Can Journalists Stand Up to a Candidate's Lies?

I've made my case that Mitt Romney just might be the most dishonest presidential candidate in modern history, but the question is, what should we do about it? Or more specifically, what should reporters do about it? One of the worst things about "objective" he said/she said coverage is that it basically gives candidates permission to lie by removing any kind of disincentive they might feel for not telling the truth. After all, candidates are (mostly) rational actors, and if lying isn't accompanied by any kind of punishment, they're going to do it as long as it works.

I'm not sure that Mitt Romney's Medicare lies are actually producing a positive effect other than tickling the Republican base deep down in the secret corner of its id, but he's certainly sticking with it. All of which led Prospect alum Garance Franke-Ruta to suggest one possible solution:

Fact-checking was a great development in accountability journalism -- but perhaps it's time for a new approach. It's no longer enough to outsource the fact-checking to the fact-checkers in a news environment where every story lives an independent life on the social Web and there's no guarantee the reader of any given report will ever see a bundled version of the news or the relevant fact-checking column, which could have been published months earlier. One-off fact-checking is no match for the repeated lie.

Objective news outlets had to deal with this last cycle, too. Remember the huge controversy over how to cover the allegations that Obama was a Muslim without just publicizing the smear -- or suggesting that there is anything wrong with being Muslim?

The solution now as then lies in repeated boilerplate, either inserted by editors who back-stop their writers, or by writers who save it as B-matter (background or pre-written text) so they don't have to come up with a new way of saying something every single time they file. Basic, simple, brief factual boilerplate can save an article from becoming a crutch for one campaign or the other; can save time; and can give readers a fuller understanding of the campaigns, even if they haven't had time to read deep dives on complex topics.

"Obama, who is a Christian" was the macro of the 2008 cycle in reporting on the "Barack Obama is a Muslim" smears. Also widely used: "the false allegation that Obama is Muslim." Such careful writing may not have done much to disabuse nearly a fifth of Americans of the idea that Obama is a Muslim -- national newspaper stories can influence elite opinion while barely making a dent on widely held views in a nation of more than 300 million -- but they provided readers with an accurate sense of the facts while learning about a politically significant campaign development.

I agree with Garance up to a point. There's nothing wrong with fact-checking as a journalistic enterprise, but if its purpose is to stop lies, it's not working. Let me excerpt a post I wrote about this last November, where I asked whether fact-checking works:

The first is, does it change politicians' behavior? Is a candidate who gets called out for a lie in a fact check going to stop saying it? I posed that question to Bill Adair, who runs PolitiFact, when I interviewed him for a story about this topic that never actually found its way into print (long story). Adair's response was that changing politicians' behavior isn't his job; he and his organization put their best assessment of the facts on the record, and then whatever happens next is basically out of their hands.

One could design a study to determine whether lies are less likely to be repeated once the fact checkers have judged them harshly, but no one that I know of has done it. The consensus from people I've talked to about this seems to be that it depends on who the liar is. The narrower their constituency, the more likely they are to continue on unashamed even after being called out for lying. Michele Bachmann doesn't really care if PolitiFact says one of her claims is bogus. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is more concerned about his reputation and therefore more likely to stop saying something once it has been called a lie.

Ha! Well, I guess that's in the past now. But the next question is, if journalists were actually saying, over and over whenever they reported on Romney's welfare attack, something like, "Romney repeated his false allegation that the Obama administration has ended work requirements (in fact, the work requirements remain in place)..." would that make Mitt stop saying it? It might, and it would certainly be better than the way they're handling it now. But the truth is that to really stop a lie in its tracks, the lie itself has to be the topic of stand-alone news stories. Once he sees headlines reading, "Romney Repeating False Accusation On Stump," with the story full of people condemning him for it, then he'll stop. Because at that point, he'll begin to worry that the next round of stories will have headlines like "Romney's Truth Troubles: Republican Nominee Can't Seem to Stick to Facts." Those stories won't just be about the particular lie in question, they'll be about Mitt's character and what kind of pathology pushes him to keep lying. Those are the kind of stories Al Gore got in 2000 (unfairly, but that's its own story).

Making a story out of the lie itself would require journalists to get pissed off enough to take a stand. But you know what? They should be pissed off. Romney is using them as a conduit for his deception, because he knows they don't have the guts to say no.

Comments

In as much as it is the reporter's job to report the best known version of the truth at the time that they file the story, should not the reporter feel duty bound to report the fact that the POI is lying or trying to use the reporter to propagate a lie? Otherwise, isn't the reporter deliberately deceiving his "audience" with selectively edited half truths?

I suspect that the failure to pursue lies-as-stories is itself a symptom of deeper problems in the media. Media is viewed by its owners and top management as just another profit-making enterprise, and afaict there's not much market in the US for the unvarnished truth. What we want is a media that feels obligated to feed that unvarnished truth to the masses regardless of what they'd prefer, but that isn't consistent with a purely capitalistic, profit-seeking media system.
That isn't to say that there aren't good reporters who want to provide that truth. But inevitably they find themselves sidelined and working for 'partisan' or fringe organizations if they persist- or they find themselves straining to proclaim a pox-on-both-their-houses in order to maintain their position. Witness Polifact itself, founded to provide this vitally-needed fact-checking service but quickly folding on that front, as their 2011 Lie of the Year turned into a hypocritical attempt to purchase a nonpartisan reputation at the cost of their own integrity.
I just wish I could suggest an answer: state-run media seems like the wrong solution. A universe of bloggers seems to produce more of an echo-chamber effect rather than less, and while it's easier to find the truth if one wants to looks for it, that truth gains less penetration into the national awareness than the well-crafted partisan lie. At the root the answer seems to me to lie with the American people themselves- as long as they are satisfied to be lied to, it will be profitable to do so.

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