truth vigilantes

Paul Ryan, the Media, and the L-Word

Representative Paul Ryan, Republican vice presidential candidate, gestures to his mother, Elizabeth 'Betty' Ryan, while speaking at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa, Florida, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012. Ryan takes the stage tonight to address the RNC with a dual mission: to provide a spark, along with his big ideas about cutting the budget, to energize the party's base.
Photo: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By all accounts, begrudging or otherwise, vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan gave an electrifying speech last night. By all accounts grounded on this round and real Earth, he was also exceedingly dishonest. Whether or not voters will care comes later, but in this age of outwardly partisan media and the political fact-check, in which the slow death of faux-objectivity continues to creep in, it can be telling to watch the tightrope act of news outlets determined to stay fair and balanced while dealing with the distortions pouring from our leaders’ mouths. Americans may not all be sorting through the wonky particulars, but one word everyone understands is “lie.” And yet some in the media still opt for euphemisms.

The front page of the New York Times today reads right up top, “Ryan calls for a U.S. Turnaround, Led by Romney.” The accompanying article first addresses the plentiful contractions and outright lies in Ryan’s speech in the second paragraph, but only by noting that he said “he would stand with Mitt Romney in embarking on a generational struggle to protect the very social program — Medicare — that Democrats accuse him of trying to dismantle.” They said it, not us! The story then goes on to quote Ryan for more than ten paragraphs before calling him on another hypocritical attack, again by assuming “Democrats will be certain” to take issue with it. While a few other holes in Ryan’s speech are mentioned, his honesty is never questioned outright; the word “lie” does not appear.

It’s also not in a subsequent fact-check article about the speech, though “lie” comes up twice in the first paragraph of a post on the Opinion blog under the headline, “Beyond Factual Dishonesty.” Presumably it doesn’t quite have the same impact there. When Times public editor Arthur Brisbane asked, “Should the Times be a truth vigilante?” the answer was apparently yes, just not right away.

The fact-checks are everywhere today: Salon calls out Ryan for his “BS” and “brazen lies,” while the Washington Post lists “the misleading and the downright false.” The Huffington Post has a blog entry called “Paul Ryan: Lying Liar,” but even the proudly left-leaning site goes with the clunkier “Demonstrably Misleading Assertions” in its lead column on the speech.

There’s also USA Today, NPR, AP, and CNN, none of which use the L-word. On air, the line-straddling Wolf Blitzer called Ryan’s remarks “a powerful speech” with “seven or eight points I’m sure the fact checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want to go forward.”

Individuals, on the other hand, relegated to personal blogs and opinion sections, took more liberties, like Jonathan Bernstein at the Washington Post, who called out Ryan’s “staggering, staggering lie” about Obama’s debt commission. But Ryan’s falsehoods, when dissected, are not opinion, they are fact. The truth, even! Most surprisingly, in a move giddily pointed out everywhere, Sally Kohn wrote on, “Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”

Perhaps the sheer number of outlets covering the Ryan speech with some skepticism, rhetorical gymnastics aside, will seep into the public consciousness beyond obsessive blog-readers and Twitter addicts. Headlines do have a way of working via osmosis at a certain saturation point. But for news organizations to pull punches in the places most people get their news — like the front page of the newspaper or primetime cable insta-analysis — and then even again later with delicate wording, indicates that “he said, she said” journalism lives on at the forefront. Facts are on the fringes, pounding on the gate, but might get through more effectively not solely by strength in numbers, but with a sharper tongue.

Paul Ryan, the Media, and the L-Word