The Partisan Narrative: Who Has the Real Facts?
Date posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Why today’s media will never give you the true story.
As the director of Bain Capital, was Mitt Romney responsible for promoting and facilitating the outsourcing of American jobs? Depends on who you ask. For instance, you could ask the Washington Post, which rated the Obama campaign’s charge that Romney promoted outsourcing “four Pinocchios.” Or, you could ask . . . the Washington Post, which a mere one day after the four Pinocchios piece ran an investigative story detailing how Bain, under Romney, was at the forefront of investing in companies that specialized in outsourcing jobs.
Daniel Moynihan famously said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts. But whether entitled or not, people who only want a certain set of facts can easily obtain whatever truth they’re looking for. While it’s rare for a single publication like the Post to provide the opposing sides of an argument, there is enough partisan media—some of it selective in what it covers, some of it just outright dishonest—to allow anyone to avoid discomforting news.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Ezra Klein had a fascinating piece on “motivated reasoning.” Psychologists have shown that people process information differently depending on their political ideology, finding ways to reach the result that supports their ideology. The same news story can even lead the same group to different conclusions depending on whether or not they believe it supports their political allegiances. This research makes it clear how partisans will process the debate over outsourcing. Supporters of the President will focus on the Post’s reporting and eat up what is sure to be a sustained attack on Romney for outsourcing. Romney’s supporters will ignore the context of the Post’s reporting providing new evidence for outsourcing accusations, and will rely on the Post’s fact-checking piece to accept the Romney campaign’s line that any accusations of outsourcing are “false and discredited.”
But where does this leave those who aren’t already invested in one side or the other of the Mitt Romney/outsourcing debate? With conflicting or complicated evidence, and partisans on either side—inside and outside of the media—amplifying contradicting positions, where should we expect those who aren’t searching for particular destination to end up? My guess is that the Obama campaign will end up with the better end of this debate. Even if someone isn’t a Democratic partisan and isn’t invested in reaching the conclusion that Romney outsourced jobs, it’s still the easier conclusion to reach. The facts may not be entirely clear and straightforward, but it just seems true that Mitt Romney would outsource. It fits with everything else we know and believe about Romney, the narrative that—before he was, for Pete’s sake, running for office—he would do whatever would make himself and his investors the most money with little regard for the human cost. John Kerry had an incredible war record, yet the public was receptive to attacks on that record because his public image—aloof, elitist, weak-willed—didn’t fit cleanly with the image of someone who would win a Silver Star for piloting a boat into enemy fire. It’s hard to imagine Democrats getting the same traction with attacks on John McCain’s war record, even if they had been able to find men who served with him to dispute his account. Along similar lines, Al Gore gave off the image of a know-it-all and kiss-up, and so the public ate up charges that he exaggerated his achievements, even though these charges lacked factual support.
The Romney example (two irreconcilable versions of the facts) and the Gore example (one version of the facts that turns out not to be true) reveal a dilemma in the type of media we should want. Should we want a return to the days of everyone relying on network news and local newspapers, where everyone at least had a common starting point for political debate? This is a large part of the debate over Aaron Sorkin’s polarizing new show, The Newsroom. The Newsroom is premised largely on nostalgia for the days of Great Media, when men like Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite told the country the truth and everyone believed them. But as the show’s critics rightly point out, the era Sorkin longs for was also the era of horrific racial and gender inequality. Neither Murrow nor Cronkite opened every newscast by highlighting, for example, the latest injustice from the Jim Crow South. Had they done so, they quickly would have lost “most trusted man in America” status. The credibility they used to take on McCarthyism and Vietnam was built through years of not taking divisive stands, however righteous those stands might be.
A liberal and conservative that both watched Murrow would have likely been able to have a more productive, civil debate than a liberal who watches Keith Olbermann and a conservative who watches Sean Hannity. But Murrow could never have delivered a sustained, relentless critique of a popular sitting president in the days when three anchors were competing to command the entire national audience—he simply wouldn’t have stayed on the air. It would be great if we had a genuinely trustworthy and trusted source to decide for us Romney’s culpability for outsourcing, but that would also be putting an absurd amount of power in fallible human beings. We should want our partisan news sources to act in better faith, to be honest in presenting their side of the story, but the truth is usually complicated, and democracy is well-served by a vigorous debate between competing narratives.[pinit]