If you missed Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention last week and tried to play catch-up the next morning, you could be forgiven for concluding that nothing the Wisconsin congressman said was true.
Twelve hours after the speech, Josh Marshall, editor of the liberal Talking Points Memo, popular among journalists, asked: “Will the Paul Ryan Lying Thing Break Through in the Mainstream Press?”
Um, yes. It would.
The mainstream media “fact checked” Paul Ryan’s speech with alacrity. At the Washington Post, for instance, four of the five most-read articles were, in effect, accusations that Ryan had lied. The New York Times published an article under the headline: “Ryan’s Speech Contained a Litany of Falsehoods.” The Associated Press accused Ryan of taking “factual shortcuts.” The Week magazine published not only “The media coverage of Paul Ryan’s speech: 15 Euphemisms for Lying,” but also “Why Paul Ryan thought he could get away with lying: 6 theories.”
Here’s the funny thing about most of these articles: They fail to cite a single fact that Ryan misstated or lie that he told. In most cases, the self-described fact-checks are little more than complaints that Ryan failed to provide context for his criticism of Barack Obama. For example, virtually every one of these articles included a complaint about Ryan’s comments on Obama and entitlement reform. In accusing Obama of failing to lead on entitlements, Ryan noted that Obama had ignored the findings of the Simpson-Bowles Commission that the president himself had empaneled. The complaint: Ryan did not mention that he had served on the commission and voted against its findings.
Could Paul Ryan have gone out of his way to disclose his role? Of course. Does his failure to do so constitute a “lie”? Hardly. There’s an additional irony here. None of those accusing Ryan of omitting important context noted in their reports that Ryan, both before and after voting against Simpson-Bowles, authored comprehensive and detailed plans to address entitlements and debt—something that might be considered important context for their critiques of Ryan.
Most of the fact checking focused on a passage about a GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, Ryan’s hometown. This, allegedly, is the big lie:
My home state voted for President Obama. When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it—especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory. A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that G.M. plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said, “I believe that if our government is there to support you, this plant will be here for another 100 years.”
That’s what he said in 2008. Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.
Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact-checker, accused Ryan of lying.
In his acceptance speech, GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan appeared to suggest that President Obama was responsible for the closing of a GM plant in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisc. That’s not true. The plant was closed in December 2008, before Obama was sworn in.
There are two things wrong with this. Ryan didn’t claim that Obama was responsible for the closing of the GM plant, he faulted Obama for failing to do what he’d suggested he’d do: Save it. It’s an important distinction. If Ryan’s intent had been to deceive, he wouldn’t have introduced his critique noting that “we were about to lose a major factory” when Obama told workers, “this plant will be here for another 100 years.” Second, Kessler was simply wrong to claim “the plant was closed in December 2008, before Obama was sworn in.” The plant was producing trucks as late as April 2009, several months after Obama was sworn in. On February 19, a month after Obama’s inauguration, the Janesville Gazette reported on the imminent closure: “General Motors will end medium-duty truck production in Janesville on April 23, four months to the day after the plant stopped building full-size sport utility vehicles. About 100 employees associated with the line learned of the layoffs Wednesday.”
It’s true that GM, in the summer of 2008, had announced its intention to put the plant on standby. But if announcing something accomplished it, I would have long ago announced that I’d lost 30 pounds. The plant was not, in fact, “closed in December 2008.”
But the narrative was set. How did this happen? Immediately after Ryan finished delivering the passage on the GM plant in his speech, top Obama adviser Stephanie Cutter sent this tweet: “Ryan blaming the President for a GM auto plant that closed under Pres Bush—thought he was smarter than that.” With one click after another, Cutter’s false claim became accepted wisdom.
So we are left with this irony: Paul Ryan was accused of lying because journalists and self-described “fact checkers” relied, at least in part, on a misstatement of fact that came directly from the Obama campaign.
There’s a bigger problem. The same media outlets so energetically fact-checking every claim made by Republicans are missing extraordinary contradictions and inconsistencies from the Obama campaign. (Note to fact-checkers: The words “every claim” are deliberate hyperbole, not meant literally.)
Think about this: In an election in which voters cite the economy as their top concern, the centerpiece of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign is a policy proposal that he has twice insisted would damage the economy. It might be considered the most audacious and important contradiction of the 2012 campaign. Most journalists haven’t noticed.
Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich. He has vigorously opposed Republican efforts to maintain the current tax rates for all taxpayers, including the wealthy, and he’s mentioned his desire for tax “fairness” in recent campaign speeches in Virginia, Colorado, and Iowa. An ad the Obama administration ran in August urges higher taxes on “millionaires” and concludes: “I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message because to cut the deficit we need everyone to pay their fair share.”
In the summer of 2009, Obama said in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd that raising taxes in a recession “would just suck up—take more demand out of the economy and put business in a further hole.” Raising taxes in such a downturn, the president said, is “the last thing you want to do.” Obama can point out, correctly, that we’re not in a recession. The obvious question to ask him, however, is why it’d be foolish to raise taxes in a recession but wise to do so in a sputtering recovery.
The second time he made this argument presents more problems—or might if journalists actually asked him about it. On January 29, 2010, with an economy he described as “somewhat fragile,” Obama said that the “consensus among people who know the economy best” was that raising taxes was one of two ways to damage the economy. At a House Republican retreat in Baltimore, Obama rejected a Republican proposal to freeze spending at pre-stimulus levels and warned against the “destimulative effect” of tax hikes.
I am just listening to the consensus among people who know the economy best. And what they will say is that if you either increased taxes or significantly lowered spending when the economy remains somewhat fragile, that that would have a de-stimulative effect and potentially you’d see a lot of folks losing business, more folks potentially losing jobs. That would be a mistake when the economy has not fully taken off.
Raising taxes, the president said without qualification, would be a “mistake” that could lead to “a lot of folks losing business, more folks potentially losing jobs.” Here’s the kicker: The economy today is not doing nearly as well as it was when Obama made those comments. Then, the “somewhat fragile” U.S. economy was coming off a fourth quarter in 2009 that had seen economic growth at a robust 5.6 percent—a pace that the New York Times described as a “roaring growth rate,” while noting that it was expected to slow. (The first quarter of 2010 would show growth at 3.2 percent.) Growth today is considerably slower—a mere 1.7 percent in the last quarter, down from 2 percent in the first quarter.
Why would the president run for reelection on a policy that he believes will damage the economy, hurt business, and lead to higher unemployment?
It’s a good question. Perhaps when journalists are done fact-checking the Republicans, they’ll ask him.