TAMPA — The reaction to vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech was not, per usual, simply divided along partisan lines, with the media mostly reporting how it played with various audiences.
Instead, mainstream outlets prominently tagged a number of the points he made as flatly inconsistent with the facts. Of the five best-read pieces on the Post’s Web site Thursday, No. 1 was a column headlined, “Paul Ryan fails — the truth,” No. 2 was an editorial, “Mr. Ryan’s misleading speech,” and at No. 5, another column, “Paul Ryan’s breathtakingly dishonest speech.’’ Are you sensing a pattern? If not, I recommend David Firestone’s “Beyond Factual Dishonesty,’’ in the New York Times, or a look back at clips of CNN’s Gloria Borger, who noted in real time that Ryan was wrong on several points. Even FoxNews.com had a post that labeled the oration “dazzling, deceiving and distracting.”
Of course, each of these pieces is analysis or opinion rather than a straight news story, but in the new media world, those distinctions are less obvious than ever. There is also far more fact-checking within news columns these days, mostly as a result of competition and hectoring from not just online news outlets, but anyone with a Twitter account.
That’s why Ryan, whose description of Obama put me in mind of poor doomed Jay Gatsby, “grasping at a moment that has already passed, like a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind,’’ is himself sailing into something quite new. He’s been forced to navigate an emerging cultural norm in which even the most old-school among us — here! — are increasingly willing to call out falsehoods in our own voices.
Watching CNN’s Anderson Cooper take on the Democratic Party’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz with a new aggressiveness recently, he almost seemed to have located his inner Will McAvoy.
McAvoy, the truth-talking anchor on HBO’s “The Newsroom,” is both fictional and much mocked. Yet he’s also a very real manifestation of our yearning for a lot more on-the-spot, in-your-face truth-squadding, and we are without question moving in that direction. (Old Will went too far, though, calling tea partiers “American Taliban,’’ who if you’ve checked the real news lately are busy killing people.)
As I listened to Paul Ryan, I couldn’t remember ever hearing an acceptance speech so rich in untrue un-facts, either: No, the federal government is not “in charge of health care,” and it isn’t remotely fair to blame the president for “a downgraded America.”
Most grating to me were his words about how we must care for the vulnerable. “We have responsibilities, one to another – we do not each face the world alone,’’ he said, steering perilously close to saying we don’t all build it on our own. “And the greatest of all responsibilities is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d stand and cheer, but how does that square with the Ryan budget, which dramatically cuts programs that do just that? Or with all of his Randian rhetoric that any hand-up is toxic, because it lulls the unsuspecting into lives of dependence and laziness?
Then there was this: “When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life.” Of course he didn’t; the father he lost far too young was a lawyer, and the rest of his family was prosperous, too. (Minor disclosure: I shared an apartment with one of his many Janesville cousins my senior
year at Notre Dame.)
When I thought about it, though, not one of the things that irked me about his speech was so much a flat-out falsehood as creative marketing. Looking back at fact-checks of convention speeches four years ago, I see that there was plenty of stretch in Obama’s and Palin’s, and that McCain’s drew even more corrections from fact-checkers than Ryan’s did; are we just more aware now, more inclined to see what we used to call a shading of the facts as plain false?
Republican message-tester Frank Luntz told me earlier this week that using the word “lie’’ is a big no-no in politics, because it makes the accuser unlikable. I never use it for a different reason — because intent is nearly impossible to prove.
But Obama campaign manager Jim Messina must not agree with either argument, because in a mass email on Thursday, he said Ryan had “lied about Medicare. He lied about the Recovery Act. He lied about the deficit and debt...”
In that rhetoric and in Ryan’s, I see both campaigns concentrating on turning out the base rather than doing much to win over the relative handful of undecided voters who would be turned off by such talk.
We are all fact-checkers now, and that's a good thing. But if we’re going down this road, we’re going to have to double-check our own first impressions, too.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writers and anchors the paper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.