By Peter Hart
In Time magazine’s new cover story (“Blue Truth, Red Truth,” 10/3/12), href=”http://www.fair.org/blog/2008/09/22/time-facts-fables-and-fibs-by-michael-scherer-and-james-carney/”>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.