Politicians tell lies—it’s one fact that needs no checking.
Whether unintentionally or through some kind of carefully crafted campaign conspiracy, someone with the amount of public visibility as a presidential candidate is bound to screw up some facts at some point. When they do, political fact checkers pick up the pieces of rhetorical misinformation, seemingly doing us all a great service in the process.
More so in this campaign, it seems people are calling for real-time fact-checking; perhaps emboldened by the actions of Candy Crowley in the second political debate. Like many concepts regarding transparency in politics, this idea sounds great on paper.
The reality of making it happen, however, is more messy.
This is because fact-checkers, like those they scrutinize, are not infallible. Megan McArdle, correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, puts it best saying, “The fact checkers are not subject matter experts; they’re spending a couple of hours doing research on the internet,” going on to say. They aren’t qualified to parse the various claims on hundreds of different topics, and they couldn’t possibly be.”
For example, PolitiFact.com has come to be known as an extremely credible source for checking facts and keeping the veritable slew of political campaigns and lobbyists ‘honest.’ This trust is well placed, certainly, as the Pulitzer Prize winning site run by the independent Tampa Bay Times most assuredly do their homework.
The sheer number of claims coming from the political lithosphere, however, is so large that it is ridiculous to assume that every last miniscule statistic is accounted for. Apparently to compensate for this, PolitiFact relies on a “Truth-o-Meter” which evaluates claims as “true” to “half-true” to “pants on fire” and everything in between.
But what exactly makes a claim made by President Obama “mostly true” and another claim “true”? Where exactly is that judgement call made?
Again, in McArdle’s article she notes claims made by both Obama and Romney. Both claims she identifies as “true-but-arguably-misleading,” yet PolitiFact labeled Obama’s as “mostly true” and Romney’s as “half-true.” While I am not implying there is some type of conspiracy or liberal slant, it can easily be interpreted as such—an interpretation that somewhat defeats the purpose of having a person analyze facts and rank them in such a way.
After all, we subconsciously question the ideologies we do not agree with more than those we do.
That is the point; when a fact is established as such, it should be irrefutable. Yet, in a political climate where words are interpreted almost every possible way the English language will allow, that irrefutable state seems unobtainable.
Even if that could be done, all this assumes that the act of fact-checking would happen to a satisfying degree in a small enough window of time for it to matter. Indeed, when a debate occurs, the interested will clamor to news outlets to find out what gaffes took place.
The rest will likely take most claims at face value.
Thus why real-time fact-checking would be desirable, but impossible. If there is already this much contention and confusion surrounding fact-checking as it occurs currently, one can only imagine how much there may be if fact checkers are madly attempting to refute and confirm in a matter of minutes; in an amount of time that would matter to a majority of Americans.
It is unfortunate, because frankly that majority could probably use a more visible form of fact-checking. Until that distant date it’ll be up to each person to take what our political leaders say as “half-true” until we can prove otherwise.
If we take that approach, real-time fact-checking seems rather superfluous.