How Paul Ryan gets away with BS

So far, the media response to Ryan's flagrantly dishonest VP acceptance speech is just what the GOP was counting on

Published August 30, 2012 12:05PM (EDT)

A compelling, fact-based defense of the content of Paul Ryan’s vice-presidential acceptance speech last night is impossible. The deception was so flagrant, so thorough, so sloppy and so unending that, as one observer on Twitter put it, Politifact probably melted down.

That left those speaking up for Ryan to make a broader, more philosophical point about the inherently slippery nature of political rhetoric. Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia professor and pundit, led the charge on this front:

Convo speeches are not scholarly papers w/ footnotes. They're ALWAYS filled with exaggeration & omission.

There is something to what Sabato is saying. It’s not like Ryan is the first speaker at a convention for either party (or even at this convention) to make wildly misleading and verifiably incorrect statements. Nor will he be the last. How much do you want to bet that at least one speaker in Charlotte next week rails against Mitt Romney for saying he likes to fire people?

This presents a dilemma for journalists trying to report on and analyze Ryan’s speech. Should the blatantly dishonest nature of his remarks be the focus of any commentary? Or, since he was really just engaging in an exaggerated form of something that politicians have been doing for ages, should we just shrug our shoulders, leave most of the details to the fact-checkers, and move on to how well he delivered it and what impact it might have on swing voters?

An unscientific sampling of headlines and written accounts of Ryan’s speech from some of the nation’s leading news sources this morning suggests the second approach is winning out.

As of this writing, the main story about the speech on the New York Times’ home page carries the headline: “Ryan faults ‘missing’ leadership,” with a subhead that reads: “Paul D. Ryan accepted the Republican vice-presidential nomination as his party embraced the gamble that his principles offer more political payoff than peril.” It’s not until the 17th and 18th paragraphs that we are informed that some of Ryan’s key claims were, essentially, nonsense:

Mr. Ryan was referring to a provision of the health law that cuts more than $700 billion in projected spending from the Medicare program. Mr. Ryan’s budget assumes similar reductions, a point Democrats will be certain to continue making in the weeks ahead.

Likewise, Mr. Ryan, whose deep budget-cutting plans drew intense criticism from Mr. Obama long before the Republican ticket was completed, accused the president of failing to act on the recommendations of his own bipartisan debt commission. Mr. Ryan did not mention that he had served on that commission and dissented from its policy proposals, which included specific steps to reduce budget deficits.

Similarly, the Washington Post’s home page shows an image of Ryan under a quote from his speech: “Your leaders have failed you.” It’s in the eighth paragraph that we learn:

However, at several points, Ryan critiqued Obama’s positions without disclosing the fact that he had held similar ones. For instance, although he attacked Obama for reducing Medicare spending by more than $700 billion, his own budget proposal would curb the program by a similar amount. He also criticized the president for not supporting the recommendations of a bipartisan commission on deficit reduction, without noting that he had been a member of the commission and had not supported it either.

This seems to be how most major outlets are handling the speech. The headline at blares, “Ryan’s Rousing Speech Thrills GOP Convention.” The accompanying story doesn’t even mention that there were serious factual problems with what Ryan said. In his morning tipsheet, Politico’s Mike Allen rounds up more headlines from newspapers across the country:

-- Wall Street Journal, "Ryan Pledges GOP Rebirth"

-- Chicago Tribune, "Ryan's vow: 'We will lead': On biggest stage of career, VP pick lays out goals of Romney presidency"

-- USA Today, "Ryan puts fresh face on Grand Old Party: Republicans promote new generation of leaders"

-- Boston Globe, "Ryan swings away at Obama: Calls policies failures, says president adrift" (earlier edition: "Ryan hits hard on economy" "Rips president, vows to undo health care law"

(Disclosure: I work for two news outlets, Salon and MSNBC. Salon sported this home page headline this morning: “Paul Ryan’s Brazen Lies.” MSNBC’s post-speech coverage last night included extensive reporting and commentary on Ryan’s fact problems, while the main headline at this morning reads: “Paul Ryan: ‘Let’s get this done.’”)

The point here isn’t to condemn these news organizations and others that approached the speech similarly. Many of them made an effort to document at least some of Ryan’s dishonesty in their reports. Some found other ways to make the point; the New York Times, for instance, also features an editorial excoriating Ryan and other convention speakers for ignoring or fudging the details of their plans and records, and the Associated Press provided a helpful fact-check.

But the reality, of course, is that most casual voters don’t read editorials and fact-checker columns and probably don’t get much beyond the headline, picture and (maybe) first paragraph or two of a news story about a speech like Ryan’s. The Romney campaign is clearly counting on this. (Earlier this week, a top Romney strategist stated that “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.) They are willing to take a hit on the editorial pages and in the seventh paragraph of a news story, so long as this doesn’t define the media’s coverage.

This is why Ryan seems poised to get away with the deception he peddled last night. He and the Romney campaign, as Greg Sargent has been arguing, have no incentive to give up this tactic until and unless major, down-the-middle news organizations decide to make their dishonesty the focus of their reporting. It’s only at that point that the noise generated might begin to affect casual voters, which is all the Romney team is really worried about.

The question that’s hard for the press to answer is where to draw the line, since – as Sabato pointed out – a certain level of distortion and fabrication is standard fare in politics. I’d say Ryan’s speech last night made as good a case as anything the Romney campaign has done for this kind of treatment. But so far, we’re not seeing it.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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