The biggest political story of the day yesterday was a Congressional Budget Office report that a few too many Republicans and reporters didn’t understand. Much of the political world apparently forgot that labor supply and labor demand aren’t the same thing, which made it easier for critics of the Affordable Care Act to push a claim that was 100% wrong: “Obamacare to cut over 2 million jobs.”
And if this were simply an instance in which conservatives pushed a bogus attack and the media fell for it, this would become an interesting anecdote in a journalism textbook about media malpractice. But as yesterday progressed, we actually saw a more alarming twist: media professionals suggesting reality doesn’t matter all that much.
Consider these two paragraphs published by Politico mid-day:
There’s a lot more fine print about what those numbers really mean, and whether the jobs were “lost.”But what matters politically is how they’ll look in attack ads. And in this election year, “2 million lost jobs” is a Republican ad maker’s dream.
Right, because it doesn’t matter if someone lies – what matters is whether the person can get away with the lie.
The New York Times’ Jackie Calmes acknowledged that much of the reporting and Republican rhetoric is “inaccurate” and “false,” but she said the story is a “problem” for Democrats anyway.. “If you’re explainin’,” she said, “you’re losin’.”
A rational public discourse struggles badly under conditions like these.
What possible incentive would a political actor have in this environment to tell the truth, or take the details of public policy seriously, or look at a CBO report before telling the public what it says, if all that really matters in a policy debate is how reality might “look in attack ads”?
Consider this brief series of events yesterday:
* The CBO published a report filled with good news for supporters of the Affordable Care Act.
* Congressional Republicans said the CBO report was filled with bad news for supporters of the Affordable Care Act and much of the media believed them.
* Those who understood reality tried to explain what the CBO actually said.
By yesterday afternoon, we were led to believe that those who were right – those who were telling people the truth, highlighting verifiable facts consistent with reality – were “losing.”
Indeed, as of this morning, there are still many who continue to get the basics of this story completely wrong.
I feel as if circumstances like these come up far more often than they should. There are no “death panels” in the ACA, but some on the right said otherwise, so there’s a public discussion about it. There are no “bailouts” in the ACA, but some on the right say otherwise, so we’re in the midst of a ridiculous debate.
The Obama administration isn’t closing the U.S. embassy to the Vatican; ACORN doesn’t actually exist; there is no IRS scandal; there was no Benghazi cover-up; the government isn’t stockpiling ammunition to be used against civilians; and the Arms Trade Treaty wouldn’t undermine the Second Amendment.
And while all of these truths are very nice, “what matters politically is how they’ll look in attack ads.”
As we discussed a few weeks ago, we can no longer focus on what is true; we must also consider what Republicans and reporters perceive as possibly true – which in turn is what the public will believe, whether it’s accurate or not.
It’s just not healthy to see this in the political system of a global superpower.