The power of new journalism

BY SEEMA SIROHI| IN Digital Media | 21/09/2012
A video leak of US presidential candidate Mitt Romney's sweeping remarks on the American people sends his campaign into a tailspin.
Fact-checkers pointed out that they were factually incorrect, says SEEMA SIROHI in a despatch from Washington.
With little over a month left before the US presidential elections, some have already declared the race over and Republican nominee Mitt Romney a loser because of a video, leaked from a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser where he essentially declared nearly half the country as moochers and freeloaders who “pay no income tax.”
It may be imprudent to announce victory or defeat but the monumental gaffe, or rather a slur against hardworking Americans, has sent the Romney campaign into a tailspin. It was factually incorrect on many counts and was shredded to pieces by all major newspapers, websites, fact-checkers and gleefully by the Obama campaign.
The story of how the video got out, reported, and analysed followed by Romney’s defence--all in the span of 24 hours-- is the story of how social media, citizen journalists, and fact-checkers have changed the game for candidates and for editors sitting behind desks. New media has collided with the old, forming a powerful hybrid that strengthens journalism and increases the reader’s--in this case the voter’s--ability to discern.
This US election has further honed what became a goldmine for rousing the young brigades for Barack Obama in 2008--the internet. Obama raised money and volunteers through websites with multiplier effect. Now add to it the iphone, YouTube, and Twitter, and it is a new incarnation, far more powerful and possibly destructive for a candidacy.
Romney was speaking on May 17 at the home of a major donor in Florida where someone secretly recorded him and put a clip on YouTube. In the speech Romney said that 47 per cent of Americans will vote for Obama “no matter what” because they are “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, you name it.” God forbid.
“My job is not to worry about those people.”
One has to read it slowly to grasp the enormity of callousness Romney displayed on behalf of a party that claims upward mobility as a pillar of American society. Even Republican commentators, Fox News, and party apparatchiks were gasping for breath and found it hard to defend Romney’s disdain.
In a twist of fate, the YouTube clip was spotted by former president Jimmy Carter’s grandson, James Carter, who regularly surfed YouTube for Romney-bilia. He disliked the way his grandfather was being pilloried by Romney in campaign speeches as a one-term president with the implication that Obama should be too.
Carter, after some good old-fashioned legwork and persistence, convinced the anonymous person who had uploaded the video to share it with David Corn, Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones, a left-liberal magazine. Mother Jones went to work and over the past few months managed to persuade the source to share the entire video.
The release of the video on September 17-18 has unhinged the Romney campaign, at least temporarily, just as it has sparked a barrage of commentary, articles, blogs, and Twitter messages. The internet is on fire.
In India, voters can only dream of nailing a candidate with proof except for a rare sting operation or a good investigative article. Indian politicians get away with almost anything and still win elections because the voters have a far smaller toolbox with which to examine the efficacy of the candidates’ claims. The voters can try to understand the televised shouting matches among party spokesmen to separate fact from fiction but that’s a debilitating occupation.
There is no open fund-raising by political parties in India--a likely arena where shady promises might be made--and where Romney was exposed.
The developments this week in the United States highlight most importantly the role of “fact-checkers” – both independent groups and in house guerrilla units within newspaper offices which examine major campaign speeches and pronouncements by both Democrats and Republicans for truthfulness, level of garnish or baldness of lies.
Prominent amongst them are FactCheck.org, funded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, The Fact Checker of the Washington Post, CNN Fact Check, and PolitiFact.com associated with the Tampa Bay Times.
PolitiFact.com is famous for its Truth-O-Meter with gradations of “Pants on Fire” for a completely ridiculous statement, Mostly False, Half True, and Mostly True. The website not only rates politicians, but also pundits and powerful groups active in the elections. The graphics are attractive, adding an element of fun to the exercise of assessing the politicians.
So significant has the “fact checking” arm become that the Obama campaign has assigned a special officer to deal with questions from fact checkers while a senior Romney adviser handles the queries himself.
The day after Paul Ryan, Romney’s vice presidential candidate, made his acceptance speech during the Republican convention last month, almost all fact-checkers declared many of his claims dubious or largely false. The pundits were enraged and the fact checkers were racing to establish the truth.
Ryan had vigorously attacked the Obama presidency, blaming the President for closing of a GM plant in Wisconsin which had actually closed before Obama was sworn in.
In addition, Ryan denounced the economic stimulus package as “corporate welfare and cronyism” but independent government assessments and many respected economists say it created 3.3 million jobs. Interestingly, Ryan had requested stimulus money himself for two companies in his constituency. One company got $20 million from the Energy Department. Yet he chose to attack the policy.
So was Ryan lying? Given the post-speech analysis, the voters have a better sense of the veracity of his claims.
Obama is not free from scrutiny either. The “Obameter” tracks 500 promises he made and the rate of delivery. Turns out he has kept 38 per cent of the promises (192) and compromised on 14 per cent (73) and broken 17 per cent (84). At least 110 promises are still in the works and cannot be judged.
By any standard this is a good tool for citizens, voters and journalists as they drive through the monsoon of information, speeches, claims, campaign ads, and e-mails from the two parties. Old form journalism of assigning reporters on a beat, while still essential, is inadequate today.
The fact-checkers and citizen journalists who keep unleashing videos and transcripts from small town meetings held by the two candidates have filled the gaps in coverage. But they have also raised frustration levels within the political parties, especially the Republicans.
Republican Congressman Peter King of New York, an enthusiastic supporter of Romney, lost his cool on CNN recently when an anchor confronted him about his candidate’s repeated claim that Obama “apologises for America.” King said: “I don’t care what fact-check says.”

Cynics say this is the ultimate reality--the politicians will continue to lie because truth is often unpalatable. But this growing subset and extra arm of traditional journalism works for voters, not politicians.

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