THE BLOG
09/04/2012 12:56 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

What's in a Name?

So I am now being told that we are in the era of "post-truth politics."

According to the pundits, this is an era where facts do not matter. Instead, media reporting takes the form of "he said, she said" dueling quotations. Every claim, however preposterous, is framed as the neutral report of an asserted proposition by the would be proponent, followed in turn by an equally anodyne denial of the proposition by the would be opponent.

It is not clear to me when, precisely, this new era began..

In my lifetime, the modern starting point for overt media bashing was Spiro Agnew, circa November 1969. He was Richard Nixon's vice president and, like Nixon, was also "a crook." Unlike Nixon, however, he never really denied it. Instead, he resigned the vice-presidency in 1973 and plead "nolo contendere" to charges of having accepted bribes while serving as governor of Maryland. "Nolo contendere" is lawyer-Latin speak for no contest and really just constitutes a sort of linguistic way around having to actually utter the word "guilty" in a courtroom; the two more or less amount to the same thing. In any case, before he nolo-ed his way to retirement, Agnew toured the land eviscerating the networks and the New York Times and Washington Post for their alleged liberal bias. Over time, these claims became a settled part of the conservative political canon, ultimately spawning in their wake both Fox News, the post-truth era's example of "fair and balanced," and the snarky anti-media jibes prevalent at any GOP convention.

So, I am thinking, maybe this "post-truth" period started back then, with media big feet ultimately inhibited into the neutral alley of claim and counterclaim just to avoid the charge of left wing bias. Woodward and Bernstein, of course, would have none of this, nor would their editor, Ben Bradlee. They followed the Watergate story wherever it lead, set out the facts, and ignored denials coming from the Nixon White House.

But ever after, it really has not been the same.

Reagan skated on Iran-Contra, as did Bush II on no WMD in Iraq. And now, Romney and Ryan want to do the same on the economy, hoping to assert their way to the White House notwithstanding the plain factual inaccuracy of their claims.

And it may work.

Here's why.

We are not any dumber than our confreres (and soeurs) from the pre-"post truth" era. And that era was not one in which facts were always presented with pristine clarity, unalloyed or without varnish. In fact, the opposite was often the case.

In the 19th century, before Ochs and Sulzberger began to professionalize journalism, truth was not remotely evident in the broadsheets of the day. Indeed, when historians tried to reconstruct the famous 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, they relied on the pro-Lincoln newspapers to reconstruct Lincoln's remarks and on the pro-Douglas papers to do the same for Douglas'. Had they done otherwise, there would be no accurate record for the simple reason that Lincoln papers made Douglas look like a fool while Douglas papers did the same to Lincoln. Forty years later, things were not much better. In 1898, William Randolph Hearst's scandal sheets more or less started the Spanish-American war all by their lonesome, inundating the public with the dubious claim that the Spanish had attacked an American ship -- the Maine -- in Cuba. And a half century later, truth still went wanting in the red-baiting and black listing of Joe McCarthy.

The difference between then and now is that we seemed to be improving. Regardless of the overt bias of mid-19th century news sheets, or the egomania of Hearst, or the manipulative work of Joe McCarthy, Ochs and Sulzberger and Edward R. Murrow were still manning the barricades on the side of truth. They weren't ducking the truth; they were searching for it. And when they missed the mark, they called it a mistake, or an error, or a lie.

That's the problem now.

We've labelled lies as something else. They are no longer lies, not even mistakes or errors or just plain wrong. They are now post-truths, data points in the dawn of an ostensibly new era.

So Chris Christie gets to say Republicans will save Medicare, when the voucher plans they endorse will simply turn this successful government run program over to insurance companies that for 50 years have had us spend more but get less than any other advanced democracy on the planet; or Rick Santorum gets to say Obama ended work requirements for welfare by acceding to waiver requests from GOP governors, when he did no such thing; or Paul Ryan gets to say Obama "did nothing" with the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction recommendations, when Ryan himself killed them; or everyone at the GOP Convention in Tampa gets to claim Obama told small businessman and woman they did not "build" their enterprises, when the President never said that; or the GOP ticket gets to pretend that spending cuts in a world of near zero interest rates will create economic growth, when they will do the precise opposite.

These aren't "post-truths."

They are lies.

And calling them post truths...

Is just another lie.

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