Bit by Bit It Takes Shape: Media Evolution for the 'Post-Truth' Age

Over the years, and in a few posts this month, I've mentioned signs that the mainstream press is adjusting to the realities of "post-truth politics."

Reporters are happiest, safest-feeling, and most comfortable when in the mode of he-said, she-said. "The president's critics claim that he was born in Kenya; administration spokesmen deny the charge." But when significant political players are willing to say things that flat-out are not true -- and when they're not slowed down by demonstrations of their claims' falseness -- then reporters who stick to he-said, she-said become accessories to deception. This is the problem The Atlantic's James Bennet discussed from Tampa yesterday, in a dispatch about the Republicans' false-but-endlessly-repeated claim that the Obama administration is coddling welfare recipients by dropping requirements that they work.

Three new positive signs:

1) The Los Angeles Times' presentation of a story about the same false welfare claim. The headline of this story represents an important step away from misleading "objectivity" and toward giving readers a clearer sense of reality. More from Greg Sargent and from Kevin Drum on this point. (Update: also National Journal's Ron Fournier, who is no one's idea of a pinko. Plus Charles Pierce, and Greg Mitchell. And Bill Keller.)

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2) The New York Times this morning, on another false claim. I don't see the online version of this story (update: you can see if it you scroll way down here), but the headline below conveys the point.

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As the story makes clear, the GOP convention (like Fox News) is going to town with Barack Obama's "you didn't build that" quote. Here is the simplest way to illustrate why that's false:

Back in January, Mitt Romney made his unfortunate "I like being able to fire people" remark. Everyone (including me), knew what Romney "meant" to say. He was talking about freedom of choice as a consumer, which includes being able to "hire" good suppliers and "fire" bad ones. But he chose what was for him exactly the wrong word -- much as John Kerry did when he talked about voting in favor of a bill "before I voted against it," or as Joe Biden did four years ago in calling his then-rival Barack Obama "clean and articulate." All of these were embarrassing, but no sane person thought that Mitt Romney actively enjoyed telling people, "You're gone!"

It's the same with Obama's comment. If you read his speech, it is obvious what he "meant." The passage was about infrastructure, education, public investment, and so on. The immediately preceding sentence was about roads and bridges -- things that in fact individuals don't "build" on our own. He made his point clumsily -- as Romney had, as Kerry and Biden did, as everyone occasionally does. But no sane person thinks that Obama believes that entrepreneurs simply receive their businesses as gifts, rather than sweating, saving, innovating, and persevering to realize their visions.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan both know this. Nonetheless their party is devoting much of its convention time and ad budget to the pretense that Obama "really" thinks that people don't achieve things on their own; this is another step toward post-truth politics. The NYT responded in the right way. And here is the fair-minded test: if the Democrats spend comparable emotion and air time in Charlotte on "I like being able to fire people," they will be just as misleading and should be called out in just the same way. Including, yes, with a comparable headline in the NYT.

3) NPR's Morning Edition yesterday, once again on the bogus welfare claim. Steve Inskeep edges into the discussion with Rich Beeson of the Romney campaign, pointing out that "some commentators" had criticized the welfare ads as misleading. His follow-up, highlighted below, is the important part:
INSKEEP: What have you thought when some commentators have looked at some of the ads which you've been running that accuse President Obama of gutting work requirements? A fact-checking organization, PolitiFact -- which is based in Florida, where you are -- called this pants-on-fire false, and the ad has continued. Why keep running that ad?

BEESON: Well, you've got nine governors who have sent letters to President Obama saying we don't want to waive the work requirement. So they can parse it out how they like, and if, you know, we can have a policy discussion with the -- over the policy of it. But as far as just the political reality of it, it does take out the work requirement.

INSKEEP: Doesn't the change mean that the governors can choose or can apply to change the work requirement, as opposed to being forced to remove it?

BEESON: Well again, that still is a change. So...

INSKEEP: But it's not, quote, "they just send you your check," which is what the ad says.

(LAUGHTER)

BEESON: I think reasonable people can have a disagreement over this, but he has significantly changed what President Clinton put in in 1996.
Everyone is trying to figure out this new terrain. These are three new encouraging signs.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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