FORGIVE THE MIXED METAPHOR, but did the mainstream media jump the shark this summer? The expression “jump the shark” comes from the long-running 1970s sitcom Happy Days. In the 1977 fifth-season premiere, Fonzie (Henry Winkler) dons water skis, swim trunks, and his trademark leather jacket and launches over a trapped shark. The episode marked the point at which the show’s writers ran out of ideas and began substituting extravagant gimmicks in place of the solid plots that had made it a success in the first place. “Jumping the shark” has since become a metaphor for the beginning of such a decline.
The mainstream media once typified impartiality and authority, which together added up to credibility. Major media outlets, especially the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the three major broadcast networks, set the terms for lesser institutions and policed the limits of respectable political conversation. They reflected the broad center-left consensus that prevailed in the years after World War II—and continued to do so long after that consensus started giving way in the 1960s, with the rise of the Goldwater right and the New Left.
For the past seven years, this column has chronicled the decline of the mainstream media’s credibility. That decline has multiple sources, including the increasing polarization of American politics, which has made it more difficult to appear “moderate” and thereby conceal one’s own biases; the emergence of new media that not only compete with the old but also act as adversarial critics; and the mainstream media’s own hubris, their tendency to view their authority as an entitlement rather than a trust that they must continuously earn anew by adhering to standards of impartiality.
In fact, the major trend in news coverage over the past few years has been an aggressive reassertion of authority coupled with a disavowal of impartiality. The theoretical underpinning of this attitude is the critique of “false balance,” which I discussed in this space last month, and which has been endorsed by both President Obama and Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s new “public editor.” It boils down to the claim that if one side in a political argument has a monopoly on truth—and guess which side that always turns out to be?—journalists are not only justified in taking sides but duty-bound to do so.
This new partisan journalism mainly takes the form of the “fact check,” a genre I’ve also discussed before (see Presswatch, TAS, December 2008/January 2009 and March 2012). In a “fact check,” a reporter scrutinizes a politician’s statement and then pronounces a judgment—which is to say, an opinion—about its veracity.
Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention sent the “fact checkers” into a frenzy. A look at their output shows the “fact checking” genre to be not only biased but laughably shoddy. Here’s an excerpt from an Associated Press “fact check”:
RYAN: “And the biggest, coldest power play of all in Obamacare came at the expense of the elderly.…So they just took it all away from Medicare. Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama.”
THE FACTS: Ryan’s claim ignores the fact that Ryan himself incorporated the same cuts into budgets he steered through the House in the past two years as chairman of its Budget Committee.…
RYAN: “The stimulus was a case of political patronage, corporate welfare and cronyism at their worst. You, the working men and women of this country, were cut out of the deal.”
THE FACTS: Ryan himself asked for stimulus funds shortly after Congress approved the $800 billion plan.
In both of these cases, the AP neither disputes nor verifies the factual accuracy of Ryan’s statements. Each of its rebuttals is simply a tu quoque—an argument that Ryan is hypocritical.
Sometimes the so-called fact checks are just red herrings. Here’s an example from ABC News:
In comparing President Obama to Jimmy Carter, Ryan said in July 1980 the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent and “for the past 42 months it’s been above 8 percent under Barack Obama’s failed leadership.”
Both parts of this sentence are true according to the Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, but in July 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president, unemployment was at 9.4 percent. In July 1982 it was higher at 9.8 percent.
In July 1992, when George H.W. Bush was president, unemployment was at 7.7 percent.
Is what Ryan said factually correct? Yes, but it leaves out some important data.
Ryan compared Obama to Carter. ABC thinks he should also (or instead) have compared Obama to Reagan and Bush. There is no factual dispute here whatsoever.
The most contentious portion of Ryan’s speech came when he said that Obama had broken his promise to keep open a now-shuttered General Motors factory in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. “[Ryan] lied,” the Obama campaign’s Stephanie Cutter said. “He blatantly lied—and brazenly.” She argued that because the plant had already been slated for closure by Inauguration Day, it was unfair to blame Obama for breaking his promise.
PolitiFact.com agreed, rating Ryan’s account “false.” But CNN.com deemed it “true but incomplete.” Looking at the same information, the so-called fact checkers reached opposite conclusions. They had a difference of opinion, and opinion is the bottom line of the “fact checking” enterprise.
ALL THIS ATROCIOUS JOURNALISM WAS, at least to some extent, effective propaganda. The Democrats gained ostensibly impartial support for their talking point that Ryan was a liar. Bill Clinton even cited “fact checkers” in his speech to the Democratic National Convention. (That prompted an AP “fact checker” to fire back with a silly ad hominem attack: “Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky… has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth.”) The week of the DNC, a reader visiting West Palm Beach, Florida, wrote to me: “Down here in the huge building where my mother lives, all everyone talks about is what a ‘liar’ Ryan is; it’s the media diet they’re fed.”
Whether this summer is remembered as the moment when the mainstream media jumped the shark may be answered on November 6. An Obama victory in the face of slow growth, high unemployment, and Middle East turmoil would demonstrate the media’s enduring cultural and political power. But because their authority rests on the perception that it is above partisanship, further decline seems inexorable.
All the more so when you consider that it is so anxious to portray Ryan as a liar precisely because he has centered his career on telling an uncomfortable truth: that the entitlement state as currently constituted is unsustainable. That’s a direct challenge to what remains of the postwar center-left consensus. It is a truth with which the political system will have to reckon sooner or later—and from which the mainstream media and the liberal left seem determined to distract Americans for as long as possible.