In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It's better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)
-Jay Rosen, Why Political Coverage is Broken
There is no better example of this than the coverage of last night's GOP debate in Tampa last night. All the coverage is about who won, who got in the best shot, who had the best zinger, what this means to the candidates going forward, and who's gained the most supporters from it. What is barely being covered -- and, in many outlets, not covered at all -- is the fact that the candidates at the debate were lying. Shamelessly, continuously lying.
PolitiFact followed the debate with fact-checks of key statements made by the candidates. Of those statements, only one rated "true" and one "mostly true"-- both were when Mitt Romney pointed out that Rick Perry was lying about his past stance on Social Security. So even those few true statements were lie-related. The rest of the statements ranged from "half true" to "pants on fire."
This isn't just "horse race coverage," where a political contest is reported like a sporting event. This is something else entirely and much worse. To extend the metaphor, this is covering a game while neglecting to mention that every player is constantly cheating.
And why? Because truth doesn't matter. That's what savvy political insiders know. Is Rick Perry's "message" on Social Security hurting or helping him with voters? That's what matters. Is that message 100% certifiable BS? Who cares? Voters don't know if things are true or not, so it doesn't matter. What matters is how it'll play in Iowa or New Hampshire. That's what savvy political insiders like Washington reporters and TV talking heads know.
"[President Obama] had $800 billion worth of stimulus in the first round of stimulus," Rick Perry said last night. "It created zero jobs, $400-plus billion dollars in this package. And I can do the math on that one. Half of zero jobs is going to be zero jobs." Is it true? Of course not. PolitiFact rated it as a "pants on fire" lie. But that's not important. What's important is whether that helped him win the debate -- how does it play with the soccer moms?
Apparently, it's not the journalist's responsibility to report the factual data, it's the journalist's responsibility to repeat what politicians say and analyze its effect on the political game. And people wonder why we live in a world where people seem to think they can believe whatever they want to believe. There is no objective truth in political reporting, just sound bites and empty analysis that should be of interest to only a handful of political players.
And the truth? Well, if you give a hot damn about the truth, then you're just not a savvy political insider.
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