In Politics Today, Facts Have Become Debatable

Perhaps the hardest-working people during the current presidential campaign have been the fact checkers. Both sides have given them a lot of work. Host Guy Raz speaks with James Fallows of The Atlantic about the era Fallows called "post-truth."

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVENTION SPEECH)

PAUL RYAN: Candidate Obama said: I believe that if our government is there to support you, this plant will be here for another hundred years.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Romney backed a law that outlaws all abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVENTION SPEECH)

RYAN: That plant didn't last another year.

RAZ: Facts can be pesky things; and elements of what you just heard are - well, factually challenged. That was a clip from Paul Ryan's convention speech, and an ad put out by the Obama campaign. James Fallows, of The Atlantic, joins us now, as he does most Saturdays. Jim, hello.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Guy.

RAZ: Lies, damn lies and statistics - that's nothing new. But in this campaign, Jim, even going back to the GOP primary, I'm wondering whether you have noticed an increasingly cavalier attitude towards facts.

FALLOWS: I think over the last decade or two, as many people have remarked, there's been increasing polarization of what you could think of as the fact universes in American discourse. It's not just the people have different outlooks or different values, but they seem to believe that different things are true. I think there was a contrast of two of the speeches at the Republican convention, that underscored the difference. Political speech - like advertising, or like wooing or anything else - involves putting the best face on things. And I thought that Governor Romney did that, in his acceptance speech. He said a lot of things the Obama administration would not agree about; that, for example - has been apologizing for America. But that was part of Governor Romney's case for a different approach.

The preceding speech, by Paul Ryan, had a lot of more specific claims that I think went further over the line of being not just a different presentation of reality, but different factual issues - including that one about the Janesville plant, and some others. And I think this is one more symptom of the universe we now operate in.

RAZ: I'm also noticing, Jim, this notion that facts - you know, things that are backed by evidence - are seen by many people as just liberal opinions.

FALLOWS: This is a genuine challenge for the press, and all its different outlets, right now because studies seem to show that a sizable minority - in some cases, even a majority - of people who identify themselves as Republicans, believe that President Obama was not born in the United States. And from every factual bit of evidence that can be adduced, that's just not true. But if you have a lot of people who believe that - or that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks, or other things of that sort - there is a kind of closed circle that makes it very hard to engage in factual challenge. And all I can hope is that the public political leaders, and people in the media, will figure out how we can get through this period in our national life. I think it won't go on forever, but it's a difficult period right now.

RAZ: Well, what about accountability? I mean, we heard this week from a Romney campaign strategist - he said, "we're not going to let fact-checkers dictate the terms of our campaign to us." And you've also had things coming out of the Obama campaign that are factually challenged. But nobody is really being held accountable for it, and nobody seems to suffer any consequences.

FALLOWS: I think there are two important market tests, you might say, that we'll face. One will come next week, when the Democrats have their convention. If their prominent speakers say as many things that cross the line as Rep. Ryan did, I hope - and assume - that people from the media, from all stripes, will be there to say wait a minute; this isn't true.

The deeper, and probably more important, market test is the one that happens two-plus months from now, on Election Day; where we see whether arguments whose proponents say, we don't care about the facts - whether they work or not. So again, politics and democracy - it's an endlessly refined, series of approximations of better self-government. And we'll see whether it works, two months from now.

RAZ: That's James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can find his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Guy.

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