We let politicians pull a Niall Ferguson all the time
The entire Internet, it seems, is outraged at Niall Ferguson for his Newsweek cover story on why Obama is generally a horrible president. The knives have come out for every instance of Ferguson’s now well-documented trouble with being factual, for Newsweek’s lack of fact-checkers and for its lack of serious editorial leadership.
The outrage is justifiable on the facts, and completely understandable on the context of the article’s publication: Ferguson is an author, a tenured professor at Harvard and his latest piece appeared on a once-venerated publication edited by a magazine industry legend. We, the Internet, expected better from the Harvard’s and the Tina Browns of the world! We cannot believe either would use misleading facts!
But take a step back for a moment and compare how we react to the context of someone’s abuse of the facts. Ferguson is known to be a partisan — should we really be surprised that he’s bending the truth? Ferguson’s piece is straight out of chapter one of The Truthiness Playbook of Modern Politics.
Compare Ferguson’s piece to some of the more odious bits of political discourse coming out of our presidential campaign. As Alec MacGillis points out, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s stump speeches may actually contain assertions that make Ferguson look like a bastion of intellectual honesty. Those speeches have included lines like, “What I heard is that the president is taking the work requirement out of welfare.” Unfortunately, this is exactly wrong:
Romney and Paul Ryan have been making this part of their regular stump pitch. It has also been the subject of three different ads in heavy rotation for the campaign, the latest of which went up on the air yesterday. And it is utterly, totally false, as any number of fact-checkers have established. In response to requests from a handful of states, including from several governed by Republicans, the Obama administration recently tweaked the rules to allow greater flexibility in how states implement the work requirement in welfare—with the proviso that the states’ strategies result in work participation rates 20 percent higher than the status quo. There are good-faith debates over whether the tweak is good policy, but there is no question that what Romney is saying about Obama “taking the work requirement out of welfare” is knowingly false.
This isn’t to say the Romney campaign is the only politician in either party stretching the truth, or that this is anything new in politics. And I’m definitely not suggesting that Romney could necessarily get away with pulling a Niall-ish thing like eliding key sections of a CBO finding to help his cause (though, it’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder if Romney should or could.)
But it’s worth remembering that we hold our cover stories, our Star Academic/Pundits and our struggling print dinosaurs to a higher standard of truth than our politicians.
(I somehow just found a way to feel proud of my profession.)
And, for background, here’s Colbert’s original “truthiness” segment from 2008.