Roberts on the Media on Romney’s Post-Truth Politics

David Roberts has been thinking about this question, “how do you solve a problem like Maria?” (where “Maria” is “the Romney’s campaign’s willingness to lie brazenly without regard to media fact checking”) longer and harder than I have, and he has some interesting thoughts on the matter: As Romney and Ryan lie with abandon, how should journalists navigate post-truth politics?

The whole piece is really quite fabulous. Here’s a small taste:

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post that, as far as I’ve been able to tell, coined the term post-truth politics. I also wrote a couple of follow-ups, here and here. After that, economist Paul Krugman adopted the term and it started bouncing around more and more. In just the past few weeks, it’s really taken off.

(My authorship of the term seems to have been lost to history; such are the wages of being an obscure niche blogger. Thanks to Alec MacGillis, at least, for giving me a shout-out!)

Regardless, I don’t care about ownership, I’m just happy that journalists and pundits are starting to seriously grapple with the issue itself.

Unfortunately, Roberts doesn’t have a solution. But in the “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” tradition, he does have some obvious-to-him observations:

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I have no training in journalism. I was never taught to be even-handed or “neutral.” What training I have for what I do came from two places. The first was a whole lot of time spent with a large extended family in the South (Georgia, mostly) filled with raucous, hyper-verbal drunks with highly sensitive bullsh*t detectors and razor-sharp senses of humor. The second was grad school in philosophy.

In both places, I learned to love arguing, the mechanics of stringing facts and evidence together to reach conclusions. But I also learned that in real-life situations, the technically superior argument does not always carry the day. In real-life situations, the one that wins is the one with wit and timing, the one with the ability to employ mockery, flattery, flirting, storytelling, peer pressure, guile, and the whole array of other non-factual, non-logical communicative tools available to the human animal.

Traditional journalism, particularly in its post-war American variety, has purposefully denuded itself of most of those tools. The idea is “just the facts.” That can inform an argument, but it can’t win one. Journalists do not like to think of themselves as in an argument, as competing with, say, a campaign to convince the public of something. They still think of themselves as neutral arbiters of truth. But neither the campaigns nor the public view them that way any more.

What would it look like if journalists tried to win an argument with a campaign – an argument over, say, what Obama has done with state welfare waivers? For one thing, they wouldn’t just string together correct facts once and call it good. They would do it repeatedly. They would call out the campaign explicitly as acting in bad faith. They would mock and shame the campaign for its behavior.

This would be a serious departure for U.S. journalists. It would put them in an explicitly adversarial role with political operators – not the same operators all the time, not the same party every time, maybe, but not “neutral.” More like prosecutors working on behalf of the truth.

There are some interesting parallels between what Roberts is talking about and some other things I’ve been viewing and reading lately. Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom on HBO (which just concluded its first season), imagined a fantasy version (Sorkin’s fantasy, I assume) of a news anchor who operates more as a prosecutor than a dispassionate observer. And Joe Romm’s book Language Intelligence (which I’ve been reading, and very much enjoying) goes into detail about the importance of rhetoric, of using language artfully to debate and persuade.

I come back to my comment from the other day: There’s something important going on here. How we as a society address this issue is going to have a big impact. I don’t know how it’s going to play out. But I think it matters.

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