Speeding up the factcheck cycle

The response to Paul Ryan's misleading speech was swift and stern—except in the next morning's front-page stories. Can journalists change that?

On Wednesday night, at the Republican National Convention, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan gave a speech that was eloquent, exciting, and riddled with misleading statements. Ryan criticized President Obama for failing to save an auto plant in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, WI—even though the plant closed before Obama took office. He noted that Obamacare cuts Medicare spending—cuts that Ryan himself included in his own budget proposal. He blamed Obama for not heeding the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles debt commission—but didn’t mention that, as a member of that commission, Ryan himself opposed its final report. And he faulted Obama for the downgrade of America’s credit—while eliding the fact that the ratings agency that issued the downgrade cited the debt ceiling standoff precipitated by Republicans as the reason.

As Ryan spoke, Twitter erupted with real-time outrage and refutations of his claims. But, as Brendan Nyhan noted here at CJR, even after a strong run of political factchecking, “the morning-after coverage of Ryan’s speech in the mainstream media [was] largely an example of what not to do.” The New York Times ran a piece titled “Rousing G.O.P., Ryan Faults ‘Missing’ Leadership,” which noted that Ryan’s speech contained “searing takedowns of Mr. Obama,” but which left the factuality of those searing takedowns unexamined until the 17th paragraph. The Washington Post front-pager, titled “Paul Ryan promises GOP ‘won’t duck the tough issues,’” did note in the eighth paragraph that Ryan “critiqued Obama’s positions without disclosing the fact that he had held similar ones,” but the mention was brief, and the theme didn’t carry through the rest of the piece. The Los Angeles Times’s piece also pushed back on Ryan in the eighth paragraph, and again further down. The Wall Street Journal’s piece didn’t bother factchecking Ryan’s speech at all.

To be sure, many of these publications ran factcheck material elsewhere—and promptly—in their pages and on their websites. On the Washington Post’s site, even before midnight, Jonathan Bernstein blasted the “incredibly lazy mendacity” of some of Ryan’s claims, while Glenn Kessler did a thorough factcheck of the entire speech for 6 a.m. Thursday morning. On The New York Times’s site, Michael Cooper noted Thursday morning that Ryan had made “several statements that were incorrect, incomplete, or incompatible with his own record in Congress”; on Friday, Cooper penned a long piece for the print edition—it ran on A13—titled “Facts Take a Beating In Acceptance Speeches.” Since the end of last week, much of the politico-media world has been caught in a debate over factchecking—a debate largely precipitated by the response to Ryan’s speech.

So if these mainstream outlets are willing and able to publish factcheck material in their blogs and columns in short order, and in second-day pieces in the main report, why wasn’t it more prominent in the initial news articles on the speech? Most of the topics about which Ryan was speaking weren’t particularly obscure, after all; any sentient campaign reporter ought to know that Ryan’s budget counted on Medicare cuts, and that he ultimately disowned the Simpson-Bowles report. Sure, they might not have all the details at hand, but it wouldn’t have required much research to refute his claims. Indeed, the information that was central to the work of refutation was widely available even as Ryan was speaking.

In part, though, it really is a matter of time—for journalists covering a late-night event on a print deadline, “real-time” isn’t fast enough. Reporters writing the main speech stories are generally expected to file just as the speeches are concluding, if not before. In order to make those deadlines, reporters often work from copies of the speech that are issued beforehand. Ryan started speaking just after 10:30; Karen Tumulty, who wrote the next-day story for the Post, had a 10:45 deadline that night. Along with other reporters, she got the excerpts of Ryan’s speech early in the evening, and told me that many of the controversial parts weren’t included in those excerpts. The full speech wasn’t released until much later, almost as Ryan was taking the stage; by that time, Tumulty and her colleagues were occupied with writing as fast as possible in order to make their deadlines. (There’s not necessarily anything nefarious in the delay; it’s possible that Ryan and his team were working on the speech right up to the moment it was delivered.)

It’s also a matter of perspective. The Los Angeles Times has become a cause celebre among the factcheck set for an article that called out an inaccurate attack from Rick Santorum right in the headline and opening paragraphs; DC bureau chief David Lauter told the Post’s Erik Wemple that a number of factors—Santorum wasn’t the nominee or keynote speaker, the rest of his speech was familiar boilerplate, the inaccurate attack is part of a key GOP message—contributed to the decision to make the falsehood the centerpiece of the story.

By contrast, when reporter Michael Finnegan filed a piece on Ryan’s speech for the Times’s Politics Now blog shortly after midnight Wednesday Eastern time, he did note a couple important omissions, but didn’t build his item around Ryan’s misleading material. (In part, Finnegan didn’t have time to do so—he was assigned the story just as Ryan began his speech.) “There’s a big news story taking place, regardless of these issues that take place in the context of the speech, and these things need to be covered,” Finnegan told me. It’s a good point. The speech was Ryan’s first major performance on the national stage, and the stories needed to address that—along with what Ryan had to say about the genuine substantive differences between the parties that make conventions an important learning moment for voters. These stories are written for a general audience, and a piece that focused entirely on factchecking could become as lopsided as one that didn’t attempt it at all.

Before a day had passed, of course, the prevailing perspective on Ryan’s speech had shifted: it wasn’t an ordinary speech with misleading material but a speech where the misleading material was the story; an important data point in a narrative about the brazenness of the 2012 campaign. Forget arguments about civic responsibility or truth vigilantism—this was a news story that the first accounts largely missed.

In this case, the new consensus may be swift and universal enough as to render irrelevant the day-one stories’ failure to sufficiently challenge Ryan’s misstatements. (Bernstein, for one, sees lasting damage for Ryan in the media’s response.) Most campaign messages don’t go through a high-profile days-long dissection, though, so it’s worth taking this moment to think through how to help on-deadline reporters close the gap between the initial account and all the factchecks that come in later or around the margins. This is partly about having pushback language on hand and ready to paste into a story-in-progress. It’s partly about finding the right model for an article—something between a 1,000-word interrogation dedicated to a single claim and an isn’t-politics-exciting story that drops in a couple factcheck sentences after most readers have already bailed. Most of all, it’s about editors making on-deadline factchecking a priority and experimenting with ways to get it right. (There are signs this is happening: Tumulty told me that Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli was the one who decided to add the factcheck graf to her story; Brauchli didn’t immediately respond to an email from CJR.)

Over the past week, the candidates’ disregard for facts—and for the press that is supposed to be checking those facts—has become a major story of the campaign; in media circles, the press’s response has been just as big a story. As the campaign heads into its home stretch, it’s critical that reporters sustain the recent focus on factchecking—and that newsrooms continue to seek ways to scrutinize campaign messages as quickly, consistently, and comprehensively as possible. “We are all fact-checkers now,” wrote Post blogger Melinda Henneberger the day after Ryan’s speech. It would be great if that were true.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.