In Time magazine's new cover story ("Blue Truth, Red Truth," 10/3/12), Michael Scherer attempts to sort out the puzzle of campaign season factchecking. But while the cover promises to tell us which candidate is telling the truth, it mostly manages to capture some of the corporate media's worst factchecking tropes.
The article kicks off with a hefty helping of false balance–the tendency to see all problems as coming more or less equally from both sides.
Obama complains about Romney's sustained, false claims that the White House is doing away with work requirements under welfare. Scherer notes this is false–and then pivots to a false claim coming from the Obama side, something having to do with a campaign strategist's criticism of Romney over his confusing statements about when he relinquished control of Bain Capital.
The two issues are not remotely equivalent, but one of the most common problems with media factchecking is the need to always be balanced–no matter what is happening in reality.
That tendency was on display in a separate Time piece by Alex Altman ("Who Lies More? Yet Another Close Contest") that ostensibly attempted to figure out which candidate was most deceptive:
To find out who shaded the truth most, Time asked each campaign for a list of its rival's worst deceptions. After examining those claims and consulting independent factchecking websites, we selected some of the most prominent falsehoods and prevarications of the 2012 campaign–at least so far. Compared with the Obama campaign's, the Romney operation’s misstatements are frequently more brazen. But sometimes the most effective lie is the one that is closest to the truth, and Obama’s team has often outdone Romney's in the dark art of subtle distortion.
So, to summarize: Romney lies more, and bigger. But Obama tells the more effective kind of lies: the ones that are more accurate. Got that?
Scherer seems troubled by the sheer volume of political lying in the campaign, and he thinks he knows who's to blame: the people. He writes:
So what explains the factual recklessness of the campaigns? The most obvious answer can be found in the penalties, or lack thereof, for wandering astray. Voters just show less and less interest in punishing those who deceive.
Indeed, some of the most prominent campaign lies succeed because we apparently want them to:
There was no Obama "apology tour," but the canard flourished because some voters are wary about his sense of American exceptionalism. If you read the whole paragraph, the president's "You didn't build that" riff seems a lot more reasonable, but context fell victim to a perception that Obama disdains free enterprise.
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So Romney (and others lie) about an Obama apology tour, and it works because some people are apt to believe it. Of course, that impression has more impact when journalists fail to challenge the lie. (The recent Washington Post headline "Obama, Romney Differ on U.S. Exceptionalism" would seem to endorse that Romney worldview.)
On the other example, saying that "context fell victim" to a false perception removes the agency of the people doing the lying–not to mention the people whose job it is to separate truth from falsehood.
Scherer writes near the end that "until the voting public demands something else, not just from the politicians they oppose but also from the ones they support, there is little reason to suspect that will change." But, as we've long argued, there are people who have more direct access to politicians, and who can challenge political lies. Those people are called journalists. And if they do not make politicians pay a price for lying, they're not likely to stop anytime soon.
A more aggressive media would be nice, but Scherer offers the public some bizarre advice instead:
The pundits on MSNBC, the Huffington Post and the editorial page of the New York Times do a fine job of calling out the deceptions of Romney, but if you want to hear where Obama is going wrong, you might be better served on the Drudge Report, Fox News or the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
So go check media outlets that have a terrible record when it comes to accuracy. Yep, an hour of Sean Hannity will help you sort out who's telling the truth. For bonus irony, this point is fleshed out with some quotes from discredited Republican pollster Frank Luntz, whose job involves manipulating political language to obscure the truth.
And not only is the public to blame for all that lying–they're taken it out journalists!
Instead the public increasingly takes issue with those who deliver the facts. Gallup recently recorded the highest levels of distrust in the media since it began measuring this sentiment in 1998. Only 40 percent of the country, including just 26 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of independents, express a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. "In the past, the press effectively played the role of umpire," explains Chris Lehane, a Democratic campaign consultant who served as press secretary of Al Gore's 2000 campaign. "Now they are effectively in the bleachers."
But maybe the real problem isn't that the public has no love for "those who deliver the facts." It might be–as Lehane says–that they don't think journalists actually do that.
Time wants us to think long and hard about political lying, that much is clear. And they want us to conclude that the apparent increase in political lying is basically our fault.