Federal spending is out of control under the Obama administration. The health care individual mandate is socialist. President George W. Bush presided over the slowest job growth in half a century.
None of these statements — by Republican presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, conservative pundits, and President Barack Obama respectively — stands up to scrutiny. Spending has grown more slowly under Obama than it did under each of his modern Republican predecessors, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The individual mandate emerged two decades ago from the conservative Heritage Foundation and was broadly favored by Republicans until Obama adopted it. Depending on the terms of reference, more jobs were lost month by month during the past three years than in the preceding eight.
But even when exposed, such falsities persist.
Election cycles have probably always induced political sophistry — selective interpretations, mischaracterizations and outright lies — but in the rapidly evolving digital age, they now also provide a biannual or quadrennial measure of how changes in information vetting and news consumption affect political accountability. The New York Times began a recent editorial observing that “Mr. Romney’s entire campaign rests on a foundation of short, utterly false sound bites” spoken “so often that millions of Americans believe them to be the truth.”
It is probably more complicated than that. The public square is more noisy and diverse by the day.
Eight years ago newspapers and broadcast news held the public trust. Four years ago blogging was relatively new, but now it is essential link bait for news websites. No one tweeted then. Now everyone does. The growing partisan media have broken down the traditional barrier between news and opinion, fragmented audiences and created echo chambers for party-line narratives.
On one hand, the pace and mechanics of the new media environment provide cover from the fact checkers. “Part of the mission is to try to cut through the unremitting flood of what the new media call facts,” says Bill Lambrecht, Washington bureau chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It becomes difficult to think and write stories and go talk to people on the Hill if you’re sitting there totally fragmented by tweets and emails.”
On the other hand, the increase in information available through the new media may be offsetting the declining range of the traditional media.
“I don’t think this is such an easy question,” says Markus Prior, associate professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, in an email. “There are also reasons why new media might strengthen accountability.”
Political accountability, Prior notes, is a function of the level of political knowledge within the general populace. Political knowledge, in turn, depends on the availability of information about government and elected officials. Until relatively recently, newspapers, broadcast news and radio newscasts were the primary independent informers. Two of those sources, newspapers and the network broadcasters, have diminished substantially in the last decade. Earlier this year the White House Council of Economic Advisers ranked newspapers as the fastest-shrinking industry in the United States, having contracted 28.4 percent in the last five years alone.
That altered print landscape has dramatically reshaped political coverage. Two presidential elections ago, most middle-sized metropolitan dailies had well-staffed Washington bureaus. Today most of those offices have closed, and the few that remain — such as the Post-Dispatch’s — are one-person operations. Broad, thematic pieces have replaced the old daily “boys on the bus” political coverage.
At the same time, another concern is a growing potential for mismatch between congressional districts and newspaper markets. As David Stromberg and James Snyder pointed out in a paper two years ago for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the shrinking number of local newspapers combined with redistricting result in less evenly spread local coverage. “[A] good fit . . . between newspaper markets and congressional districts leads to more press coverage of the local congressmen,” they wrote. Here, the same thing that took the bottom out of newspaper ad revenue may provide a civil silver lining: The Internet, they noted, provides at least the means for regenerating local coverage.
Prior is similarly cautiously optimistic. While the proliferation of entertainment media has diverted a large segment the public’s attention, news consumption is growing among a small, demographically representative segment of the population. Given the explosion in digitally accessible political information, Prior doubts that total news consumption has decreased substantially. Rather, it is population group that reads, watches and listens more.
“[N]ot all citizens have to follow the news in order for detailed media coverage to strengthen accountability because an evenly well-informed electorate is not a necessary condition for political accountability,” Prior argued in a recently published book chapter. “As a result of more media choice, the task of holding elected officials accountable rests increasingly on a relatively narrow segment of the population: — news junkies.”Whether those more attentive consumers of news information recognize and act out that monitorial role, Prior acknowledged, is harder to assess.
The transformed media environment also puts the onus on the remaining newspapers to be more discerning. In their new book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein fault newspapers for burying fact- checking in the back pages rather than weaving that expository work into page one stories.
A second concern is the appearance of partisan language in traditional media news coverage — an obvious pitfall in a highly polarized and partisan public square. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, for example, tracked signs of the “messaging war” around Obama’s health care reforms seeping into newspaper coverage. Canvassing the top 60 news sources between June 1, 2009, and March 31, 2010, Pew found more than 18,000 instances of specific language promoted by opponents of the overhaul — such as “more government involvement” and “rationing health care” — and more than 10,000 cases of pro-overhaul phrases such as “more competition” and “greedy insurance industry.”
“One of the biggest challenges in the new era is how to filter what comes at you and maintain focus,” Lambrecht said.
Amid the fluidity and flux, however, John Yemma, editor of The Christian Science Monitor, sees a settling of roles among the new and traditional media. He cited the dust-ups around two politically charged statements. The first, by Romney: “I like being able to fire people.” The second, from Obama: “The private sector is doing fine.”
In both cases, a sentence was isolated and run through the partisan new media gotcha mills. Then the campaigns, partisan blocs and Super PACs picked it up. Finally, the traditional media stepped in, restoring the context in which the statements were made and checking the facts behind them.
Digital technology, Yemma noted, provides an antidote to the stress all news organizations face from their funding sources. Tweets and links serve the cause of fair-minded journalism as much as the more partisan alternatives.
“The promise of the network effect is that we don’t have to do it all ourselves,” Yemma said. “We can point to other good journalism, which is a perfectly valid exercise of our judgment.”
If there is a detectable thread running through attempts to grapple with the effects of a boisterous and constantly changing communications marketplace, it might be hope — not that potential moderating mechanisms will safeguard the public trust, but that they might. That may be as good as it gets.