In pursuit of balance, there is a journalistic inclination to shy away from fact-checking in favor of reporting both sides of a debate. Brooke reflects on fact-checking assertions made at the Republican National Convention, and talks to The Atlantic's James Fallows who says that Journalists are - slowly and painfully - becoming more courageous in embedding fact-checks in their stories.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
This week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa was kind of fascinating in that it showed mainstream journalists struggling to reconcile reporting on blatant untruth with their reflexive aversion to taking stands.
Presidential nominee Mitt Romney mostly steered clear of provable facts, as in his reference to the President’s, quote, “apology tour.” Fact-checking organizations call that untrue, but what if you equate diplomacy with apology? Likewise, if he asserts:
MITT ROMNEY: I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, who’s to argue. But vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s speech, praised as audacious and energetic, was so factually challenged that Fox News anchor Chris Wallace was moved to offer a couple of fast preemptive fact checks.
[FOX NEWS CLIP]:
CHRIS WALLACE: I just want to make one – two – two final points, ‘cause they’re gonna be brought up over the course of the next 24 hours. He talked about the GM plant in Janesville that was shut down after Obama came in. I’m sure the Democrats are gonna point out it was the President who bailed out GM. And he also criticized the President for doing nothing about the Bowles Simpson plan. He was a member of the Bowles-Simpson Commission, and he voted against it. Back to you, Megan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To his credit, Wallace was quick on the draw. On cable and broadcast TV, Ryan’s whoppers were generally referenced fleetingly as statements that Democrats might later dispute, suggesting that no fact is non-partisan. True, CNN did provide a video crawl during the speech and the following day, with the word “fact” in red type. Since we can’t show you that, we made you an audio version:
PAUL RYAN: For my part –
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
- your nomination will be
WOMAN: Jenna Ryan and her husband have three children, Liza, Charlie and Sam.
PAUL RYAN: And I’d like you to meet them. My best friend and wife, Jenna…
WOMAN: Paul Ryan was born in Janesville, Wisconsin.
PAUL RYAN: Our daughter Lisa and our boys Charlie and Sam.
WOMAN: He has a B.A. from Miami University in Ohio.
Mitt Romney is watching Paul Ryan’s speech at his hotel room with family.
PAUL RYAN: When Governor Romney asked me to join the ticket, I said let’s get this done. There she is, my mom Betty –
WOMAN: Paul Ryan is a congressman from Wisconsin.
PAUL RYAN: The people of Wisconsin have been good to me.
My dad, a small town lawyer…
WOMAN: Paul Ryan’s father died when he was 15 years old.
PAUL RYAN: …until we lost him when I was 16.
PAUL RYAN: I’d like to think he’d be proud of that.
WOMAN: Paul Ryan and his wife have three children.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Facts, ma’am. But as for fact-checking Ryan’s claims with regard to say the stimulus package, that was either too hard – you’d need to Google – or too risky. And so, instead, we read that he had three kids twice in the same recurring cycle.
Meanwhile, a Romney strategist says he won’t be dictated to by fact-checkers, that, in reference to a political ad we’ll get to in a few minutes.
And the Obama campaign sent a public letter of complaint earlier this summer to FactCheck.org when that organization found untruths in its ad about Romney and Bain. So, the game is on. If the campaigns can’t be shamed into probity, what are the media to do? Try harder. And James Fallows of The Atlantic says they are, despite a natural inclination not to.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that in a way the creation of the fact-checker meme over the last decade or so in journalism reflects a mismatch between the approach of conventional journalists and some of the evolving realities of politics because conventional journalists, as we both know, are most comfortable when they can say critics say X and yet the administration denies X. Because it’s awkward for them to say the administration says Z and Z is not true, it’s been easier to franchise that duty to some other part of the same organization who could say, well here, wearing my fact-checker referee hat, I can say that his claim is not actually true. It took that burden away from the normal reporter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Poor journalists!
JAMES FALLOWS: Poor journalists.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But now the fact-checking institutions themselves are under attack.
JAMES FALLOWS: If most journalists realize that we’re operating in a world in which some major political figures are not gonna be constrained by saying things that are just not true, then maybe that will become part of our news reporting again, as I think it, it should have been all, and, and we have seen some little signs of that, of headlines in major papers saying, you know, candidate X falsely says this or political ad Z falsely claims that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We were really stunned by how slow the fact-checking was on the cable networks, and on the broadcast networks, even the post-game analysis the next morning.
JAMES FALLOWS: That is interesting. It may be on TV the main way in which people feel comfortable expressing their opinions is sort of sports commentary play by play.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JAMES FALLOWS: That was an effective speech, he looked tired, the crowd was responding – all those things we know about the kind of sports journalism aspect of politics. It could also be that different sorts of skills are selected for —
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm.
JAMES FALLOWS: — TV broadcasters versus people who are expressing themselves through writing. And, again, I’m looking on the, the glass as one-tenth full [LAUGHS] perspective –
— compared with a year or two ago. There’s more willingness in more parts of the press now to try to deal with a basically changed fact environment. So that’s at least movement in the correct direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James, you move me.
JAMES FALLOWS: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You really think that if we repeat it long enough, as journalists, it will make a difference. I mean, what if everybody knows that something is a lie and nobody gives a crap?
JAMES FALLOWS: I will answer this in two ways, with actual earnestness. My father was a doctor. He knew that everybody he was going to treat would eventually die, but he did his best to make their life as healthy and as prolonged as it could be, etc. So part of what one does is to – is to work along in the face sometimes of inevitable failure or, or defeat.
The other answer would be that unless we thought that it made some difference to repeat that something is true when something is false, why would you or I stay in this business one more day? Why not go open a beer hall?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim Fallows of The Atlantic. Jim, thank you very much.