Looking for truth in all the wrong places
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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