Sunday, September 09, 2012

Don’t Facts Matter Any More?

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I recently pointed out that, despite the hand-wringing of the professional hand-wringing class, the current election is not even close to being the nastiest in terms of political rhetoric.
All that said, there’s one thing that’s striking about this one, one thing I have not seen before. That’s the degree to which one side has not only decided to entirely abandon the entire idea of being factually accurate, but has also decided to be completely up front about doing so.
Shortly before the Republican National Convention, Neil Newhouse, a pollster working with the Romney campaign, appeared on a panel organized by ABC News. He was asked about the frequently repeated and just as frequently debunked claim that President Obama had “gutted” the work requirements of welfare reform.
This allegation was a blatant and shameless distortion of a proposal by the Obama administration to grant exemptions from the federal requirements to state governments — but only to those who could show they had alternative plans to put more welfare recipients back to work.
Every single fact checker from every source that examined the allegation pronounced it false. Former President Bill Clinton, who was lauded in Romney ads as the person who created the welfare reform proposal, said the Romney claim was untrue. (And if you needed any more evidence that the world has gone insane, seeing Republicans holding Bill Clinton up as an example of good policy-making should make up anyone’s mind.)
Even conservative Newt Gingrich had to admit that there was “no proof” that the administration had done to welfare reform what the Romneyites said it had.
Yet when questioned about the fact that the Republican candidate had approved an ad to which The Washington Post’s fact checker had given “four Pinocchios,” its highest rating for mendacity, Newhouse didn’t even attempt to defend the truthfulness of the ad. His response: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”
Wow. We knew these guys had chutzpah, but that one was really mind-boggling. It’s not unknown for both sides to stretch the truth in a campaign, but most of the time when confronted, they at least try to provide some justification. I mean, even Gingrich tried to cover himself by using the old “well, we don’t have any evidence that Obama did this, but it sounds like something he’d do.”
Newhouse basically said, “Every fact checker says it’s a lie, and we don’t care.”
Of course, why should they? We do, after all, live in a media environment where the “public editor” of The New York Times feels the need to wonder whether “Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” (Answer: Yes.) And they’ve known for years that the Beltway press is reluctant to jeopardize their all-important access by saying “wait a minute, that’s not true.” They might stop getting invited to the good cocktail parties or make the advertisers angry if they do.
Fortunately, that seems to be changing in the face of the relentless tide of pure, brazen BS flowing from the Romney swamp. Recently, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien committed an act of actual journalism when she responded to Romney surrogate John Sununu’s noisy repetition of another debunked Romney talking point: that Obama had “gutted” (they seem to like that word a lot) Medicare by $717 billion.
O’Brien pointed out that sources such as the Congressional Budget Office, and CNN’s own analysis had refuted the claim. Sununu became furious, rudely shouting at O’Brien that she should “put an Obama bumper sticker on her forehead” when she said such things. O’Brien’s calm response was enough to warm even my cold and cynical heart: “You can’t just repeat it and make it true, sir.”

The main thing Romney’s snake-oil campaign is depending on is that a depressingly large number of Americans truly do not know the difference between a fact and an opinion. Confront many people with facts that conclusively refute some crazy allegation they’ve made, and they’ll huff, “I’m entitled to my opinion.”
That’s true, as far as it goes. As the saying goes, however, you aren’t entitled to your own facts. Again, the American press has done an abysmal job of educating people as to the difference.
Their idea of “objectivity” has been “Republicans say this, Democrats say that, who do the polls say is winning?” In a world where a presidential campaign spokesman feels no qualms about blithely stating, in effect, “Fact checking? Who cares?” actual reporting of actual facts — and confronting those of either party who’d misrepresent them — is more important than ever.