Fact-Checkers Are No Match For Romney and Ryan

In the vice-presidential debate in 1984, George H.W. Bush charged that Walter Mondale and his running mate Geraldine Ferraro had said that the Marines killed in their barracks the year before in Lebanon had "died in shame." It was a lie—neither Mondale nor Ferraro had said any such thing. The Democrats were outraged and demanded an apology, but Bush refused to even admit he hadn't told the truth. Asked about the controversy later, Bush's press secretary, Peter Teeley, made a stunning statement. "You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it." And what if reporters then wrote stories demonstrating that the candidate had lied? "So what?" Teeley responded. "'Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000.''

But things are different now, right? Now we have fact-checkers, so candidates can't get away with that kind of thing. Well ... maybe not. Last night, Paul Ryan delivered a speech that may have set a new standard for dishonesty in an already dishonest campaign, and it has been roundly exposed for its mendacity, by liberal commentators at least. But is that going to change anything? Does anyone believe that Ryan will actually stop making a single one of the charges he has made? And doesn't that suggest that all this fact-checking is just a failure? Brendan Nyhan sees the glass as half-full:

This attention to the effectiveness of journalistic strategies is appropriate. In my view, though, we should rejoice that the inaccuracy of Romney's [welfare] ad is a continued topic of debate, not fall into despair or paralysis over the media's failure to dictate the content of a presidential campaign. The underlying problem with these analyses is the misguided conclusion that factchecking is a failure if it does not eliminate deception. From a scientific perspective, however, factchecking is effective if it reduces the prevalence of misleading claims relative to an otherwise identical world that lacks factchecking, which seems likely to be the case (though we lack direct evidence on this point).

With that said, journalists could be more effective in responding to a pattern of false claims. First, they should remember to continue to remind readers—some of whom are just starting to tune into the campaign—that claims like those in the welfare ad are bogus. Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg did exactly that in a New York Times report last weekend that flatly described the ad as "falsely charging that Mr. Obama has 'quietly announced' plans to eliminate work and job training requirements for welfare beneficiaries." Likewise, in a blog item that was later published in print, the Times's Michael Cooper reminded readers that the Republican convention featured a "selectively edited" clip of President Obama’s "you didn't build that" statement, which was made all the way back in July.

I'm also pleased to see that some reporters are plainly calling these deceptions what they are, instead of resorting to he said/she said descriptions. But so far, it seems to be having zero impact on the Romney campaign's behavior. They're in the middle of a convention where their misleading, dishonest reading of an out-of-context quote from President Obama is the principal theme of the entire frigging event. I don't know if there has been a single speaker at the RNC who hasn't mentioned it. They've printed signs, for gosh sake. So at least in this one case, it sure does look like fact-checking has not reduced the prevalence of the lie one iota beneath what it would have been in a world without fact-checking.

It's possible, on the other hand, that the fact-checking and slightly greater forthrightness on the part of journalists has persuaded some people that the Republicans are being disingenuous. But what you really want out of fact-checking is leverage—not just that the people who read a fact-check think differently about the claim in question, but that it has a wider effect. And that's where the cup sure looks half-empty.

Romney and Ryan are obviously engaging in some simple cost-benefit analysis. They see benefits in the specific falsehoods they're telling about Obama. At the moment, they see the costs—getting a "Pants On Fire" rating from Politifact—as minimal, or at least smaller than the benefits. Since it's obvious that they aren't being restrained by their own integrity, the only way they'll stop telling any particular lie is if the costs associated with it are raised to the point where they exceed the benefits. So how might journalists do that?

The main way, as I've argued before, is for them to write stories where the lie itself is the topic of the story. That will exert a much, much more powerful pull on the candidates, once you start asking questions like, "Is Mitt Romney a liar?" There are some other conditions that could raise the costs—let's say if Paul Ryan had a Palinesque on-camera humiliation, in which an interviewer confronted him with his Janesville auto plant absurdity and forced him to explain himself. If that happened, afterward he might be afraid to bring it up again, lest everyone replay that interview. But short of that, I fear that nothing is going to make them stop.

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