The real keynote speech of the 2012 Republican National Convention didn't come from the self-promotional lips of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The tone for Tampa was established hours before the opening gavel, from a Romney pollster.
“Fact-checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs and you know what?," pollster Neil Newhouse told an ABC News-Yahoo forum in Tampa on Tuesday. "We’re not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
That turned out to be one political promise that was actually kept! Over its first two nights, the RNC proved to be a lie-by-night operation. It may have been the first major U,S. political confab to ever base an entire evening -- "We Built This" Night -- on a quote taken out of context, the one where President Obama inartfully tried to describe the common sense link between infrastructure and job creation.
It continued with failed White House hopeful Rick Santorum, who repeated a proven-false attack lineon Obama administration's welfare-to-work policies as his main talking point. It reached its zenith last night, when vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan undercut some stellar political attack lines -- like the one that college grads don't have to "live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters" -- with an alarming string of serial prevarications.
It was a storm surge of untruth that threatened to overwhelming the antiquated levees of objective reporting constructed over the years by the mainstream media. Many major newspapers -- augmented by websites since the 2000 election -- do now have fact-checking features that rate the truthfulness of political ads and speeches. But after a brief period of buzz, these are largely relegated to the back pages -- cheered or mocked by rabid, un-mind-changeable partisans, unnoticed by casual voters.
The unfortunate events of Tampa have altered the equation: When do political falsehoods stop being a liittle box at the end of the story -- and become THE Story?
Brendan Nyhan, who co-founded an early fact-checking website called Spinsanity in 2001 and is now an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, said the fact-checking out of Tampa has been aggressive but late -- published after an informal viewer's initial impression has taken root.
"It's better than not doing any fact-checking at all," Nyhan said Thursday by telephone. "But we do have to be concerned about not getting the facts until after the initial coverage." He suggested that since speeches are widely available on the web, newspapers -- struggling to find a direction in the Internet Age -- can and should make fact-checking the prime deadline focus, regardless of whether it brings in new readers.
"This is about responsibility to the truth."
That's certainly a responsibility that politician Ryan didn't take seriously on Wednesday. He blamed Obama for the shutdown of a GM plant in his Wisconsin hometown when it actually closed while George W. Bush was in the White House. He criticized Obama for rejecting a commission's debt reduction plan -- without mentioning that he had served on the commission and voted against it. Ryan also attacked the president for proposed Medicare cuts identiical in size to cuts that Ryan himself proposed. He also blamed the White House for a credit downgrade that came after Ryan and other House Republicans took the U.S. debt ceiling hostage.
The media reaction was slow, but it was strong. Politifact said Ryan's GM-plant claim was "false," and FactCheck.org noted Ryan's speech "contained several false claims and misleading statements." OK, it's not surprising that a piece called "Paul Ryan fails -- the truth" appeared in the Washington Post, but it might shock you to see the Wisconsinite's words called "an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech"...on FoxNews.com (by its token liberal, apparently).
Strong, but enough? Probably not. Media-reform guru Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, is pushing for blatant political lying to get called out in the first paragraph on the front page in news stories, not buried on the op-ed page or tiny fact-checking boxes.
He's right, but would even that stop the lies? America is divided three ways in 2012, between political junkies on the left and right in air-tight, Twitter-fed bubbles and people we call "undecided voters" who are really just looking for information on when "Dancing With the Stars" comes back on.
Paul Ryan and the Romney campaign are banking on that, and they've set a low bar for next week's Democratic hoedown in Charlotte. George Orwell -- who wrote of tossing inconvenient facts down a "memory hole" -- must be spinning in his grave. Who knew the "1984" convention would be held in 2012?