The Post-Fact-Check Campaign


For weeks now, the Romney campaign has run ads claiming that President Obama has gutted the work requirement for welfare recipients.

The response has varied. Fact checkers Politifact and the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler have called this attack what it is–a lie. That’s unusual for a press corps which generally prefers to act as if there are always two equally valid sides to a story, even when there really aren’t.

In the past, a political campaign caught promoting such obvious falsehoods would pull the ads, maybe retool them so as to be just vague enough to let the fact checkers be willing to say they pass the Candid Camera “take seven steps back, turn around and look at it through your legs” test. Not so with the Romney campaign. Even after President Clinton dismantled the welfare argument at the Democratic Convention Wednesday night, the Romney campaign doubled down on the attack according to Talking Points Memo. The Romney campaign is indeed holding to their promise that they were “not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”

That last statement from Romney pollster Neil Newhouse was greeted online with gasps and incredulity back on August 28, but my reaction was more “sounds about right.” Because we’ve been building to this moment for a long time.

It was bound to happen because there’s no longer any downside for a Republican candidate to be called a liar by what Fox News viewers and Dittoheads call the “liberal media.” In fact, Republican candidates called out by anyone other than Fox News or right-wing talk radio wear the accusation like a badge of honor. It wouldn’t surprise me if, by the end of this election cycle, the Romney campaign ran ads directly attacking MSNBC, CNN and the New York Times, casting them as biased enemies of conservatism and, by extension, America.

This has been going on for a long time–Pat Buchanan has been complaining about the liberal media for as long as I’ve been alive. Eric Alterman, in his book What Liberal Media? called this “working the refs,” i.e. getting reporters and editors to feel like they had to provide a “balance” of opposing viewpoints in their stories, even when a story was straightforward and clear.

The world that Fox News is reporting on (and I use the term loosely) is not the world that other media outlets are reporting on. I am not saying here that Fox News’s competition is always correct or even that they commit quality acts of journalism every day, but they are, more or less, reporting on the world as it exists. Fox News does not, and has not for a while now. This is not an issue of quality control, of poor executive oversight. This is by design. Fox News seeks to create a new reality, and they are succeeding.

Fox News’s audience may be notoriously uninformed about current events, but they’re incredibly well-informed on Republican talking points, especially the inaccurate ones. And because Fox News, along with their allies in talk radio, have convinced their audience that everyone else is biased and suspect, no amount of fact-checking, no amount of evidence, can shake their belief in those talking points.

During the George W. Bush administration, Fox News was doing the same thing they’re doing now, but then they had a little help. The rest of the corporate media saw Fox News’s ratings climb and sought to emulate it. Thus, during the run up to the Iraq War, MSNBC (now considered a bastion of liberal news) cancelled their highest rated show, hosted by Phil Donahue, and then briefly experimented with a Saturday show starring the mostly rabid Michael Savage. The New York Times “reported” on the Bush administration’s case for war with all the credulity of a three year old being told the story of Santa Claus. Almost everyone wanted to capture that demographic.

But Fox News viewers are loyal, and while other cable networks have floundered for an identity, Fox News has strengthened its hold on the minds and hearts of its audience. It’s akin to the fervor evangelists feel for their pastors; this audience has faith in what they hear. They believe.

That’s why the Romney campaign has been so open about their disdain for fact checkers. They can afford to be. They know that their base will never hear about the falsehoods, and even if they do, will dismiss them as lies of the liberal left, of the “lamestream media” as Sarah Palin refers to them.

But what about the independent voters? you ask. Two things: one, they’re an increasingly small part of the voting public. There may be roughly a third of the populace which identifies as independent, but their voting habits lean strongly to one party or another. There’s maybe 3% of the populace that’s really up for grabs, and perhaps the Romney campaign feels they’re low information voters who can be won over by the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ads that will grace the screens of televisions in swing states over the next two months.

But more likely the Romney campaign thinks the independents don’t matter, that they can win this with their base turnout, that their captive audience will show up in such numbers that it won’t matter what whoppers they tell in ads or on the campaign trail. It’s an incredibly cynical strategy.

It was also inevitable.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →