What to Do With Political Lies

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.

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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.

The underlying approach is not that different from using the terms "anti-abortion" instead of "pro-life," "abortion-rights advocacy" instead of "pro-choice advocacy," or calling Obama's health-care law an "overhaul" rather than a "reform," because of the implication that the result is an improvement. It's basically an editorial decision that the news outlet in question gets to control the terms of the debate on its own pages, rather than outsourcing it to partisans, even as it seeks to fairly inform readers what those partisans are saying.

Alternatively, the allegation that's been debunked and the contrary facts could be grouped together and sourced to the warring partisans, over and over again. Take these grafs from a piece today:

In a new television ad and in remarks delivered across the critical battleground state of Ohio, Romney accused Obama of raiding $716 billion from Medicare to pay for his health-care overhaul.

"He is taking your money to finance his risky and unproven takeover of the health-care system," Romney said in Chillicothe. "He is putting Medicare at greater risk. He is putting health care at greater risk. He is putting your jobs at greater risk. We will not let Obamacare happen."

It would be easy to add this sentence after the quote: Obama has called that reduction in anticipated Medicare payouts to hospital and private insurers a plan to preserve benefits by eliminating waste and reducing overpayments, mainly through reining in an expansion instituted under President Bush.

Another example, involving an Obama quote from today: "They want to turn Medicare into a voucher program....And because the voucher wouldn't keep up with costs, the plan offered by Governor Romney's running mate, Congressman Ryan, would force seniors to pay an extra $6,400 a year, and I assume they don't have it."

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Use of a quote like this could be followed by a graf such as: The voucher system Obama is campaigning against was proposed by Ryan in his 2011 budget, but Ryan's 2012 budget dropped the plan in favor of a proposal to subsidize private or traditional plans on new Medicare exchanges created a decade from now. The extra costs potentially imposed by the 2012 proposal on future seniors are not yet clear, though it is anticipated to raise them.

B-matter has kind of fallen by the wayside in the age of the Web, where blog standards often involve reporting just one new thing, not comprehensively, or just the latest thing that was said, rather than its history. But a deft use of B-matter can really solve a wealth of problems, and show political lies for what they are. And if lies are going to be repeated, the truth has to be, too.

The other solution, of course, is to treat repeated lies as a story (something I suspect we'll see much more of in the months ahead). What is Romney trying to do by repeating false statements about the tweak to welfare rules over and over before working-class white audiences? What is Obama trying to do by focusing on Ryan's 2011 budget and ignoring his 2012 one? Well, that second one's kind of obvious. But you get the drift.

None of this is going to bring back the era of the gatekeeper, and it's not going to give reporters more power than they do have. But it could help those who are committed to being objective assert themselves more forcefully as impartial observers of reality in a campaign cycle full of distortions. Done day in and day out, and in every story that contains a newly-repeated, previously-debunked assertion, that could begin to have an impact.

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


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