This election cycle has seen the proliferation of new organizations devoted to fact-checking, as well as new fact-checking desks at established media outlets. But has this increased scrutiny done anything to quell the untruths? The Politico's Daniel Libit says all these truth-squaders might drown each other out and have little effect on keeping the campaigns honest.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Here’s John McCain in Wednesday’s presidential debate. SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama’s relationship with ACORN who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy. BOB GARFIELD: Stinging - but, as fact-checkers quickly demonstrated, not true. The fraud was probably against ACORN by some low wage employees apparently trying to avoid the tedious job of canvassing for actual prospective voters. Now, here’s Barack Obama. SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: And 100 percent, John, of your ads, 100 percent of them have been negative. SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: It’s not true. SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: A hundred – it absolutely is true. BOB GARFIELD: No sirree - as fact-checkers reported, in one recent week McCain’s ads were 100-percent negative but not over the entire campaign. Yes, among other historic aspects, this is the most fact-checked presidential race ever, yet by no means the most factual.
Writing for Politico.com this week, Daniel Libit sees facts, facts everywhere and nary a drop to drink. DANIEL LIBIT: You have a proliferation of organizations now, and websites, factual assertion or rhetorical statement that is being said in this campaign. And the question is whether or not this is creating somewhat of a white noise effect. BOB GARFIELD: That it all becomes a bunch of blather to the voter. DANIEL LIBIT: Yes, if dozens and dozens of statements on a daily basis are pointed out to be untrue, are the crucial ones rising to the top? Are people really getting to the heart of the inaccuracies in the presidential campaign? BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about movie ads for a moment, because [LAUGHS] we're all familiar with the idea of a bad or lukewarm review for a movie being cherry-picked by a movie studio to pull out three words that make it look like the reviewer has given eight thumbs up to a real bomb. The political campaigns do the same thing with the words of the fact-checkers. DANIEL LIBIT: You’re absolutely correct, and that happened with FactCheck.org when the McCain campaign had sort of used one of FactCheck.org’s assertions in an advertisement. They're misquoting the fact-checkers themselves. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] AD VOICEOVER: The attacks on Governor Palin have been called completely false, misleading, and they've just begun. DANIEL LIBIT: And they sort of used it out of context, and FactCheck.org wrist-slapped them for this. But then, of course, how many people are going back to FactCheck.org to make sure that that claim is not being misrepresented? Relatively few. So the McCain campaign can sort of get away with it.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, media critics, and this program perhaps more than most, have spent a lot of time criticizing news organizations for neutrally reporting assertions by politicians without taking the trouble to investigate whether the assertions are true.
Now, in a fact-check universe, we're finally getting what we asked. They're doing the due diligence, but it doesn't seem to be doing any good. In fact, you know, as we've just discussed, it may actually be making [LAUGHS] some of the problems worse. What should news organizations be doing? DANIEL LIBIT: What is required now is a way of kind of consolidating the fact-checking, and this gives an opportunity, maybe even for a website, to do what websites like FiveThirtyEight.com or Pollster.com or RealClearPolitics have done for polling. You have all these different polls, and you need sites to bring it all together so you can line it all up and make some sense out of it and also so that it really can attract your average voter. BOB GARFIELD: Now, on the question of false equivalency, in this campaign, for example, I can certainly demonstrate that the Obama campaign has misrepresented John McCain’s position on stem cell research, but at the same time McCain has been just absolutely scurrilous and spurious in asserting, or at least implying, terrorism connections to Obama, with respect to this guy Bill Ayers. Is not one of the dangers of fact-checking that it doesn't make distinction between the magnitude of lies?
DANIEL LIBIT: Journalism is supposed to be objective in approach but, of course, it’s subjective in selection. The fact-checkers who I spoke with, sort of the leaders of the pack, were saying that they just do it as they do everything else. Just as you would during a morning meeting of a newspaper editorial staff decide what gets on the front page what gets above the fold, so do the fact-checkers decide what things deserve to be on their blogs or on their website that day.
But yes, while we are taking more of an assertive role in identifying and calling a spade a spade, so to speak, are we doing enough to really make the proportional argument of which deceptions or inaccuracies deserve which kind of coverage? And I don't think we've come to that point where we have. BOB GARFIELD: One final thing I want to ask you. Take the Sarah Palin assertion that she [LAUGHS] said thanks but no thanks to the “bridge to nowhere.” The media have since demonstrated, to a fare-thee-well, that Governor Palin was a supporter of the project until it had essentially died in Congress. And yet, she is out on the stump every day using the same now-famous quote. Does this suggest that the whole exercise is just kind of a waste of time? DANIEL LIBIT: Well, I think we need to acknowledge, first of all, that the McCain campaign as of this current moment is down in the polls, you know, and there has been this collective narrative about their not even passing, as Karl Rove had said, you know, the 100 percent truth test.
So I don't want to lend the impression that this is not having any effect. Even though the campaign might be resistant to changing their language, they're not getting away with it, necessarily. I think the polls would suggest otherwise. BOB GARFIELD: Daniel Libit is a writer for Politico.com. Thank you very much for joining us. DANIEL LIBIT: It was great to be with you, Bob. Take care. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]