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.