By Robert B. Reich
6:00 AM EDT, September 5, 2012
"We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," says Neil Newhouse, a Romney pollster.
A half-dozen fact-checking organizations and websites have refuted Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's claims that President Obama removed the work requirement from the welfare law and will cut Medicare benefits by $716 billion. The New York Times even reported that Mr. Romney has been "falsely charging" President Obama with removing the work requirement.
USA Today calls the Romney campaign's claim that Mr. Obama has "funneled" money out of Medicare to pay for the federal health care law a "false line of attack" that's directly contradicted by Medicare's chief actuary. "Medicare's money isn't being taken away," the paper concludes.
Notwithstanding these refutations, the Romney campaign continues to make these charges.
Most political campaigns are guilty of exaggeration. Some distort the truth. But rarely if ever has one resorted to such bald-faced lies -- even after they're shown to be lies.
Presumably the Romney campaign continues to make these and other false claims because they're effective, swaying previous undecided voters Mr. Romney's way. But this raises a more basic question: How can these false claims remain effective when they've been so overwhelmingly discredited by the media?
The answer is the Republican Party has developed three means of bypassing the mainstream media and its fact-checkers.
The first is by repeating big lies so often in TV spots -- financed by a mountain of campaign money -- that the public can no longer recall (if it ever knew) that the mainstream media and its fact-checkers have found them to be lies.
The money is the result of a series of court decisions and regulatory changes, beginning with the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Fully a quarter of the $350 million amassed by super PACs through the end of July came from just 10 donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks such spending. And most of that money is financing negative ads targeting President Obama and other Democrats.
Several hundred million more is being gathered by political groups masquerading as nonprofits, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Because of a loophole in IRS regulations that allows these donors to remain secret, big corporations and Wall Street banks can contribute as much as they want without even their own shareholders knowing how much or to whom.
The second means the GOP has developed to protect its mistruths is by discrediting the mainstream media -- asserting that it's run by "liberal elites" who can't be trusted to tell the truth. "I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans," Newt Gingrich charged at a Republican debate last January, in what's become a standard GOP attack line.
To be sure, the mainstream media hasn't always called it correctly. Initially it bought the Bush administration's claim there were "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. But the mainstream media is at least committed to professional standards that separate truth from fiction, seek objective facts, correct errors and disseminate the truth.
The third means the GOP uses to protect itself is its own media outlets -- led by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and his yell-radio imitators, book publisher Regnery, and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, along with a right-wing blogosphere. Even if these outlets don't spread the lies directly, they can at least spread doubt about what's true.
Together, these three mechanisms are creating a parallel Republican universe of Orwellian dimension -- where anything can be asserted, where pollsters and political advisers are free to create whatever concoction of lies will help elect their candidate, and where "fact-checkers" are as irrelevant and intrusive as is the truth.
Whether all this helps the Republican Party in 2012 is of less consequence than the larger danger it poses to America. Democracy cannot thrive where truth becomes irrelevant. To the contrary, history teaches that this is where demagogues take root.
The Romney campaign has decided it won't be dictated by fact-checkers. But a society without trusted arbiters of what is true and what is false is vulnerable to every lie imaginable.
Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is the author of "Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it," a Knopf release that will be out in paperback Sept. 4.
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