Truth, Lies, Politics, and the Press, in Three Acts

Catching up on several related indicators, which together might point toward a positive and potentially major development in journalism and public life.

1) An excellent item this week by The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta, in turn citing one by Alec MacGillis in The New Republic. Both explain why the realities of modern "post-truth" politics will sooner or later force the press out of its preferred, comfortable pose of "balance," if it is to come close to doing its fundamental job of describing reality. When some people in public life are willing to lie, and to keep on lying even when the bald falseness is exposed, the press should take on an affirmative responsibility to remind readers what the "truth" is. So these items argue, and I agree.

2) An excellent recent item by Jay Rosen, at Pressthink, working from the same MacGillis article and this follow-up. These discussions were touched off by Mitt Romney's repeated use in his stump speeches of claim he knows to be flatly untrue. As MacGillis put it, in describing Romney on the stump:

He got his biggest applause during this riff:
 "I want you to know I heard something the other day that really surprised me... What I heard is that the president is taking the work requirement out of welfare. (Boos.) Yeah....I'm gonna put work back into welfare and make sure able-bodied people can get jobs."
Romney proceeded straight from this into a retelling of Obama's "you didn't built that" line, but even that did not get the applause the welfare riff did. After the speech, several in the audience told me that their favorite part had been Romney's calling out Obama for weakening welfare work requirements. Yes, one of the more depressing parts of the job of being a political reporter is watching an audience fully absorb a blatant and knowing lie. Which is, of course, what this is.

I direct you to MacGillis's item for more on why this is a lie -- and to Rosen's for the implications for the press. The most important upshot of the surrounding discussion (plus this, from my sometime-nemesis The Economist, and this from Slate) is the indication of a growing cleavage within the political media. Some of the "savviest" and best-connected political journalists say that their duty is merely to recount the claims one side makes about the other, and whether or not they "work" in swinging votes. But, Rosen argues, a growing segment has concluded that "post-truth" politics requires reporters to do more than call play-by-play. As MacGillis put it:

Ah yes. If only there was someone whose job and calling it was to ferret out the truth of such things, to provide some context for voters. Let me think, there must be someone we can think of, a profession of some kind perhaps, sort of like a researcher but also a communicator...

That's part of our job, isn't it, holding the candidates to some modicum of reality? Or we could simply sit by our screens and marvel at their "acumen.

Jay Rosen has been on this "false equivalence" / limits of "objectivity" theme for years. It's also what I addressed back in a more innocent age in Breaking the News. Amid all the reasons to despair about the course of politics, public discourse, and the predicament of the news, these may be signs of a positive and potentially very important change.

3) Somehow this is connected. Bob Lutz, a long-time titan of the auto industry, has in recent years devoted himself to the development of GM's electric car, the Chevy Volt. This is what he says in an interview with Charged, a magazine covering the electric-vehicle business. For context it's worth noting that Lutz, a former Marine Corps aviator, is on the right-wing side of the normal U.S. political scale (emphasis added).

The level of owner satisfaction is extremely high. Quality and reliability is extremely high. But the downside is that the political extreme right has been distorting the facts of the Volt.

The Volt passed the government crash tests with a five-star safety rating, and didn't roll over. But the testing protocol requires that even if the vehicle doesn't roll, it has to go through the rotisserie maneuver, which is five minutes on one side, five minutes on its back, five minutes on the other side, and then back on its wheels again. At some point during the rotisserie, some fluid leaked out, and three weeks later caused a short in the battery and the vehicle caught fire. I mean, how safe it that? Three weeks should give people adequate time to exit the vehicle.

And what did all these right-wing commentators make of that? "Chevy Volts catch fire." All of them were talking about "yeah, they all catch fire. GM's gonna recall 'em. There's just another Obama-inspired program -- a misguided socialist automotive policy. And not only did they spend a lot of your hard-earned tax dollars creating this vehicle, but now they put a $7500 tax credit on it."

Well, there are a couple of things wrong with all those statements. First of all, the Volt was my idea in 2006. We showed the first prototype at the Detroit Auto Show in 2007. Obama wasn't elected until late 2008, so Obama could not be the progenitor of the Chevy Volt. And what they also conveniently forget is that the $7500 tax credit for electric vehicles was enacted under the Bush administration ....

And these people are supposed to be for American jobs? They did such reputational damage to the Volt that the demand dipped to a very low level. So GM did the right thing, which was to idle production for 5 weeks and lay off workers. So here are these right-wing pundits who are always talking about jobs, jobs, jobs. Actually through their irresponsible reporting on the Chevrolet Volt they managed to put American workers out of their jobs for five weeks! It annoys me to no end. ...
As a conservative myself politically, it annoys me no end to see deliberate lying and misinformation coming out where they will trash an outstanding American product and do damage to American employment just to get at Obama. That's just plain unethical.

Thanks to reader SWR for the Lutz tip. Some social and economic trends get bad for a while -- and then get even worse. Others reach an extreme, meet resistance and create counter-reaction, and then are pushed back in a self-corrective process. Let us hope the press's current helplessness in dealing with post-truth politics proves to follow that second pattern.

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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.

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