Looking for truth in all the wrong places

By Jack Shafer
August 31, 2012

If you’ve kept your shirt dry while canoeing the rivers of our current presidential campaign, it’s likely that you’ve been skilled enough to avoid the logjams and snags of “dishonesty” and “lies” that the parties and press have flung into the water. While it’s true that politicians and their campaigns and their ads routinely lie — I hear no disagreement on that point, so I’ll continue — never have politicians and the press expressed such indignation at campaign exaggerations, fibs and falsehoods.

For example, after Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) gave his acceptance speech this week at the Republican National Convention, the press corps fact-checkers instantly took hammers and tweezers to his address. “The Most Dishonest Convention Speech … Ever?” asked Jonathan Cohn in the liberal New Republic, but the non-partisan press accused Ryan of having misled listeners and taken “factual shortcuts,” too. The Week counted up the 15 euphemisms for “lying” the press (partisan and non-partisan) used to describe the speech.

I suspect the growing sensitivity to political lies has less to do with more lying by more politicians than it does with the growth of the fact-checking industry over the last decade or so. Every campaign speech, big or small, every campaign ad, local or national, every fund-raising letter is fodder for the modern fact-checkers, who have multiplied in the pages of our newspapers like termites in breeding season: FactCheck.org (the granddaddy of these sites, from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which got started in the mid-2000s) and the later arrivals PolitiFact (Tampa Bay Times), The Fact Checker (Washington Post), AP Fact Check (Associated Press) and CNN Fact Check, all of which run regular fact checks. Other news organizations muster ad hoc journalistic militias to grade the truth-value of political speech. Today’s New York Times piece, “Facts Take a Beating in Acceptance Speeches,” does that for the Republican National Convention.

As much as I applaud the fact-checker profession — it’s vital for politicians to know that we know that they know they’re lying — the enterprise is a mug’s game. Of course politicians and their campaigns lie. Of course they continue to lie even when called out. If you think otherwise, you’re looking for truth in all the wrong places.

Politicians engage in deliberative rhetoric on the stump, in legislative speeches and in campaign commercials. Their primary goal is to convince audiences that their positions are right, and persuade them to vote, make campaign donations, echo their support, recruit additional supporters or take some other action. Truth-telling would matter a lot more to politicians if it were as effective in persuading people as truth-bending. Plus, trapping the truth and serving it in a palatable form to an audience is damn hard, as any university professor can tell you. It’s easier and more effective for campaigns to trim, spice and cook facts to serve something tastier, even if they must brawl with the fact-checkers in the aftermath.

You might as well fact-check a sermon as fact-check a campaign speech. Neither are exercises in finding the truth. That doesn’t mean we can excuse political lies. Please take a mallet to Romney’s fallacious assertion that Obama ended work requirements for welfare and to the Obama campaign’s ad that misstated Romney’s views on abortion. I pair these two fact checks not just to declare moral equivalence between the two parties or candidates but to demonstrate that the mutual-aggression pacts that govern politics make futile the fact-checking machinations of journalists. Give them a million billion Pinocchios and they’ll still not behave. Remember, the Republican-on-Republican fact-action was hairier during the primaries, when more desperate candidates were in the race. See also the 2008 Democratic Party and Republican Party campaigns for presidential nominations, when most of the candidates were eager to say the least defensible things about their fellow party members if that gave them a better shot at the ticket. Like in 2008, when Mike Huckabee unveiled to the press a scurrilous 30-second attack ad calling Mitt Romney too dishonest to be president, but then, as a statement against gutter politics, vowed not to air it.

Journalists, even of the fact-checking variety, like to imagine they’re in the grandstands, watching and commenting on the action, when they’re actually part of the game. As the Washington Post reports today, far from deploring the process, the candidates enjoying gaming the fact-checkers to their advantage. “The Obama campaign has tasked one media officer to deal exclusively with fact checkers’ questions, and top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom often personally handles requests,” says the piece. Brooks Jackson, FactCheck.org director, who produced fact-check journalism for CNN during the 1992 presidential election, expresses his worries that campaigns have come to regard their head-butting with fact-checkers as a kind of badge of honor. It’s like raising a naughty kid who enjoys time-outs.

Fact-checking, explains the Post, is not for politicians but for voters. I suppose fact-checking would matter more to voters if they expected honesty from their politicians. But most don’t. Instead of vetted policy lectures, voters crave rhetoric that stirs their unfact-checked hearts. As long as the deception is honest, pointing in the direction they want to go, they’re all right with it.

******

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14 comments

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It appears even Fox News was appalled by the excess of lies in Paul Ryan’s speech.

http://thinkprogress.org/election/2012/0 8/30/772921/6-worst-lies-in-paul-ryans-s peech/

The NY Times today had an Op-Ed piece on elections in Pompey during Roman times, memorialized on its walls because the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius preserved the slogans, painted on walls, for our kind of eternity. “Mule drivers,” for Romney it said there; “hussies for Obama! “

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

Sorry Jack, can’t buy off on this one. I think it is too short-sighted to say that no one really cares about the facts or the lies. While we expect the lies, we certainly should not condone them. And here is where new technology might help. If, every time a politician got economical with the truth, it went viral on the social media, they might start to trim at least the volume of lies, and perhaps even the uglier ones. The message should be ‘every time you do this, half the electorate will know about it in five minutes’. We hire the most venial people in our society to act as our governors. The least we can do is hold their feet to the fire by denying we’re as stupid as they think we are.

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive

“mutual-aggression pacts that govern politics make futile the fact-checking machinations of journalists”

Why is it futile if the viewers and voters do get a chance at discerning the truth? Has journalism sunk that low?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

That’s all you’ve got, a highly cultivated political cynicism? Looking the other way is your full time job! Having a drink with the fellas is really all that matters, not anything like being a real journalist, rather than a stenographer to the powerful.

Posted by StephenkMackSD | Report as abusive

Fact checking is a “new” separate job only because journalists stop during the very fundamentals of their jobs in order to let the Supremes choose our president in 2000.
Journalists used to be pretty opposed to just recording streams of statements by people who have proven unreliable in the past, but then came Fox, who either paid off or harassed or both, all professional journalists who refused to go along with their dishoensty and corrupting rabid partisan influence.
Murdoch is the only immigrant I want to deport….back to Australia so he can exist in the holding pens Australians use to prevent minorities from entering.
Do we need separate fact checkers in other industries like medicine, physics, climate science? No, we should just prosecute the dishonest ones, and expect professional standards from the rest.
I am very happy to see journalists stop being such stooges and start realizing it is their job to report facts, not propaganda, unless it is being exposed.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive

To pretend fact checking is not the responsibility of journalists is extremely lame. The reason fact chacking is a new job category is so the cabal can tell us what is true. Orwell anyone?
Murdoch has bought and harassed the press into believing the are only tape recorders instead of journalists.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive

Another article with no real purpose.

Just another rant instead of doing something constructive.

The facts no one wants to read.

Learn to think for yourself.

Banned from huffpost.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

It took the fsct-checkers to correct the Dems about Ryan’s remarks, too.

Posted by REMant | Report as abusive

I’m amazed anyone actually pays attention to the torrent of effluent that flows out of both campaigns. Even the stuff you can’t fact check is garbage. Of course our ailing economy, which is likely to adversely affect us for decades to come, is hardly mentioned. Recently, in an HP blog, Gary Hart called our government “massively corrupt”. Coming from a former senator, this is a remarkable statement. It should be a giant wake up call to all us. Until we, the voters, address this problem, the political class (both parties) will continue to exploit us. They will continue to lie to us and steal our hard earned tax dollars with impunity. It is time to stop being sheep and recognize government for the sham it has become.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive

I’m amazed anyone actually pays attention to the torrent of effluent that flows out of both campaigns. Even the stuff you can’t fact check is garbage. Of course our ailing economy, which is likely to adversely affect us for decades to come, is hardly mentioned. Recently, in recent blog, Gary Hart called our government “massively corrupt”. Coming from a former senator, this is a remarkable statement. It should be a giant wake up call to all us. Until we, the voters, address this problem, the political class (both parties) will continue to exploit us. They will continue to lie to us and steal our hard earned tax dollars with impunity. It is time to stop being sheep and recognize government for the sham it has become.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive

If news outlets would cease covering politics and government as a form of entertainment (an approach they seem to embrace because it’s easier to sell than simply attaining the best available facts), the fact-checkers would be a lot less necessary. I’m astonished at the degree to which the hosts of the Sunday TV talk shows allow their guests to blather on and on, spouting lies, misleading statements and talking points fashioned out of half-truths. The hosts will push back here and there, but only to a limited point, seemingly because they don’t want to offend their guest, or come off as overly-confrontational, or put themselves in a position in which they might be accused of “bias”. But should any of that matter? For instance, if David Gregory really called out Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell to the point that both refused to come on his show, would people really care? And frankly, an honest, fact-based confrontation might make good television (emphasis on FACT-BASED). I suspect that part of the problem is the current symbiotic relationship between politicians and the people covering them, as well as the fact that lots of these folks share a sense of social and professional community (as can be seen each year at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner).

Posted by Bestrides | Report as abusive

I’m amazed anyone actually pays attention to the torrent of effluent that flows out of both campaigns. Even the stuff you can’t fact check is garbage. Of course our ailing economy, which is likely to adversely affect us for decades to come, is hardly mentioned. In recent blog, Gary Hart called our government “massively corrupt”. Coming from a former senator, this is a remarkable statement. It should be a giant wake up call to all us. Until we, the voters, address this problem at the ballot box, the political class (both parties) will continue to exploit us. They will continue to lie to us and steal our hard earned tax dollars with impunity. It is time to stop being sheep and recognize government for the sham it has become.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive

this line:

“Truth-telling would matter a lot more to politicians if it were as effective in persuading people as truth-bending”

This is why our nation is quickly becoming a 3rd world power and losing ground around the world….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

You’re a columnist out of juice to bother with two meretricious campaigns. It’s two gangsters running against each other on the premise that the sheeples ill get shorn no matter what.

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive