A Watershed Moment for Real-Time Fact-Checking  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   August/September 2012

A Watershed Moment for Real-Time Fact-Checking   

The news media’s aggressive approach to Paul Ryan’s distortions should be a template for the way it covers the rest of the campaign. Fri., August 31, 2012.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

It was a positive development in a very negative presidential campaign

The news media's aggressive, real-time fact-checking of Rep. Paul Ryan's acceptance speech Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention was a watershed moment. News organization after news organization weighed in to catalogue the parade of distortions and untruths in the GOP vice presidential nominee's address.

The evolution of the fact-checking movement in journalism has been gradual, but this latest incarnation is essential for two reasons: today's frantic media pace and the willingness, even eagerness of politicians to pay so little regard to the truth.

Candidates must be called out on their lies, right away, and over and over again.

Sure, the fact-checkers will be tuned out by the true believers who think their side is always virtuous and their rivals are always wrong. But on behalf of those who are still open to the truth, it's the job of the news media to dig it out.

In recent years, new outlets have begun to move away from he-said, she-said coverage in favor of trying to sort it out for readers and viewers. But I can't remember many instances where so much fact-checking was available so close to the event.

Of course, Ryan's speech had something to do with that. His disregard for the truth was simply spectacular. Fox News' Sally Kohn called the speech "an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech." The Washington Post's Melinda Hennenberger wrote, "As I listened to Paul Ryan, I couldn't remember ever hearing an acceptance speech so rich in untrue un-facts."

Now the Democrats are not exactly saints on this issue. (Remember the grossly misleading ad suggesting a woman died because her husband lost his health insurance when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Bain Capital closed the plant where he worked?) It's critical that the fact-checkers are equally hard-edged during the Democratic National Convention next week.

But the Republicans seem to be taking a particularly cynical view during this campaign. Well before Ryan's flight of fantasy Wednesday night, the Romney campaign had made clear it would keep insisting that President Barack Obama was "gutting" welfare reform by getting rid of a work requirement – no matter that the charge had been widely discredited.

The Romney campaign has been quite explicit about the fact that it doesn't plan to let the facts get in the way of an effective campaign ploy. Romney pollster Neil Newhouse told Buzzfeed's Ben Smith, "Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers."

The gauntlet has been thrown down. It's essential use the Paul Ryan fact-checking template for the rest of this bitter campaign.



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