Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Gore-ification of Paul Ryan

Regular readers know that I am not exactly a fan of Paul Ryan; I think his reputation as a bold truth-teller is undeserved. And I thought his convention speech contained one of the all-time whoppers, when he claimed that Barack Obama had spurned the advise of Simpson-Bowles, which he referred to as "they" and "them" instead of "we" and "us" -- since Ryan was not only on the commission, but was the person most responsible for it making no recommendation after all.

All that said: a WaPo article earlier this week by Jerry Markon and Felicia Sonmez is absolutely awful. It's exactly the wrong way to approach serious questions about a politician telling lies. By trivializing the issue into a series of gotchas, it is unfair to the politician because anyone who speaks in public all the time will make minor, unimportant factual errors, and unfair to the readers by failing to take the possibility that there's more here than minor gaffes seriously.

Here we go. On the trivialization front: Markon and Sonmez begin with several paragraphs describing a back and forth controversy between the campaigns about whether Ryan has been telling the truth. That's a mistake; Ryan was called out by independent fact-checkers and reporters for his convention speech, and framing the story as one of Ryan vs. the fact-checkers is a much different, and more serious, story.

Then the first specific alleged factual error that Ryan is accused of in the story doesn't show up until the 7th paragraph, and it's an entirely trivial question about where Ronald Reagan asked "are you better?" Apparently Ryan set it at Reagan's convention and not at a debate, where it belongs. Then in the 9th paragraph we get the marathon time question -- again, totally trivial. The 10th paragraph has a slightly less trivial question about whether Ryan supported stimulus funds in his district. Note that this one is more of a hypocrisy charge than one of factual error. That's typical; once the reporters choose a frame, everything suddenly is presented as evidence of it, just as an error in 2000 would have been an example of stupidity for George W. Bush but lying for Al Gore. After the (on-line) jump, we finally get to the Janesville plant from his convention speech, and told that "Democrats and independent fact-checkers have criticized" it -- rather than being told, for example, that Politfact gave that one a "false" rating. The story then gives no other examples from the convention speech, but moves back to Ryan's mistaken characterization of some bankruptcy numbers as business bankruptcies instead of combined personal and business -- again, a mistake, but not really one that's especially nefarious in my view. Ryan then gets the last word, with someone attending his rally quoted:
“Sometimes people might color their stories a little bit, but I don’t think it’s an intentional misstatement,” said Roberts, who attended Ryan’s speech Tuesday near Cleveland. “I might’ve said I made six dozen cookies when in reality, it was only five dozen.”
Well, yes, in the context of the story, that seems about right. Ryan has made a few verbal flubs, and so we should simultaneously characterize him as someone who mixes up facts all the time, but not consider it all that serious of a problem. In other words, he's exactly like the Al Gore who "invented the internet."

But in fact, Ryan was accused of -- and found guilty of -- several important attempts to mislead in his convention speech.  The Janesville plant was just one; there's also his version of the ACA Medicare cuts, and the stimulus, and of course the one that I find particularly bad, Simpson-Bowles. All of which the Post's fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, had in his write-up of the speech. Oh, and Kessler also adds that the "didn't build it" thing that Ryan and everyone else in Tampa used was a lie, too; just because it was constantly repeated doesn't make it less of one.

Those things are the real questions about Ryan's mendacity, not forgetting where Ronald Reagan made a comment. Let's put it this way: we can debate whether Ryan is correct or the fact-checkers are right, and we can debate about exactly how important those attempts to mislead are, but they're serious business.

One more thing. Markon and Sonmez give Ryan a pass on his previous reputation, saying that "He has not been known to stretch the truth during his seven terms in Congress, according to colleagues and a review of his record Tuesday." We're given no further details about that review of his record, but budget mavens have consistently faulted Ryan for some of his characterizations of his own plans and Barack Obama's. For example, I took him to task for using the entirely false 6/10 myth about ACA. It's true that some criticisms of Ryan have been basically ideological, slamming him for being a Randian or whatever, but another strain of criticism has been that his numbers simply don't add up the way he says they do. Again, those criticisms may be wrong (hint: they aren't!), but they are very much part of the context of complaints about Ryan's convention speech.

So. What I'd say to reporters is: don't Gore-ize Paul Ryan. Don't start nitpicking every minor, trivial factual slip he makes. If it wouldn't be news if Mitt Romney or Barack Obama or Joe Biden slipped up and said it, then it's not news if Paul Ryan said it. However, do look into the accusations of serious mendacity; if you believe they have merit, then include those in the context of who Ryan is and how his campaign is going, and include them repeatedly; consider doing further reporting on it, but at the very least be aware of the kinds of things he says, and make sure he pays a price if he does it. But don't trivialize it (and I realize that the Obama campaign probably is "helping" by pointing out trivial factual errors; resist that, too).


  1. I'm amused how mesmerized you lefties are with Ryan. ;-)

    I'm wondering if the Willardbots gamed that out before they nominated Ryan, that he'd draw fire off Willard (who is a weak candidate, imo). That would all make political sense. Ryan becomes the classic VP hatchetman then, so it has historical strategic roots, in addition to being a more contemporary strategem to counter Willard's being a weasel.

    But by attacking Ryan, the Left risks alienating segments of the electorate. That's the risk of the "He's a big fat liar" strategy. Ryan's response to that is quite simple. He's going to point up to the debt clock just over his shoulder, the one that just rolled over the $16 Trillion mark, on the first day of the Left's political convo.

    I think it's possible that the Obamabots have fallen directly into the Bain schemer's campaign strategy here. If they ignore the oldest maxim in the book, that VP's mean little and should largely be ignored, it may cost them.

    1. I'd agree with you, but my GF, a very low information voter trending republican (from Grand Rapid, from pete's sake) the only thing she now knows about the Romney campaing is their VP lies about his marathon times. And climbing mountains.

  2. Why are you publishing this here rather than on one of the WAPO sites?

    1. That's a fair question.

      Two or three answers.

      First of all: at PP, I basically write whatever I want; at Plum Line, Greg is my editor, and I basically pitch him topics (same, by the way, with my Salon columns). So I do think a bit about what Greg would be interested in. I do think he might have been interested in this one, but I don't know.

      Also: at least for this week, I'm doing an afternoon post for Greg and a post-convention item for PP. So part of it is: I saw the article right now, wanted to respond, didn't want to wait to see whether Greg would want it or not (because if not, it gets into late afternoon). I had something else for here that I could have done, but wasn't as much in the mood for writing about it.

      So some of it has to do with which seems a better fit, but a lot of it is just keeping the flow of posts reasonable, and another part is having a place to put things when I write it.

      I've definitely used one of my WaPo places to ding WaPo people, and they don't discourage me from doing it. FWIW. Also, I should mention that I generally think Sonmez is a solid reporter; I don't really have an opinion about Markon, but I've been something of a fan of Sonmez for the last year or two.

  3. Clive Crook wrote the best response to all this nonsense:

  4. There is a difference; Ryan's mis-truths came out of his own mouth. Gore's (I invented the internet) were never spoken by Gore.

    More importantly here, is the whole specter of a 'fact-check' industry. This used to be the job of the press, no? Do we now live in a world where the press just reports the horse-race, fair and balanced, and the 'fact-check industry' actually verifies?

    I worked as a journalist for many years. First job, first day, and nearly every day there after, I heard, "Verify, verify, verify."

    1. Ryan's mis-truths came out of his own mouth. Gore's (I invented the internet) were never spoken by Gore.

      While "invented the Internet" was never spoken by Gore, many of the other remarks attributed to him were. For example, he did incorrectly claim during one of the debates to have traveled to a Texas fire site with James Lee Witt. He had traveled there with another official, and gone with Witt on other occasions. So he did make a false statement--however, there's no reason to believe it was due to anything more than a memory lapse, and in any case it was incredibly trivial. But the media jumped all over him for it, treating it like he had told a whopper. During the same debates, Bush actively distorted his own record (such as when he falsely claimed to have brought Democrats and Republicans together to pass a patient's bill of rights in Texas--in fact, he'd vetoed the bill repeatedly until finally allowing it to pass without his signature when it looked like his veto might be overridden), but the media was virtually silent about it.

  5. Markon did some good work on the legal beat a few years back. I haven't read his politics stuff closely enough to have an opinion about it.

    And hey, that's a familiar headline! (used in service of a somewhat different point):

    1. Argghhh. You know, I was going to try to find some way to credit Brendan for the basic idea of the post, anyway, and never figured out how to do it...didn't realize I'd (almost) swiped his headline.

      My apologies to Brendan and whoever wrote the headline (Brendan? Greg? Headlines are a mystery).

      In my defense, Gore-ification is really massively superior to Gore-ing. Just saying.

    2. I believe it was Brendan's. I'm sure he'll take it as flattery!

  6. I think that part of the problem here lies with the faddishness of blogging. Many people/journalists/bloggers/talking heads comment on a single topic (because it's hot), and each wants to say something that distinguishes themselves (to increase their market value). At the same time, none can afford to take the time to think or research the topic. Consequently, they try to present "a different point of view," but what they do is more superficial.

    I imagine that it's a lot less work than real reporting.

    1. I'm not convinced.

      It often has more in common with 'editorial,' with punditry, I think. But much rises to the level of real reporting, and some is better then the 'paid' reporting being done by major news organizations; particularly because they're not 'reporting,' they're frequently recycling news-wire pieces as if they were reporting; doing what bloggers do without the admission of it.

    2. Blogger doesn't work as a category. I'm doing a mix of opinion and what's basically teaching political science. Others do pure opinion. Still others do basically pure reporting. Or other stuff. Some are paid, some not, some half-and-half.

    3. You provide critical analysis off the cuff, Jonathan, but that's because you're an expert on this stuff. Emphasis is on critical: you have a body of knowledge you can draw upon. Hence, your opinion has value.

      I imagine that what I call "real reporting" has a lot more consultation with various experts, research into sources like the Congressional Record and other authorities, and talking to bona fide sources than the kind of crap you're describing in this article. That's what we'd all like to see more of. But it takes a lot more work and time to do anything right.


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