What to Do With Political Lies

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Fact-checkers are no longer enough: If lies are going to be repeated, the truth needs to be, too.

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My former Washington Post colleague Alec MacGillis has a thought-provoking piece in The New Republic today about "The Welfare Card and the Post-Truth Campaign," lamenting the lies he's heard from Mitt Romney on the stump in Ohio and how little covered they are. Romney, writes MacGillis:

got his biggest applause during this riff:

I want you to know I heard something the other day that really surprised me... What I heard is that the president is taking the work requirement out of welfare. (Boos.) Yeah. We value work, our society which celebrates hard work, we look to a government to make it easier for jobs to be created and people to go to work. We do not look for a government that tries to find ways to provide for people who are not willing to work. And so I'm gonna put work back into welfare and make sure able-bodied people can get jobs.
....After the speech, several in the audience told me that their favorite part had been Romney's calling out Obama for weakening welfare work requirements. Yes, one of the more depressing parts of the job of being a political reporter is watching an audience fully absorb a blatant and knowing lie. Which is, of course, what this is....

Romney just keeps using it, at stop after stop, in ad after ad. How can this be possible? Well, maybe because very few of my colleagues in the press seem all that troubled by it. Unless I've missed it, none of the national papers or networks or Buzzfeeders have done a comprehensive report on Romney's persistence in playing the welfare card. It's as if it was enough to have the factcheckers offer their initial scolding, but after that, hey, anything goes. I saw no mention in dispatches from yesterday of Romney's successful use of the welfare line in Beallsville -- instead, the stories were dominated by Romney's declaration of outrage, later in the day, over Obama's campaign of "anger and hate."

One person who is troubled by it is the Post's Dan Balz, who also lamented the ineffectiveness of the fact-checking process today in a piece on how poisonous the 2012 campaign has become.

News organizations instituted fact-checking and ad watches in reaction to earlier campaigns, when candidates were getting away with half-truths and worse, with little accountability. These have become robust and increasingly comprehensive. But they are not providing much of a check on the behavior of the campaigns.

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.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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