09/06/2012 05:28 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2012

When Facts Deceive

Considering that facts are always true, it's surprising how often they can deceive us.

That's why all the fighting between the presidential campaigns over the facts and whether they're being manipulated to mislead is much, much more than just petty politics. Thankfully, at least for the moment, we've come light-years from being trapped in a fiction that "fair and balanced" is the best way to cover all the serious issues of the day. (Remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth saga and how little time the news media spent trying to find out what John Kerry really did in Vietnam?)

Sometimes there is a right answer, and we need people in the media to have the courage to call some balls and strikes as our leaders and those around them are throwing fastballs and curves at us. And it looks like we do.

It all started during the primaries when Governor Romney said "I like to fire people," and both Democrats and Republican rivals jumped all over him. But almost immediately some in the media -- including some commentators otherwise critical of Mr. Romney -- pointed out that he was talking about making sure people could switch their health insurance by "firing" one company and "hiring" another when their current provider wasn't getting the job done. Who could object to that?

Then President Obama this summer said "you didn't build that," and some of Mr. Romney's supporters found it proof positive that Mr. Obama doesn't respect private business. As with Mr. Romney's talk about firing people, there wasn't any question that Mr. Obama had said what he'd said; the question was what he'd meant. Was it that people hadn't really built their businesses? Or was it that they hadn't built the roads and bridges and infrastructure that supported those businesses? Once again, there were those in the mainstream media who stepped in promptly, took a hard look, and concluded the president had been talking about the infrastructure, not the businesses.

But all of this was just the warm-up for the main truth-telling tussles of the summer. Historian, author, and Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson wrote a provocative cover story for Newsweek/Daily Beast on the eve of the Republican Convention laying out all the reasons Mr. Obama didn't deserve to be re-elected because, among other things, he'd breached his promises about what he'd do for the economy. Almost immediately, people like Paul Krugman and James Fallows had at Professor Ferguson. As with the quotes from President Obama and Governor Romney, the issue wasn't whether what Ferguson had written was literally true. Projections do show the costs of health care rising, but that isn't the same as a breached promise not to let them increase the deficit unless you ignore the revenues that are also part of the same projections. Yes, we've lost 4.3 million jobs since January 2008 -- but the president didn't take office until January 2009, and it hardly seems fair to hold him responsible for job losses during the last year of George W. Bush's presidency. Ferguson came back hard against all his critics. And, once again, he didn't deny the truth of what they said, but essentially argued it was all beside the point. (As something of a fan of Ferguson's other work, I'll read what he writes a lot more carefully in the future.)

Then we came to Representative Paul Ryan's speech last week to the Republican Convention. Like Ferguson, Mr. Ryan took President Obama to task and gave numbers and names. But also like Ferguson, he was met almost immediately with a flurry of challenges to how he was using the facts. It's true that President Obama had held out hope to an auto plant in Mr. Ryan's hometown that government assistance would save it, only to see the plant close. But the decision to close the plant came before Mr. Obama took office, while President George W. Bush was still in charge (something Mr. Ryan didn't mention). And it's true that President Obama didn't embrace the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson commission that he put together. But Representative Ryan was a member of the commission who voted against its recommendations, so it's hard to see where he has the standing to criticize the president on this score.

Some people call this a period "post-truth" or worry that all the partisanship will distract the voters from focusing too closely on facts used to mislead. But whatever it all means, at least we have some media focused on what's true and what's not -- and we're seeing that "technically true" most often is neither technical nor true. Whether all this leads to our being better informed or whether people simply turn away saying "they all do it" is up to us.