Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sunday Is for Politics

If you don't want politics, skip today.

Otherwise, click below the fold!

Earlier I complained about PolitiFact being incompetent and inconsistent. Now, I want to explain to you why this whole "fact check" thing has gotten out of hand. There are four major criticisms about Paul Ryan's speech that people are calling lies. In many instances, the fact checker is either not doing research or just being sloppy. These fall almost into the same category as the Washington Post's fact checker, that gave two Pinocchios for saying that Obama had never been to Israel as president, yet noted that "Obama visited Israel in 2008, as a presidential candidate, but thus far has not visited the Jewish state during his presidential term." Things like that, combined with the inconsistencies at PolitiFact are why Republicans are starting to gear up and debunk bad fact checking.

Let's go through the five biggest complaints against Ryan's speech. Starting with the most obvious truths that were called lies and moving from there.

1. The Janesville plant closed in 2008.
The Washington Post's Ezra Klein literally says this as a headline: "Obama could not have saved Janesville GM plant. It closed before he took office." If you look at the timeline he helpfully provides for you though, it becomes clear. The Janesville plant closed in April 2009. You can find it at the same link that Klein says it closed before Obama took office. It's kind of sad when a media fact check debunks itself, but if you want, here's a local paper telling us that the plant was still open in February 2009. So, somehow, a plant that closed during Obama's term is moved backwards in time to somehow close when the announcement of a potential shutdown if new business didn't come in, solely so that fact checkers can call Paul Ryan a liar. Or because they couldn't be bothered to do more than listen to each other's echo chamber. Or worse, they uncritically accepted an Obama campaign staffer's tweet as the truth and repeated it. I'm not sure which is worse to have to cop to as journalists. Either way, Klein and others' understanding of chronology does not cover them in glory.

2. The downgrade was all the Republicans' fault.
This is one of the criticisms that I saw come from Fox. Now, the key to understanding why that is wrong only requires you to familiarize yourself with Standard and Poor's actual reasoning. First, they highlight that the problem is politics just isn't working. This is a problem that you have to be willfully blind not to see both parties' playing at brinksmanship. Not only that, but they highlight that the spending cuts are not big enough, nor are they sure enough. They could be undone by Congress at any time. Not only that, but Congress seems to be unable to pass and keep a budget. There is fiscal insanity going on in DC, and all of it contributed to the downgrade. Putting it in the Republicans' laps is dishonest or relying on talking points published by only one side of the debate, which, by the way, is not how journalists are supposed to work.

Journalists: Do your jobs and stop screwing up the easy points, so that we can give you the benefit of the doubt on the more controversial ones. These two were gimmes. You could have not touched them, or pointed out that there were mitigating facts that made the accusations not as damning. Either way, you could have chosen a more accurate way to portray these. You did not. That makes the following three points even more difficult to reconcile because, while not lies, they are areas where legitimate difference of opinion exists, which is how you could have cast these. You could have written substantive, informative articles. Instead, you chose to simply engage in "Ryan lied" hysteria. It hurts your institutions and your credibility, especially when you can't get the bloody chronology right.

3. "You didn't build that."
For some reason, journalists seem intent on refighting the battle over "You didn't build that," relying on the spin of context and meaning. The full context is available in the video; it has been hashed over plenty of times. Maybe what the president meant to say is what people are pretending he said. That benefit of the doubt is rarely, if ever, given to Republicans, especially when their words are used by Democrats to pound them for being stupid. This would have been a flash in the pan (like 57 states and Romney saying his first name was Mitt), a minor gaffe that died in a news cycle. Yet, by constantly refighting it and dragging it out to try and re-contextualize it? It has been given new life. It's what the president said; the context it was in gives it the exact meaning people say it has. Simply let it die: "The president said that. He was unclear, apologizes and wants to move on to discuss X, Y and Z," where those are whatever the actual topics are. Remember: More ink and air time has been dedicated to trying to spin "You didn't build that" than has been spent forcing Wasserman Schultz to apologize for claiming to not know who Priorities USA supports. So, here we have not so much a lie as accepting what was said as what was said, instead of trying to twist it into something that was not said. This is also sometimes referred to as hoisting on their own petard. If you don't want your political opponents to hit you for saying stupid things, say fewer stupid things. Tapper (probably one of the best journalists in the field) gives you the full text, the argument from both sides, and leaves it at that. This is why he's one of the best. Also, he is willing to ask uncomfortable questions of the White House. He really should have been one of the debate moderators. But that's enough gushing about Tapper actually living up to the ideals of journalism.

4. The Simpson-Bowles Plan
I don't even know what the lie is that I keep hearing people talk about Ryan lying about here. Here's what Ryan said, quote per PolitiFact: "They came back with an urgent report. He thanked them, sent them on their way, and then did exactly nothing. Republicans stepped up with good-faith reforms and solutions equal to the problems. How did the president respond? By doing nothing – nothing except to dodge and demagogue the issue." You'd think, since it is PolitiFact, they'd be trying to tell us what in there is not a fact. There isn't any. It's not actually a lie that they care about, rather, they want to spill some ink venting at Ryan. It spends very little time talking about the bi-partisan efforts Ryan and Revin went through; the commission, as a whole, was probably the best effort we've had in trying to tackle this problem. It doesn't mention that Ryan managed to cobble together a compromise plan (that, by the way, raises spending and taxes) that is stalled in the Senate. It also seems to miss a key point of contention: When the president held an intensely partisan speech that killed all attempts at bi-partisan compromise. If "context" is the excuse for bringing this up, then PolitiFact, again leaves out inconvenient context. The Simpson-Bowles Plan is an excellent starting point; we can quibble about the edges and where we need to give more and take more. That's what the commission was doing before it blew up. The blow up can be blamed on many things; the key, though, was when the president stepped in and made it impossible to keep working on it.

5. $716 billion, with a B.
This is another fight that is keeping going that I don't understand why it is going on, nor why a policy debate continually is recast as a "lie." The Affordable Care Act (and other legislation/follow ups/regulations/etc.) takes $716 billion from Medicare. The counter argument is that it doesn't take it from Medicare, just from the money being used to pay the doctors providing Medicare, so it doesn't really hurt the people being provided care. That means we need to assume that the $716 billion in care will still be provided, despite not being paid for. Now, since the money is being applied to other health care costs, it is possible all of that care won't be needed. That's not much comfort to the people who could use that care. The key to remember is that for the $716 billion in savings to actually be savings, you have to assume that the economy will somehow absorb the lost revenue and not increase Medicare costs or reduce access to care. So, the same administration that mentioned that doctors sometimes choose amputation because it is cheaper (which was a gaffe, but for the point of the point you should go with) also expects us to believe that hospitals and insurance corporations will brim over with good will and take $716 billion (or more) in losses. Now, that's all the reasoning on why the $716 billion in cuts may or may not be a good idea. To even reach that point, you are accepting the cuts happened, which they did. So, why is it being called a lie over and over again? Because fact checkers are lazy and incompetent. In fact, Forbes, goes the same route that I did. Admit the cuts are happening, then show the argument and counter argument. (Total disclosure: I did not see that until after writing this section and realizing I did not have a source. It is a happy coincidence I found someone using the same, though more thorough, approach.)


The worst part of this is that other journalists take their peers' work, trust it and repeat it. Each and every point could be brought up as "A thing Ryan said to which there are counter arguments." That would be a fair, balanced way of looking at Ryan's speech. Instead, fact checkers go for the big headlines, knowing that editors will let their slipshod journalism slide for a few extra clicks. Who knows? Maybe some of the writers turned in good journalism that was bastardized during the editorial process.

But, journalists want us to hold them to a high standard of integrity. I want to hold journalists to that standard; I honestly like the power of journalism and what it means. But, when political posturing takes the place of objective fact reporting, it hurts journalism as a whole. Now, all the fact checkers  assured us they'd be equally as diligent in fact checking the Democrats' convention. So, it is entirely possible that they will be overly critical out of the gates to get the news out first, screw it up and refuse to issue corrections there too. If that's the case though, maybe we should just give up on them.

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