What happens if the press takes a stand on the truth -- and no one cares?
Critics have for many years inveighed against "false equivalence" or "false balance" in the mainstream press. This long crusade has finally achieved its grail, or at least a version of it: In this campaign season, political reporters have been shucking the old he-said-she-said formulation and directly declaring that certain claims are false. This new approach was signaled on Sunday, when, as James Fallows has noted, The New York Times, in a front-page story, flatly stated that a Romney ad was "falsely charging that Mr. Obama has 'quietly announced' plans to eliminate work and job training requirements for welfare beneficiaries."
But what if it turns out that when the press calls a lie a lie, nobody cares?
Here in Tampa, the new assertiveness is getting its first test on a big stage, and so far the results are not encouraging. As Ben Smith of BuzzFeed has pointed out, the Romney campaign is simply swatting aside the media's objections to its welfare ad: "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," said Neil Newhouse, a Romney pollster.
Watch this exchange, from a panel here this morning. On one side is my colleague Ron Fournier, the editor-in-chief of National Journal, together with John Dickerson of CBS and Slate; on the other, Ron Kaufman of the Romney campaign. Both journalists call the ad false; Kaufman rejects their view -- both of the details of the ad, and of its political thrust, that it is, as Fournier argues, "playing the race card." The result is a stalemate -- or, actually, a kind of mind-blowing media-political meta-vortex that might be better fodder for students of epistemology or semiotics, and certainly of American Studies, than for journalists, though they should probably watch it, too.
The relevant section runs from about 26:30 to about 35:30 in the video here, with a slight digression in the middle to a different issue, energy. (The Fora player will only embed a short clip from the video, not including the passage cited here.)
From a heated argument over the racial content of the ad (Fournier: "You know an ad like that touches a racial button." Kaufman: "No it doesn't. I don't agree with you at all.") the conversation pivots pack to the press's role as fact-checker when the audience begins asking the questions - and chooses to pose them to Dickerson and Fournier. Finally, Mickey Kaus of The Daily Caller, a longtime student of welfare reform, takes the mike to (sort of) defend the Romney ad.
"The press is all full of itself about how they're going to declare that it's false," Kaus says, "but it's really a lot less false than you think it is."
Dickerson replies that that is merely Kaus's interpretation, and then Fournier -- a guy who, if you'll forgive my pomposity, has pretty much devoted his adult life to the pursuit of truth -- has a bit of a Howard Beale moment:
With all due respect, to say 'It's a lot less wrong that you think it is' is a lot like saying, 'She's a lot less pregnant than you think she is.' Wrong is wrong, and the ad is distorted. But to John's point, both sides are making up lies, both sides are distorting .... Both sides are demeaning the process, both sides are making the public mad as hell about the process -- including the media institution .... That's why we all have to take a good look at how we're conducting ourselves.
The bottom line, of course, is that the ad is continuing to run. It is continuing to run because the Romney campaign's polling shows it to be effective. And therefore, kind of by definition, the press pushback is not having much effect -- at least not so far, and at least not in the battlegrounds where the ad is playing.
Instead of being able to stand above the fray as some sort of neutral arbiter of the truth, the press may be finding that it is winding up on one side of a new kind of he-said-she-said argument.