09/04/2012 06:20 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

Rachel Maddow's Bout With Journalism

If you're a journalist nowadays, actual truth is something to covet. It's kind of like water to mortal human beings: It's the most basic form of sustenance, easy to find in certain places, but impossible to find on Mars. So for an honest reporter just looking to make it (and yes, it is rough out there these days, man), the Republican National Convention was a special kind of hell. You might have called it the godforsaken wasteland of diplomacy, akin in more than one way to the Red Planet. Or you might have called it a sh*tshow. Whatever worked for you.

Put simply, the RNC was a place where politicians, pseudo-politicians, and even their wives could take the stage, unapologetically spew lie after lie, and get away with it, a type of dystopian black hole reserved for the disingenuous, where crooked politicians could overstate the facts, distort the truth, or, if you were Paul Ryan, evade it completely, and be excused from facing any sort of retribution. It was every wayward teenager's dream.

Unfortunate as it is for way overdue first-time smokers, moral upbringings dictate that blatant, unapologetic dishonesty is something of an issue. Politicians lie unabashedly, and nobody checks them for it when it matters. Save for a few, even mostly liberal TV "journalists" (FOX isn't even worth tearing into) don't usually live-correct the lies or butt in when a fallacy is hurled. In fact, viewers often don't find out they've been duped until the day after the massive feats of deception take place, and the casual viewer probably never does. So, in a sense, when the shared viewing experience of a major-party convention takes place, the public is left guessing as to what is true and what isn't, and most people, it's safe to assume, take what the figureheads say at face value.

Last week MSNBC primetime host Rachel Maddow tried to correct that, and predictably -- wrongly, it should be noted -- she faced rebuke for it. In her introduction to Rick Santorum's Tuesday-night speech at the convention, Maddow told viewers, "If Rick Santorum tries to tell you that Barack Obama gutted the work requirement for welfare, he's not telling you the truth. Let's listen."

Sure enough, Santorum went on to falsely claim (you guessed it) that Barack Obama had gutted the work requirement for welfare.

"Under President Obama, the dream of freedom and opportunity has become a nightmare of dependency, with almost half of America receiving some sort of government assistance," Santorum said, according to a story from the Christian Science Monitor.

"This summer," the ex-senator continued, "he showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare."

Unsurprisingly, Politifact slapped the failed presidential candidate's claim with a "Pants on Fire," the most outright embarrassing rating it assigns (though it should probably adopt "Santorum, Just Santorum" for that), and Maddow was left to revel in her apparent psychic abilities -- or really her ability to call out obvious "BS" before it's slung.

But the only congratulations that night would come from Maddow herself. The host tweeted immediately to her Twitter followers that Santorum was making the exact claim she'd predicted he would, and shortly thereafter a media furor erupted. It was an outrage, they said. No, not that politicans lie, but rather that someone was saying it to their faces. Here was some highbrow, New York "TV journalist" actually practicing real journalism right over their live, uninterrupted feed of the RNC by a so-touted news-gathering service. An outrage. For practicing journalism in the truest sense, Maddow was instantly repudiated, a target of scorn in the journalistic circles that matter. "You've got someone saying 'watch for the lie' and doing things that aren't remotely journalistic," said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, in something of an inherent contradiction.

Perhaps the problem with journalism nowadays isn't that it's partisan beyond measure but that it's devoid of the cojones that propelled Woodward and Bernstein to their rightful place in history. The ability to prioritize fact over party loyalty -- fact over everything -- might just be the component that's missing from today's corrupted brand of reporting.

Conventional wisdom lately has had it that the political personalities on TV, the "MSM" puppets on primetime, aren't journalists because they don't spew out objective news constantly, that they're just extension arms of political ideology, and sure, they are. But the fact is, we're living in a partisan era. Viewers are more likely to tune in to programming that suits their beliefs, and that dynamic isn't going to change anytime soon.

So to echo the not-understated beliefs of millions, journalism, it seems, is in a real state of crisis. But to alter the rhetoric of the masses, the real problem with the talking heads on TV isn't that they aren't practicing journalism because they're biased but because they're even choosing to concern themselves with rhetoric. It's an important distinction, and it's displayed near constantly on cable news. In the volatile political climate of today, journalists who so much as attempt to dispense the truth -- the "actual truth" that so often gets lost in the reticent musings of flawed politicians -- are seen as biased and partial. Partisan hacks.

Rachel Maddow, like her or not, is something of living proof. She's guilty of giving away the story, if anything -- failing to verbalize a "spoiler alert" -- but on any given day she'll be wrongly dismissed by clerics as a pundit. But journalists, after all, are allowed to possess opinions and fight for the causes they believe worthy. The profession simply demands that they do so in pursuit of universal truth. Last Tuesday, Maddow did just that by informing viewers of an impending lie. If that isn't journalistic at its core, then the very fiber of the discipline as a whole is threatened. More likely, Senso and the rest of the critics were mistaken.

No matter how ephemeral it may have been, or the nature of its intentions, Maddow's contentious claim last week was a dose of exactly what a misguided and misinformed public needed. Whether the people could handle it, in this case, was simply irrelevant. Let's just hope they're given a chance to when the Democrats take the stage this week.