Fact-Checking Campaign Lies: Does Anybody Give a Damn?

In an era when public untruths wind up as one- or two-line bulletin on our smart phones, how do we break the cycle of lying and public forgetting?


When it comes to ethics in the presidential campaign, the 1960s folk-rock band Buffalo Springfield had a fitting line: "There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear."

"It" in this case appears to be misrepresentations fully tolerated by each side, in part because they think most voters just don't really care or are too dumb to notice. So much for actual facts revealed in Twitter-like real time by an increasingly watchful political media. Consider:

  • Politico detailed how top officials (unnamed) in both the Obama and Romney organizations agree on much about the campaign. They both speak about the need to go negative, no matter how the press derides their ads' tones and half-truths. They "privately scoff at the media's obsession with fact checking, arguing that reporters and voters can't pay attention long enough to penalize a candidate for being full of it."

  • Romney's pollster, Neil Newhouse, told a breakfast group at the Republican National Convention that "we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," whom he feels bring their own belief systems to their handiwork.

  • David Brooks, a New York Times columnist who has interviewed Paul Ryan often, was bewildered by parts of his convention speech. "I've never heard him utter sentiments remotely like that," he said in a published dialogue with colleague Gail Collins regarding Ryan's criticism of the Simpson-Bowles plan. "If you've got a guy famous for truth-telling, why feed him a bunch of semi-deceptions," he said, alluding to what he assumed was campaign insistence on certain talking points parroted by Ryan.

"Both sides are implicated," said Colin Greer, a left-leaning Scottish-born educator who runs the New World Foundation, a social justice organization in New York. "They don't tell the truth about each other. Can we expect our children to trust and believe us as they grow up?"

There are not only some obvious distinctions between political hyperbole and lies. There's also the reality that some deceptions, both in our personal lives and in areas like military intelligence, can certainly be justified. But one can also deceive without lying, such as in telling a hospital patient you know is dying that they look better today.

For sure, some moralists argue that any and all lying is wrong. Charles Fried, a prominent jurist and Harvard Law School professor, asserted in his 1978 work Right and Wrong, "A good man does not lie. It is this intuition which brings lying so naturally within the domain of things categorically wrong."

And in her seminal work, Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life (also 1978, apparently a big year for opining on deceit), philosopher-ethicist Sissela Bok raised the hypothetical predicament of a society in which telling the truth was not commonplace -- namely, the inability to trust much of anything you hear or read.

That could place on the individual the burden of independently trying to discern the truth about most matters. That was the point indirectly made by Jeff Seglin, a public-policy and ethics expert at Harvard's Kennedy School, when I asked for counsel on what to tell an eight-year-old about the deceit around him in our public arena.

"My first question to an eight-year-old -- if any eight-year-old would care and wouldn't just think this is a bunch of adults talking to invisible people on empty chairs -- would be to ask him, if two friends told him two things that fly directly in contrast to one another, what he would do," said Seglin.

"If one friend tells him that Derek Jeter was caught corking his bats and another told him that Derek Jeter is the most consistent player since Cal Ripken, what would he do?" (Seglin knows I'm a ravenous Yankees fan.) "Would he go with the latter simply because he likes Jeter? Would he just shrug? Or would he take it on himself to suss out the facts?"

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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