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.)