If Werner Heisenberg hadn’t been such a crackerjack physicist—also, if he weren’t dead—he might make a fine “public editor” for the New York Times, or maybe an “ombudsman” for the Washington Post. Ombudsmen are those unemployed people whom news organizations hire to assess reader complaints and rap the knuckles of reporters and editors who get out of line. My guess, though, is that none of his employers would have listened to Heisenberg. His great insight, the Uncertainty Principle, cuts straight through to the fantasy most cherished by the mainstreamers of the American press.
Heisenberg’s principle can be crudely generalized (it’s the best I can do) as follows: An observer can change the nature of a thing or an event merely through the act of observation. Observation all by itself can become an intervention. Heisenberg was describing how reality works at the level of quantum mechanics, where a wave becomes a particle and vice versa depending on how it’s being measured. But it applies, too, at the level of political journalism, where reality is even stranger. There, facts can become interpretations, interpretations can become facts, and events of no significance can achieve an earthshaking importance simply by virtue of being pawed over by a large number of journalists.
A typical journalist, if he’s any good, insists at least theoretically on the iron divide between observer and participant. At its best the press corps sees itself as a squadron of Red Cross workers, wandering among the combatants in a battle zone and ensuring their own safety with a claim of strict neutrality. The Heisenberg Principle of Journalism puts the lie to all that. You see it at work whenever a news anchor announces that “this story just refuses to go away” or a headline writer insists that “questions continue to be raised” about the conduct of one hapless public figure or another.
The story refuses to go away, of course, because the anchor and his colleagues won’t let it; and the questions that continue to be raised are being raised by the headline writer and his editors. Reporters create more news than anybody, just by pretending they’re watching it unfold.
A lovely example from politics is a once meaningless event called the Ames straw poll, held in August every four years amid the rising heat and barnyard perfume of Iowa cow country. The local Republicans originally conceived the straw polls as a fundraising lark. No one had ever claimed the poll could demonstrate the relative popularity of a candidate among Iowa Republicans; that’s what the Iowa caucuses are for. But by 1999 it was no longer a lark.
The Ames straw poll was elevated into a “make-or-break” contest for Republican hopefuls; only those who finished in the top four would be considered serious contenders for the nomination.
Note the passive voice: was elevated… would be considered… Who was doing the elevating? Considered by whom? The political press corps was both elevator and considerer. Its ranks had grown so large and so easily bored that they could no longer wait until the January caucuses for some hot political action. And if they had to go to Iowa in August to find it, they would.
The press’s elevation of the straw poll altered the course of the campaign, which the press itself was supposed to be observing disinterestedly. A poor performance at Ames in 1999 knocked Dan Quayle, a popular and plausible Republican candidate for 2000, right out of the race. Last year Tim Pawlenty went from top-tier candidate (positioned there, of course, by political reporters) to ex-candidate after he failed to show in the straw poll. Months later, when Republican voters got a chance to cast real votes in real caucuses and primaries, Pawlenty was no longer available to the many Republicans who searched in vain for an alternative to Mitt Romney. For he had failed at Ames. And Ames was make-or-break. The press had looked upon it and made it so.
The straw poll was never meaningful, but party conventions once were. Now, having long ago lost any practical purpose, conventions continue to exist mainly so that reporters can cover them. Every political convention is two conventions: a massive gathering of 15,000 reporters surrounding a much smaller assembly of 3,500 delegates, who serve the reporters mainly as interviewees or colorful curiosities, the way silversmiths or wheelwrights pose quaintly in Colonial Williamsburg. Journalism summons the convention into existence and then pronounces upon it, determining its shape and significance.
This year, to influence the conventions they thought they were merely observing, journalists deployed the “fact-check,” in which political pronouncements are anatomized and labeled true or false. These labelings are often accompanied by a childish graphic like a “Truth-o-Meter” dial or a Pinocchio blushing under the weight of his elongated schnozzle. Conservatives unsurprisingly found an ideological bias at work among the fact-checkers. The checkers, to maintain their role of disinterested observer, made a point of submitting Democratic pronouncements to their vigorous truth tests. When some Democrats earned a Pinocchio or two, the checkers could use their outraged complaints as evidence that they were staying safely on their side of the iron divide. (“Democrats to the left of me, Republicans to the right..”)
But the conservatives were correct. The truth-seeking criteria—How literal should we be? How much ambiguity is allowed?—changed depending on who was being checked. A pair of examples shows the flexibility. In his convention speech, President Clinton said that since 1961, “our private economy” produced “24 million jobs under Republicans and 42 million under Democrats.” The fact-checkers tugged on their fact-checking green eyeshades and slid the beads on their fact-checking abacus. “We dug into those numbers,” said an outfit cutely called Politifact, “and found his statement true.” Ta-da!
And so it is, literally. It’s also meaningless. Or at least it lacks the meaning that Clinton wanted to create: that the policies of Democratic presidents make them better stewards of the economy than Republicans. A thorough fact-checker might have pointed out, first, that presidents have scant control over how many jobs the private economy creates, and second, that whatever power they do possess rises and falls with a hundred variables, including the composition of Congress. This fact-checker would add that Republican presidents differ among themselves in economic policies, as Democratic presidents do. Bill Clinton’s economic policies were much closer to those of George H.W. Bush than to the policies of Barack Obama; Ronald Reagan’s closer to John Kennedy’s than Richard Nixon’s. We rate Clinton’s assertion meaningless and Politifact’s judgment silly.
The literalism conveniently fell away when Republicans were under inspection. In one error repeated by nearly all fact-checkers, Politifact said that in his convention speech Paul Ryan accused President Obama of reneging on a campaign pledge to keep open an automotive plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, though it finally closed in 2009. “The claim was rated false,” Politifact pronounced. And the claim was false. It just wasn’t the claim that Ryan made.
Every individual fact Ryan asserted was literally correct. If his politics were more agreeable, this might have earned him a bit of good will from the fact-checkers. But suddenly the checkers had moved beyond rating factual assertions to rating inferences, especially inferences the speaker didn’t intend. In the ear of someone more skeptical of Obama than liberal reporters tend to be, the Janesville story would be an instance of Obama’s strange combination of grandiosity and fecklessness. As a candidate in 2008, he had promised Janesville that with the proper kind of president, plants like theirs would stay open for “a hundred years.” Once president, however, he was powerless to reverse economic reality, and plants like Janesville’s have been closing steadily for three years. Ryan’s words were literally true, and his larger point likewise true. We rate Politifact’s rating obtuse.
The checking was selective, but it did its job. “A Litany of Falsehoods” was the Times headline over its account of Ryan’s speech. Thus a few reporters were able, under the guise of just-the-facts reporting, to alter again the course of the campaign in perhaps a crucial way. No one in a long public career had ever accused Paul Ryan of telling anything other than the truth. Yet he left the convention a caricature of a cynical, lying pol.
It’s a story that just refuses to go away. Questions continue to be raised. And they will continue to be raised until, oh, I’d say about election day.