parties that shame is overrated, and that no independent arbiters command the stature or the platform to hold the campaigns to account in the increasingly polarized and balkanized media firmament. Any unmasking of the lies or distortions, the thinking goes, rarely seeps into the public consciousness.
Robert Schlesinger, US News and World Report: What happens to political and journalistic norms when a national campaign decides to blow past the run-of-the-mill cherry-picking of facts, distorting of policies, and playing in the gray area between truth and untruth, and instead simply runs hog wild into malicious deception and prevarication? We’re going to find out.
So, with a legion of fact-checkers ready to pounce, what makes it possible to jettison objective reality so brazenly — to paraphrase John Oliver, how can they change that?
One possible explanation lies in norms and practices of the journalism industry that ironically, in an attempt to construct an ethos of fairness and objectivity, actually produce a news product that might condition audiences to reject fact-checkers as arbiters of truth.
Scholars of modern journalism have often pointed to the consistent research finding that, when it comes to “bias” in news coverage of political issues, the controlling color is usually not red state or blue state, but the state of their green. With the possible exception of cable news channels that have opted to target their product to a particular partisan audience (i.e., Fox News and MSNBC), modern journalists (especially on television) have a vested interest in not alienating anyone in their audience with a political slant, for fear of losing precious ratings and commercial revenue. Moreover, the presence of dramatic conflict constructed by pitting two commentators or interviewees of opposing standpoints together not only creates a more engaging consumer product for viewers, but also creates a veneer of objectivity. Point, counterpoint — “we report, you decide.” This production norm to maximize audiences also comes at a cost savings for news organizations unwilling to devote the material, personnel and time resources necessary to actually conduct the investigative reporting required to confront dissembling pols with “the facts”… a practice that has its own risks anyway, for the reasons described above.
In this way, competing points of view are presented as equally legitimate alternatives, leading to the danger of false equivalencies when the two sides involve one interlocutor who is lying (or merely incorrect) and another who is not. The Daily Show depicted this condition in October 2009 with wicked-sharp commentary when they concocted a new slogan for CNN: “No one else leaves more things there” [referring to ending an interview or debate segment with an unresolved factual consistency]. (The portion of the clip from 7:30 to 9:30 captures the practice nicely, but the whole segment is both instructive and hilarious.)
So what does this have to do with the seemingly revitalized fact-checking practices of the news? For instance, recent interview segments by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, in which she confronted Romney surrogates John Sununu and Tim Pawlenty regarding the “$716 billion Medicare cuts” meme have been widely shared on social media, hailed as examples of watchdog journalistic fact-checking. Factcheck.org and PolitiFact are being referenced regularly by both news organizations and political candidates. What’s the problem?
Well, as fact-checkers integrate into the news media mix, largely defined heretofore through the “point + counterpoint = balance” frame, the fact-checkers are more easily disbelieved and rebutted by the object of critique. Two examples:
- When PolitiFact named the Democratic charge that Congressional Republicans voted to “end Medicare as we know it” as the “2011 Lie of the Year” (an assessment shared by Factcheck.org and the WP Fact Checker), both Democratic pols and news commentators such as Paul Krugman and Rachel Maddow launched high-profile critiques of PolitiFact, accusing them of getting their facts wrong and engaging in semantic interpretation.
- In early August of this year, Romney argued that Obama ads with claims that were debunked by fact-checkers should be pulled from the air: “You know, in the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why, campaigns pulled the ad. . . . You know, the various fact checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them.” Two weeks later, fact-checker critiques of the GOP attack ad on Obama and welfare led to the now-infamous response 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.”
Robert Schlesinger’s biting US News piece on Romney’s damn-the-fact-checkers strategy connects the fact-checkers — ideally seen as neutral and objective referees of the truth — to the larger mix in the it’s-all-just-competing-opinions media frame… and introduces a second factor key to the GOP convention strategy on intentional dissembling (one which may well be replicated this week by the Democrats):
The Romney campaign’s gambit plays on two things: One is the instinct on the part of the press to treat such disputes as he-said-he-said in the name of objectivity (hence much coverage of the welfare ad as being Team Romney charge followed by Team Obama retort with little discussion of the facts).
But underlying the cynical belief that they can game the press is an even more contemptuous and condescending belief in the basic laziness and stupidity of the American people. The Romney campaign knew that its welfare ad would be roundly blasted by the portion of the media that does fact-checking. But they’re counting on voters to absorb the charge and not pay attention to the details or follow closely enough to get the facts.
…and this is where we get to Stephen Colbert’s invocation of Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”
Perhaps describing the RNC in terms of Nazi propaganda is excessive. It may be more apt to invoke an argument made by Princeton moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his slim but thoughtful treatise On Bullshit. For Frankfurt, “bullshit” is distinguishable from “lies” in that, while the latter is a conscious act (the liar knows s/he is being deceptive), the former is an act indifferent to its relationship to the truth (it may be false, and/or true, but the bullshitter really doesn’t care).
In the interview with Frankfurt on The Daily Show above, note how, at 3:30 in the clip, Stewart makes an insightful observation: When bullshit takes the form of political spin (e.g., the interviewing of surrogates who provide their own evaluative gloss on whatever event is being spun), there seems to be a tacit agreement by the news media not to “call bullshit on it”, not to confront it as contrary to the truth. Frankfurt makes the case that contemporary conditions of postmodernity (though he doesn’t use that term) make such activities as objective fact-checking less relevant and bullshit all too common.
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of scepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “antirealist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.
Now, as if we weren’t depressed enough, consider research results such as those by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in a 2010 issue of Political Behavior. Their experimental study yields troubling results: When targeted ideological audiences have factual misperceptions, not only do corrections of those misperceptions often fail to reduce them by those audiences, but a “backfire effect” can occur that actually can increase those misperceptions held by them. Nyhan and Reifler cite a long and serious body of research that explains why the “fair and balanced” media frame may contribute to this outcome:
[P]eople typically receive corrective information within ‘‘objective’’ news reports pitting two sides of an argument against each other, which is significantly more ambiguous than receiving a correct answer from an omniscient source. In such cases, citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions—a view that is consistent with a wide array of research.
The authors of this study are referring to conventional point/counterpoint news stories, the kind that frequently propagate dueling purveyors of bullshit (in the Frankfurtian sense) and present it as a complete sense of the available truth options. Now, fold in the emergence of the fact-checker into this news mix. If a largely partisan audience, especially an ideologically charged one, hears untruth — be it lies or bullshit — and then encounter fact-check critiques through the same media in which they consume less factually rigorous news, and then see those fact-checks rebutted by their favored political figure or group who is the source of the original untruth, it becomes easy to see how the threat of fact-checkers may be significantly reduced. Taking a gamble on high-profile lies and/or bullshit should be a safe bet, since the target audience may well reject the non-partisan fact check as just another partisan spin job attacking what they have already been assured is the truth. So, objective reality? “We can change it,” and be pretty confident that the target audience will buy it, and defend it themselves from subsequent critique.
A key question remains: Why would a political audience like the Republican faithful watching the RNC be so amenable to accept the bullshit from their candidates and reject objective fact-checker journalism as irrelevant at best and bullshit itself at worst? Perhaps, in part, because they “believe in America.”
That’s part three of our series, true believers… stay tuned.