Truth-Squadding Mission  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2012

Truth-Squadding Mission   

It’s vital for news outlets to aggressively call out presidential campaigns when they distort the truth. Tues., August 21, 2012.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Art Brisbane, at the time the New York Times' public editor, started an interesting and sometimes heated discussion in January when he asked in a column if news organizations should aggressively fact-check statements made by newsmakers.

The nasty and often fact-challenged presidential campaign we are watching makes clear why the answer to that question must be an emphatic "yes."

Months before voters go to the polls, the electorate has been treated to an overwhelming avalanche of advertising and allegations ranging from misleading to flat-out untrue.

That makes it even more important for the news media to push back as hard as they can.

As I've written before, one of the positive developments in journalism has been the rise of the fact-checking movement. For too many years, too much political reportage consisted of Candidate A alleges whatever, Candidate B says there's nothing to it — and then full stop. No sorting it out, no conclusion.

The rise of outfits like the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org and the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact, which take apart the various assertions and render verdicts on their veracity, has been an enormous step forward. Some individual news outlets like the Washington Post have their own fact-checking operations. And PolitiFact has set up franchises around the country in concert with regional news outlets.

Having a stand-alone judgment is good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. That's why it's so important to repeat those conclusions in individual news stories every time the charge surfaces.

That's hardly going to blow the half-truths and the no truths out of the water. Often candidates don't let the facts get in the way of a good tactic, and the constant repetition on the airwaves and on the hustings can hammer those false narratives into many minds. Also, in the current hyperpartisan political climate, there is no shortage of people who believe only what their own side is saying.

But in spite of the uphill nature of the struggle, it's vital that news outlets do their best to get the truth out. Despite the brilliant and hilarious obit for "Facts" written by the Chicago Tribune's Rex W. Huppke last April, there are still some people who continue to live in a fact-based universe.

Aren't there?

But there's no overestimating the extent of the problem. Take the Republican charge that President Barack Obama was "gutting" welfare reform by scrapping a provision requiring people receiving welfare to work. The Fact-Checking Triumvirate — FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler — all looked into the charge and found it without merit.

But did that slow down the forces of Mitt Romney? Not even a little bit. In an excellent piece for The New Republic, Alec MacGillis wrote that despite widespread debunking of the charge, Romney was continuing to use it on the trail. In fact, MacGillis wrote, it was his biggest applause line at an event the writer attended in Beallsville, Ohio. And Romney continued to air ads circulating the canard.

Of course, the GOP hardly has a monopoly when it comes to bending the truth. A truly appalling ad aired by the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action suggests that a woman died of cancer because her husband lost his health insurance after Romney's Bain Capital closed the steel plant where he worked.

FactCheck.org checked it out and found it "misleading" in a number of ways: The woman died five years after the plant closed; she didn't lose her insurance when the plant shut down but rather a year or two later when she lost health coverage at her own job; and, besides, when the plant shut down, Romney was off running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

But while the president ultimately tried to distance himself from the ad, there was hardly a full-throated denunciation of the disgraceful piece of work by the forces of Obama.

The problem we're up against was spelled out perfectly, and apparently without irony, by one of the perpetrators: Romney himself. "You know," he said in a radio interview, "in the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why, campaigns pulled the ad. They were embarrassed. Today they just blast ahead."

That raises the ante for news organizations considerably. It means they have to relentlessly investigate the campaigns' charges. They have to repeat their conclusions every time the charge surfaces. If there is a pattern of repeating an obviously false charge — see "Obama is gutting welfare reform" — they should do pieces making that fact clear. And those that have them should use their editorial pages to denounce the distortions, complete with, as Samuel L. Jackson might say, "furious anger."

Sure, there is a great fascination, at least inside the Beltway, with the inside baseball, the latest permutations, the gaffe of the moment. But aggressively calling out the candidates when they tamper with the truth is one of the most important missions on the news media's agenda.

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