“I Didn’t Close That”: When The Tweeterverse Speaks, The Media Listens – Too Closely

It is increasingly clear to me that the Twitterverse has made it more difficult for the traditional media to do its job, which is to cover campaigns accurately.  The ability of partisans to tweet in unison and almost instantaneously in response to almost any campaign event has made it almost impossible for the media to resist basing its initial story on what the Twitterverse considers to be “the truth”.  Instead, under pressure from partisan-driven tweets to write a story in real time, journalists feel compelled to report on news without often fully understanding its context or even, in some cases, getting the facts right.  If they do not report on the incident, reporters feel they may fall behind the twitter-driven news narrative and become irrelevant.

One example from Paul Ryan’s convention address last night illustrates my point.  Early in his speech, Ryan said this:

“When [Obama] talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory.

A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.” That’s what he said in 2008.

Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.”

As Ryan said these words, almost immediately the twitterverse lit up, as Obama supporters pointed out that in fact GM had announced in June, 2008 – before Obama had won election – that it was closing the Janesville plant by the end of 2010. I don’t know who first tweeted this, but within 30 seconds it had ricocheted across the twitterverse, and within minutes was being repeated in live blogs covering Ryan’s speech. (Some tweeted that the plant closed in December of 2008 – again before Obama was even in office, although this also turned out to be incorrect. Maybe.)  Obama tweeters dared the media to do more than simply report on Ryan’s claims, but instead fact-check it (and, presumably, show that the claims were false.) Within a few hours, wire services were reporting on this and other factual errors in Ryan’s speech, and Politifact, one of the many “fact check” organizations that have sprung up to adjudicate these types of disputes, had ruled that Ryan’s claim was false. It noted that in fact, the plant had closed even before Obama took office. Meanwhile, the cable news talking heads were cornering Romney surrogates to ask them about Ryan’s false claims, and newspaper blogs, in a rush to catch up with the twitterverse narrative, were running similar stories.

Score one for the tweeterverse. The tweeters held the mainstream media’s feet to the fire and won, striking a blow for truth, justice and the American way.

Or not. Politifact’s ruling notwithstanding, Romney supporters are standing by Ryan’s claim as factually correct and instead are arguing that it is Obama who has some ‘splaining to do. How can this be?  As it turns out, even as the plant was in the process of closing, it kept on some workers, as Politifact acknowledged parenthetically: “(Several dozen workers stayed on another four months to finish an order of small- to medium-duty trucks for Isuzu Motors.)”  Indeed, as late as October, 2009 about half the Janesville GM workforce was still on the payroll, although production was shut down. In fact, it is in mothballs today, but not necessarily at the end of its productive life.

So was the Janesville plant closed, then, in December, 2008, or was it still open into the Obama administration? Is it even closed today? I suppose it depends on what the meaning of “is”, is.

Meanwhile, what of Obama’s “promise” to keep the plant open? Here’s what candidate Obama said in a February 2008 campaign stop at the Janesville plant: “And I believe that if our government is there to support you, and give you the assistance you need to re-tool and make this transition, that this plant will be here for another hundred years.  The question is not whether a clean energy economy is in our future, it’s where it will thrive.  I want it to thrive right here in the United States of America; right here in Wisconsin; and that’s the future I’ll fight for as your president.”

But there’s more: in October 2008 candidate Obama said this in response to news that the Janesville plant was slated to close: “Reports that the GM plant I visited in Janesville may shut down sooner than expected are a painful reminder of the tough economic times facing working families across this country…This news is also a reminder that Washington needs to finally live up to its promise to help our automakers compete in our global economy. As president, I will lead an effort to retool plants like the GM facility in Janesville so we can build the fuel-efficient cars of tomorrow and create good-paying jobs in Wisconsin and all across America.”

In Politifact’s judgment – one they are sticking by – Obama’s February statement is “a statement of belief that, with government help, the Janesville plant could remain open — but not a promise to keep it open.”  And in the October statement, Obama refers to plants “like” Janesville, but is not necessarily referring directly to the Janesville plant.

So is Politifact right? Was Ryan’s claim false, as the Twitterverse in its righteous indignation initially claimed? I will let you decide for yourself.  I hope you can see, however, that despite the initial Tweeterverse uproar, and Politifact’s subsequent ruling, reasonable people might disagree with the claim that Ryan’s statement is “false.”  (Note that this is only one example – Twitterverse heads began exploding again when Ryan criticized Obama for not heeding the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission – recommendations that Ryan voted against.  As you might expect, Ryan supporters are standing by that statement as well.)

My broader point, however, is that this is no way to cover a campaign. I think the instant analysis offered by the partisan denizens of the Twitterverse are accentuating partisan division, and making it harder for journalists to discuss policy differences in a cool-headed manner. Based on these and other experiences during this campaign, I’m not convinced that journalists, when confronted with these types of twitter-driven firestorms, can always take the time to report stories accurately, in a way that does  justice to opposing viewpoints and that addresses the nuances and subtleties of policy debates. They are too afraid that the twitter-driven public narrative will pass them by.  In my view, this erodes the level of public discourse.

I’d develop this point in greater detail, but I don’t have time. Mitt Romney is speaking soon, and I need to tweet my instant, off-the-cuff but always pertinent and insightful responses.

I hope you aren’t paying attention.

10 comments

  1. Matt,

    Granted, instant (over) reaction has its downside, but isn’t the alternative of misinformation going unchecked, a less desirable solution? Wouldn’t the Kerry campaign from 2004 have preferred a squabble like this to the one-sided swift boat debate?

  2. Alex,

    Why is the alternative misinformation? Aren’t we more susceptible to misinformation when we let partisans drive the media narrative with their instant analysis? Your example – the Swift Boat ads – actually reinforces my point. Kerry supporters swear to this day that the Swift Boat ads killed his candidacy. The polling data, however, is far less conclusive. I’d prefer that a sober-minded media looked at the polling data, rather than accept the assertions by partisans that Kerry had somehow been “swift-boated”.

  3. Matt,
    Although the investigation into the Janesville plant didn’t vindicate one-side or the other I believe an uproar like this could encourage campaigns to tread more carefully with the truth, knowing that an army of fact-checkers awaits every claim. If a hyper-reactive Twitterverse raises the barrier for entry to the Marketplace of Ideas, aren’t we better off?

    Also, I’ve seen some work recently that shows how difficult it is to erase misinformation from people’s minds (through corrections), and anything that prevents the emergence of misinformation in the first place would help.

  4. Alex,

    My point is that they are not fact checkers. They are partisans intent on spinning events in favor of their candidate. You are right about the persistence of misinformation – which is why I worry so much about the influence of the twitterverse on initial media coverage. (Note that despite the lack of conclusive evidence, many people think the Swift Boat ads cost Kerry the election. :~) ).

    Do you really think the twitter reaction to Ryan’s speech was driven by a desire to find the “truth”? I’m dubious.

  5. Really good point. Thanks for writing this. I think instant reactions like that make it so hard for anyone to actually think through the implications of an event on their own. Instead, we’re reacting to the spin doctors on our respective sides. Whoever tweets the first/wittiest thing owns the news cycle. I just wish there was a non authoritarian way of fixing it

  6. So…

    – The Dems are defending an Obama quote (“You didn’t build that”) by saying it’s not parsed correctly by the villainous other side.

    – The GOP is defending a Ryan quote by saying it’s not parsed correctly by the villainous other side.

    Even stevens?

    I’m exceedingly glad both sides are making serious attempts to elevate the campaign away from gotcha and false offense. The interesting thing here is that Ryan seems to be running against Obama, and Romney is being dragged along for the ride.

  7. I have read closely the quotes from Ryan’s speech that have been criticized, and dug fairly deeply into the facts and circumstances behind those quotes. I can only conclude that Ryan, over and over again in the speech, was intentionally and willfully misleading.

    Yes, you could probably find some far-fetched definition of “closed” to argue that Janesville “closed” while Obama was already in office. So what? First, no one can realistically expect any president to turn around a crashing economy on a dime. Second, the vast majority of Obama’s initiatives to help the economy were blocked by the Republicans in Congress.

    As I understand it, Ryan almost singlehandedly prevented the Simpson-Bowles commission from issuing final recommendations. For him to criticize Obama for not following the never-issued recommendations is simply mendacious. I think if the Congress presented Obama a bill aligned with the draft Simpson-Bowles plan, he would sign it without question.

    I realize your broader point is that the ever-quicker news cycle makes thoughtful reporting more difficult. I think there is also some value in “crowd-sourcing” some of the fact checking. And frankly, if politicians of all stripes were not so contemptuous of the truth, the whole profession of fact checking would be unnecessary. This is my 11th Presidential election, and I have never seen so many lies and distortions. And frankly, one party is much more guilty than the other.

  8. David,

    I don’t doubt that Ryan was willfully misleading. I thought that is what political speeches are designed to do (see the speeches at tonight’s DNC!) But was anything he said factually incorrect? If not, do we want the media to take on the role of vetting the political slant of speeches? That worries me.

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