In the weeks leading up to Election Day, major media outlets whitewashed many of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's extreme positions, including on abortion, health care, and the situation in the Middle East. In doing so, these outlets aided Romney's efforts to remake himself as a moderate politician.
Hosting Rep. Paul Ryan on the Today show this week, Matt Lauer asked the Republican vice presidential candidate whether he would concede that some of the statements he made in his convention speech in Tampa last week "were not completely accurate."
Specifically, Lauer pressed Ryan on his controversial assertion suggesting president Obama was responsible for the closing of a General Motors plant in Janesville, WI., when in fact GM made the plant-closing announcement in June 2008, while President Bush was still in office. (The plant halted its production of SUVs in December 2008; also while Bush was in office.)
Ryan's easily debunked attack on Obama has put the candidate on the defensive. It's also sparked a debate within the media about fact-checking and how to cover candidates who campaign while aggressively removed from the truth.
And yet despite the GM controversy, and through the endless debunking, Ryan has remained loyal to the issue, even tweeting about the plant closing this week:
Questioned by Lauer about the controversy, Ryan's told him to go "read the speech," and then mounted this defense [emphasis added]
RYAN: What I was saying is, the president ought to be held to account for his broken promises. After our plant was shut down, he said that he would lead an effort to retool plants like the Janesville plant to get people back to work. It's still idle; people are still not working there.
But that's not what Ryan said in his speech last week.
In Tampa, Ryan quoted candidate Obama speaking at the auto plant on February 13, 2008, months before it was shut down. Then on Today, Ryan told Lauer he had referenced comments Obama made "after our plant was shut down." [emphasis added]
Hammered for dishonest comments he made in his convention speech about the closing of a GM plant, Ryan went on national television this week and compounded that dishonesty by revising what he said in his convention speech.
How is the press supposed to cover a post-truth politician like that? And should they trust Ryan's assertions in the future?
A Boston Globe editorial noted that by the end of his first term, President Obama will have appointed far fewer lower court judges than either of his two predecessors, and chided him for "fail[ing] to make the most of an opportunity to shape the federal judiciary." The editorial referenced a recent New York Times article that highlighted unprecedented Republican obstruction of President Obama's nominees but does not actually mention this fact. By ignoring Republican obstruction, the Globe gives its readers far less than half the story.
The federal judiciary currently has so many vacancies that more than half of Americans are living in a "judicial emergency." That is, as district judges are increasingly faced with disproportionately large dockets, attention to individual cases falls, resolution is delayed, and access to justice for everyone suffers. As The New York Times reported, as of August 17, "Mr. Obama has appointed just 125 such judges, compared with 170 at a similar point in Mr. Clinton's first term and 162 for Mr. Bush."
Former U.S. Senator John E. Sununu's dual career as a contributing op-ed writer for The Boston Globe and an advisor to a lobbying firm is raising ethical questions.
A review of Sununu's columns reveals that they have not contained disclosures about his ties to lobbying giant Akin Gump, where he serves as a "senior policy advisor." Indeed, Sununu has written about issues related to Akin Gump's lobbying without disclosing his role in the firm.
Political scientist Brendan Nyhan points to a Boston Globe essay by Joe Keohane (based largely on research conducted by Nyhan) about the stickiness of misperceptions and the challenge this poses for those who think it is important for people to not be wrong.
Keohane notes that "Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works." Or, as Princeton's Larry Bartels put it in 1996: "the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science." That, I think, is quite clearly true, and is an indictment of the news media as much as (or more than) it is a criticism of American voters.
Keohane also points out that studies have found that "misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions." Again, probably not surprising.
The really troubling part, though, is that several studies have concluded that presenting people with the facts may not do much to convince them. Keohane summarizes Nyhan's findings:
Facts don't necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
What's going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we're right? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn't. This is known as "motivated reasoning." Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.
New research, published in the journal Political Behavior last month, suggests that once those facts — or "facts" — are internalized, they are very difficult to budge.
Nyhan suggests one solution to this problem:
Nyhan ultimately recommends a supply-side approach. Instead of focusing on citizens and consumers of misinformation, he suggests looking at the sources. If you increase the "reputational costs" of peddling bad info, he suggests, you might discourage people from doing it so often. "So if you go on 'Meet the Press' and you get hammered for saying something misleading," he says, "you'd think twice before you go and do it again." Unfortunately, this shame-based solution may be as implausible as it is sensible.
I am a huge fan of increasing the "reputational costs" of peddling misinformation -- of not only shaming, but shunning, too.
But, as Keohane suggests, that isn't sufficient, both because there are plenty of people who are incapable of being shamed, and because neither journalists nor politicians demonstrate much interest in shaming their peers.
Keohane's essay, I think, reinforces something I've been arguing for years: the importance of repetition. It isn't enough for news organizations to occasionally correct false statements; they must do so every time they quote, paraphrase, or refer to a false statement. And it isn't enough occasionally give readers and viewers basic information about public policy debates -- it must be done over and over again. Such an approach would, I think (hope?) have two benefits: It could make it more likely that voters internalize the truth before misinformation takes hold and the repetition could break through the barriers presented by preconceived notions -- it seems likely that it's harder to dismiss something you hear a dozen times than something you hear once.
And that, by the way, is why I keep coming back to this point...
UPDATE: Also, the way in which false claims are debunked is important...
UPDATE 2: See also: Assessing the media's health care coverage
The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, and Fox News' Major Garrett ignored Rep. Charles Boustany's (R-LA) past comments regarding whether President Obama was born in the United States in reporting on the GOP's decision to have Boustany deliver the party's response to Obama's health care reform address. In fact, in a video for which videographer Mike Stark says he asked congressional Republicans whether they believed Obama was born in this country, Stark is shown asking, "Do you think there's a question here?" to which Boustany responded, "I think there are questions, we'll have to see."
The Boston Globe uncritically reported Sen. John McCain's false claim that Sen. Barack Obama proposes to "fine" small businesses that do not provide employee health insurance. While Obama has proposed requiring large businesses that do not provide employer-sponsored health coverage to pay a percentage of their payroll into a National Health Insurance Exchange to help Americans purchase private health insurance, small businesses would be exempt.
Several conservatives in the media have recently blamed the Community Reinvestment Act for the current financial crisis -- when, in fact, the CRA does not apply to institutions making the vast majority of troubled loans underlying the crisis. It applies only to depository institutions, such as banks and savings and loan associations. Experts have estimated that 80 percent of high-priced subprime loans were offered by financial institutions that are not subject to the CRA.
Several media outlets falsely suggested that only Democrats denied Republican claims that Speaker Nancy Pelosi's speech on the floor of the House of Representatives before a September 29 vote on the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 "cost some GOP votes." In fact, several House Republicans also have denied the allegation.
Several print media outlets reported that during a July 21 campaign event, Sen. John McCain, in the words of the Associated Press, "disparaged [Sen. Barack] Obama as 'someone who has no military experience whatsoever.' " But none of the articles noted that McCain has previously said he does not "accept the notion" that military experience is necessary to be an effective commander in chief.
The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish stated that Sen. John McCain "criticized [Sen. Barack] Obama for not voting for a resolution condemning the antiwar group MoveOn.org for a newspaper ad calling the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, 'General Betray Us.' " But Kranish did not note that Obama did vote for a separate amendment that condemned the ad, as well as other attacks on past and present members of the armed forces.
In an article on Mitt Romney's decision to reclassify loans to his failed presidential campaign as contributions, The Boston Globe quoted Stuart Rothenberg's assertion that if Sen. John McCain were to pick Romney as his running mate, "Democrats would use" Romney's decision "to undermine his [McCain's] reputation as 'Mr. Reformer.' " But Kranish did not note that McCain himself has attempted to "reject public financing" for the primary election in a manner that could "undermine his reputation as 'Mr. Reformer.' "
The Boston Globe reported in an article that Sen. John McCain has "accus[ed] [Sen. Barack] Obama of going back on his word to take part in the public system" without noting that the Obama campaign has also criticized McCain on public financing or that the FEC chairman has taken the position that McCain cannot legally opt out of public financing during the primary season without FEC approval.
In asserting that Sen. John McCain "appears to delight in defying his fellow Republicans on matters ranging from taxes to the environment," Boston Globe reporter Susan Milligan cited "McCain's support for immigration reform" and his "opposition to the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2002." But Milligan made no mention of the fact that McCain has reversed his position on taxes and immigration to more closely align himself with the base of his party.
The Boston Globe's Peter S. Canellos reported that Sen. John McCain's "opposition to Bush on a range of issues, combined with his nonideological voting record, gives him an image of moderation." In fact, McCain himself has stated, "My record in public office taken as a whole is the record of a mainstream conservative," and has said that he will "offer Americans ... a clearly conservative approach to governing." Furthermore, academic studies of McCain's voting record have ranked him among the most conservative members of the Senate.