Ryan and the Built-in Lies of the Cliche Machine

In journalism, “bold” can mean anything from brave to morally outrageous, which is a big problem.

Reading some coverage of the Ryan rollout brings to the forefront the question of the cliches of political journalism, and outlines one way in which Democrats have their work cut out for them. In attempting to create in the public mind a negative perception of Paul Ryan, they'll be fighting not just the GOP's counter-spin, but decades of accepted journalistic convention, and most news consumers' initial reactions to certain key words and phrases.

These conventions work in this case on two levels. The first explicitly involves the journalistic definition of the word "bold." Proposals are routinely labeled "bold" in journalism in a completely morally neutral way. It wouldn't surprise me if we went back to American and British newspapers of 1938 and found a headline or two about "Herr Hitler's Bold Sudetenland Gambit." "Bold," in journalism, can mean anything from genuinely courageous to utterly reckless to morally outrageous.

So by this definition, Ryan's radical and draconian budget is definitely "bold." This means he was a "bold" pick. This in turn means that Mitt Romney, lately just barely keeping his nose above the water line of "milquetoast," is now suddenly "bold" himself! Works like a charm.

The second benefit to Ryan has to do with the way the media employ cliches based on long-held perceptions about the two parties and their leading figures. The Republicans are the party that cares about deficits historically. Actually, they're not in fact remotely that. But that, however preposterously, is their perception and reputation. Ryan from time to time inveighs against deficits, and so he is unveiled to the American people, as The New York Times did over the weekend, as "intent on erasing deficits."

As Matt Miller notes in The Washington Post, this is absurd and so indefensibly lazy as to defy comprehension. He would balance the budget in around 2040. What Ryan is actually "intent" on doing is slashing domestic spending to the bone and, most of all, giving massive tax breaks to rich people. This is the inescapable objective truth, if you've actually studied his plan.

So an actual, true-to-the-facts way to introduce Paul Ryan to America would be to say: "Paul Ryan, the reckless Republican congressman who is intent on slashing taxes for the very wealthiest Americans..." That is actually true. But according to journalistic convention it's not objective. And so journalism tells these lies in the name of being "fair." It does so all the time, whether the topic is entertainment or sports or what have you. It's just that the stakes aren't usually this high.

So the Democrats have to argue here against everything people have just read and heard and persuade them that bold means reckless and outrageous, not brave, like Captain Kirk boldly going where no man has gone before. And the more important matter is the second one, and shredding Ryan's completely unearned reputation for deficit hawkery, which Democrats have started doing.