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The tyranny of the fact checkers

The election season in America has seen two new and related developments: constant accusations of “lies” and the rise of “fact checkers” as the arbiters of political debate.

For the past two months or more, both the Obama and Romney camps have engaged in tit-for-tat accusations of lying. At the outset, both sides claimed the election posed a clear ideological choice. But instead of a debate over ideas, all we’ve heard is talk of lies, lies and more lies. Romney says the Obama team’s advertisements about his activities at Bain Capital aren’t true; Obama says the Republicans have taken his comment telling entrepreneurs “you didn’t build that” out of its context. Then when Romney selected the strident Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate a few weeks ago, we were told the campaign would get away from petty arguments and now become focused on ideology, on small versus big government. But no, the mind-numbing cries of “you lied!” have rolled on.

Combatants in this battle of lies express shock and outrage when they hear something they deem false. They make it seem as if this campaign is a radical break from the past in its reliance on lies. Of the two sides, it is clear that the Democrats are most vocal in their denunciations of what they regard as new lows in political discourse. Some liberals have taken to calling the Republican approach “post-truth” politics.

But there is nothing new about dishonesty in politics: it’s been going on for thousands of years (just check out Quintus Tullisu Cicero’s advice to his brother Marcus in the newly re-published How to Win an Election). And this year’s round of supposed lies (like prior years’) are rarely outright lies; there are many variations of evasion and economies with the truth. It is not a "lie" to have a different political interpretation of facts. Screaming "liar!" is just a way of saying "I don’t have to argue you with you, because you're just a liar".

This is where the fact checkers come in. When accusations of lying emerge, the media turn to these fact checkers to pass final judgment on the dispute. Almost out of nowhere, organizations such as PolitiFact and Factcheck.org have risen to new heights. The major newspapers have also given new prominence to their fact-checkers, such as Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post and Michael Cooper at the New York Times. Fact-checkers used to be obscure librarian-types toiling away in backrooms, sharing space with the proof-readers, some of them aspiring to be journalists some day. But now they gather more attention than the journalists themselves. Today you have bizarre cases of journalists becoming fact checkers – for example, Kessler at the Washington Post – because they know they will have more clout in that role.

In its new role, fact checking has become a pseudo-science. PolitiFact’s worst rating is “pants on fire!”, a childish phrase we now hear all the time. Kessler’s most damning is “Four Pinocchios”, which he wields in all seriousness, as in: “This highly inaccurate Four Pinocchio claim is at the center of what the Romney campaign considers its most effective ad.” Knowing the distinction between a Three Pinocchio and a Four Pinocchio is a skill that only Kessler possesses.

Fact checkers really reached the prime time during the Republican national convention, following Paul Ryan’s speech. Democrats said Ryan’s speech was full of lies, and the fact checkers went into overdrive. For the most part, the fact-checkers agreed with the Democrats – Ryan told lots of fibs, they concluded. But the fact checker’s response to Ryan’s speech shows how they over-reach.

The most contentious issue was Ryan reference to the closing of a General Motors plant in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. Ryan said that Obama on the campaign trail in 2008 had promised the workers at that plant that he would save their jobs, but that the plant closed under his watch. Fact checkers called this false, because the announcement that the plant would be idled occurred in late 2008, before Obama had entered the White House. But Ryan was accurate in that the plant was still producing trucks in 2009, and there were still attempts occurring during 2009 to try to have it re-open. Ryan was not 100 percent forthright, but you can see that it is not a black-and-white issue. Furthermore, Ryan was not saying it was Obama’s decision to close the plant (although some may have mistakenly reached that conclusion from his speech); he was pointing out that Obama made unrealistic promises that he did not deliver on.

Another controversial Ryan reference was his point that Obama did not accept the findings of the Simpson-Bowles, the independent commission the president set up to review the long-term debt. The fact-checkers said no, this is false. Why? Because Ryan had failed to mention that he was on that commission, and he himself voted against its final report. But calling that a lie is a distortion itself; Ryan may have been silent about his role, but it remains a fact that Obama has not accepted Simpson-Bowles.

All of these points in Ryan’s speech are open for debate; that’s why we have debates. But the turn to the fact checkers is made precisely to shut down debate. Moreover, the fact checkers are providing their own interpretation the facts – in other words, they are expressing an opinion, dressed up as pure fact. The fact checkers’ opinions are supposedly given special status, because of they come from nonpartisan, above-the-fray sources, but they typically end up supporting one side or another. (And not always in favor of the Democrats - see how the liberal Daily Kos complains about AP's supposed Republican bias. Live by the fact checker, die by the fact checker!)

Underlying all of this talk of lies and the turn to fact checkers is a low opinion of the voters, especially working class voters, who are at risk of being duped into supporting one party because they are not smart enough to detect a lie.  As it happens, we are all capable of sifting through political arguments and determining what is true and compelling. We shouldn’t let constant accusations of lies distract us from demanding answers to the real concerns of today, nor should we outsource political judgments to fact checkers as the supreme arbiters of all political arguments. That’s our job.

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