We are all fact-checkers now

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 Washington 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 No. 5 was 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 also is far more fact checking within news columns these days, too, mostly as a result of competition and hectoring from not just online news outlets in the traditional sense but from 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.

When CNN’s Anderson Cooper took on a prominent Democratic, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, with a new aggressiveness recently, he almost seemed to have located his inner Will McAvoy, the truth-talking anchor on HBO’s “The Newsroom.” The fictional McAvoy is much mocked, yet he’s also a very real manifestation of our yearning for a lot more on-the-spot, in-your-face fact checking, and we are without question moving in that direction. (Old Will went too far, though, calling tea partyers “American Taliban,’’ who, if you’ve checked the real news lately, are busy killing people.)

As I listened to Paul Ryan, tweeting as I went, I couldn’t remember ever hearing an acceptance speech so rich in untrue un-facts. 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 social programs for just those people? Or with all of his Randian rhetoric that any hand up is toxic, lulling 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. (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?

Earlier this week, the Republican message-tester Frank Luntz told me that using the word “lie” is a big no-no in politics, because the negative impression splashes back and makes the accuser unlikable.

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina must not agree, because in a mass e-mail on Thursday, he said Ryan had “lied about Medicare. He lied about the Recovery Act. He lied about the deficit and debt. . . .

In both that rhetoric and Ryan’s, I see both sides vigorously 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 reporter and anchors the newspaper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter: @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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