Real reporting

The two pillars of this year’s Republican campaign are mendacity and vacuity. Those pillars are mutually supporting, with the mendacity concealing the vacuity (they keep talking about “tough choices” without ever specifying any) and the vacuity concealing the mendacity (the magic asterisks in the budget arithmetic).

The success of that strategy depends on two preconditions:

(1) Voters either so in the dark they don’t notice they’re being bullshat or so in love with the idea of  a free lunch (or so full of hatred for the Kenyan Muslim Socialist) that they willingly suspend their disbelief; and

(2) A stenographic press (cf. Colbert’s classic exposition) willing to report the statements without, at the same time, pointing out their falsity or emptiness.

Today we see two more indications that condition (2), though a reasonable assumption based on the recent past, may not be valid  year. Tom Edsall points to one of the magic asterisks in the Ryan Budget – “Function 920,” which sounds as if it comes out of the file cabinet in Room 101 – and unveils some of the horror show it’s designed to conceal.  He then gives it a name, which might even catch on: “the Ryan Sinkhole.” And Josh Gerstein at Politico undresses Mitt Romney’s claim that his silence on Afghanistan in his acceptance speech was c0unterbalanced by his having discussed the topic the previous day before the American Legion. Here’s the  full text of the passage that Romney later described as having “described my policy as it relates to Afghanistan.”

 Of course, we are still at war in Afghanistan. We still have uniformed men and women in conflict, risking their lives just as you once did. How deeply we appreciate their sacrifice. We salute them. We honor them. We respect and love them.

There! If that doesn’t bring Mullah Omar in carrying a white flag, I don’t know what will.

P.T. Barnum is supposed to have said that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. By the same token, very few elections have been lost underrating the servility of the American political press corps. But this year may be different.

Update James Fallows points out (as Harold Pollack had already noted) that Norah O’Donnell hammered Paul Ryan on Face the Nation for his slipperiness on defense spending.

According to the journalistic rule that three events constitute a trend, I call a trend toward actual journalism. Yippee!



  1. Philip says

    It is unfortunate (and I say this as a staunch Obama supporter) that the Dem campaign is also filled with a substantial amount of the same.

    The idea that we dems making a big point about Romney not mentioning Afghanistan in his speech seems to me an obvious example. One I get a nice revenge thrill from (gotcha!), but not something to be held up as an example of our seriousness.

    The idea that roughly half the country (those that lean right) are much more susceptible to empty rhetoric than those of us in the other half is a large part of the problem. Do you hear Obama presenting a real and detailed solution to the challenge of solving the jobs problem in the short term while keeping the debt under control over the long term? I hear very little of substance and lots of accounting tricks similar to those the Repubs are using. We’re not going to have a substantial stimulus in the short term; we are not going to substantially raise taxes in the short or medium term; we are going to expand health care coverage and at the same time try a number of experimental methods to try to ‘bring the cost curve down’ which may work but are highly uncertain; we hear little to nothing serious about how either side will fix the central challenge of growing entitlement spending in an aging population; etc.

    The dems as much as the repubs are framing each issue in terms of core values – ‘individual freedom!!!’ vs. ‘support the middle class!!!’. That’s how a difference between 19% of GDP vs. 21% of GDP (repubs vs. dems long-term plans as i understand them) turns into ‘financial slave state!’ vs. ‘socialism!’.

    • matt w says

      “we are going to expand health care coverage and at the same time try a number of experimental methods to try to ‘bring the cost curve down’ which may work but are highly uncertain; we hear little to nothing serious about how either side will fix the central challenge of growing entitlement spending in an aging population”

      But the health care expansion and methods of bringing down the cost curve are real and detailed proposals. They have to be, since they’ve been passed into laws. And bringing down the cost curve on health spending just is the central challenge of “growing entitlement spending”; the problem is almost entirely the rising costs of Medicare.

  2. Jimmy7 says

    I have a theory. The folks that have “television journalist” as the answer to the employment question on their tax reforms are all watching “The Newsroom.” They started watching because, well, who wouldn’t watch a show about themselves? And then they said, “Wait, this journalism…that looks like fun. I’m going to try that.”

  3. says

    It’s not mendacity versus vacuity. It is a single thing and a vastly worse one: it is literature. They’re not lying; they’re telling stories. Stories are neither true nor false; they inhabit a different continuum.

    Corollary #1: Never look at the storyteller; always look at the audience.

    Corollary #2: The stories that created the modern world, as we in the European tradition know it, were about “ogres”. The ogre was an allegory for the feudal landowner. Today’s stories (which are, under our eyes, creating the next world, which we will not like at all) are also about ogres, although the word is not (typically?) used. What are today’s ogres allegories for?

  4. matt w says

    Quotation police: The quote is usually attributed to H.L. Mencken rather than P.T. Barnum, and (unlike the “vote themselves money quote” we were talking about the other day) seems to be based on something Mencken actually said:

    “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” I generally see it cited to this piece (though I can’t find it by searching inside “A Mencken Chrestomathy,” where it is often attributed).

  5. ottov says

    actually it WAS h l mencken; p t barnum said ‘a sucker’s born every minute’–and clearly this year’s republicans
    would fit either

  6. Jeffrey Kramer says

    At some point a prominent Democrat (I nominate Joe Biden, for obvious reasons) is going to have to stop asserting “they cannot simultaneously and consistently maintain both position A and position B,” and start shouting “where does Romney/Ryan get the big fat balls to come out in public with b.s. like this? Does he think we’re all f*cking morons?”

    Until that happens, the default position not only of the press but of millions of voters is going to be “well, there must be two sides to this.”