The End of Facts

A campaign blog.
Sept. 10 2008 6:44 PM

The End of Facts

When a politician says something, the assumption is that it adheres, however loosely or distantly or illogically, to the truth. This week has shown that assumption to be hopelessly naive.

First, the McCain campaign repeated the falsehood that Sarah Palin said, "Thanks, but no thanks" to the "Bridge to Nowhere." (Really, she said, "Thanks" and "No thanks.") Then they suggested Obama wanted to teach kindergartners about sex—he did no such thing. Then they accused him of calling Sarah Palin a "pig with lipstick"—a stretch, even according to Mike Huckabee. And now they suggest—citing FactCheck.org , no less—that Obama propagated "misleading" rumors about Palin.

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The FactCheck folks are displeased. Today they posted an article saying the McCain ad "distorts our finding." They had called the Palin rumors "misleading," but in no way suggested the rumors were coming from Obama. The Annenberg Center’s director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, is mulling whether or not to take legal action, since the McCain ad technically violates their copyright policy . Jamieson tells me a statement may be forthcoming: "Earlier ads have done the same thing," she writes. "I am trying to make sure we have identified all of them before issuing a statement."

This cycle has seen a proliferation of fact-checking sites, from Annenberg’s FactCheck.org to CQ ’s PolitiFact to the Washington Post ’s Pinocchio-doling Fact Checker column. For a while, they seemed to have an effect. The campaigns started sending out "fact check" dossiers to back up their own ads. When Barack Obama claimed that "gas prices have never been higher," PolitiFact corrected him, and he stopped making the claim. They also tweaked Joe Biden for saying that John McCain voted with President Bush 95 percent of the time; the Obama camp adjusted their statements to the correct figure of 90 percent.

Now, though, facts seem irrelevant, at least to the campaigns. "I think we may have had an impact earlier in the campaign," says Viveca Novak of FactCheck.org, "but now we don’t seem to be having much of one."

It’s not that the campaigns are ignoring the fact-check sites. They’re misusing them. The same week McCain misleadingly cited FactCheck.org, the campaign cherrypicked a sentence from PolitiFact about the Bridge to Nowhere, quoting them as saying, "It's true that on Sept. 21, 2007, Palin officially killed the project." They left out the part of the article about how she also supported it. The best part: The Obama camp cited the same article to back up its claim that Palin committed "a full flop."

To be sure, this is what happens at the end of a close race. The truth proves malleable, the stakes get higher, and the window for voters to Google every statement a candidate makes narrows. One can also conceive of a candidate who’s a horrible liar but would make a better president. Lyndon Johnson, for example, liked to say his great-grandfather  died at the Alamo . He died in bed.

Plus, the fact checkers don’t seem to mind. "It’s not really any different from what we’ve seen in American politics for decades," says Bill Adair of PolitiFact. "These guys say what they want to say. My job as a journalist isn’t to get them to change their tune." Brooks Jackson of FactCheck.org also dismisses the notion that they need to have an "impact." "I think that’s the wrong goal to have," he says. "For one thing, they’ll break your heart. For another thing, I’m old fashioned. My idea of a proper role of a journalist is not to be part of the contest."

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.