the fact-checking craze is bad for democracy

Yesterday, someone called “Lewis McBatman” tweeted:

Joe Biden fact-raped Paul Ryan last week. About time someone did.

Now, there are all sorts of things wrong with the imagery and metaphor in that tweet. But one thing I find problematic is the insistence that what was better about Biden’s performance was that it was factual.

This is a very common standard, and one that is utterly pervasive in the media. labels every candidate’s statement with an evaluation of its veracity. Immediately after last night’s debate, CNN ran an extended fact-check of each claim made during the debate. And Candy Crowley–bless her heart–tried to explain to her colleagues and the nation that, while Mitt Romney had been factually incorrect on the question of whether President Obama had called the Libya killings an “act of terror” or not, Romney had nevertheless been right “in the main” and just used “the wrong word.” Immediately after each debate, and after any “gotcha” moment on the campaign trail, the opposing campaign distributes far and wide claims about their opponent’s truthfulness, but not about the values, ideals, and approaches he champions.

There is certainly no shortage of truth-stretching and outright lying going on in the campaigns, so I grudgingly acknowledge the relevance of asking, simply, whether each candidate is speaking accurately. But I think the obsession with fact checking prevents us from paying attention to the most important questions: differences in values, analysis, and leadership style that make the decision a legitimate democratic moment. While I’m no longer as optimistic as I was a few weeks ago, it’s still the case that the two campaigns offer a marked difference in these qualities: competing theories of economic growth, competing (rhetorical, if not so pronounced in policy) approaches to collective vis-a-vis individual success, competing ways of handling leadership. Consider, for example, the difference between these two snippets from the candidates’ convention acceptance speeches:

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise…is to help you and your family.


We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

These are competing visions of the character of the American public and the appropriate style of leadership for it. None of these can be adjudicated on the basis of a fact-check. The obsession with fact checking is obscuring the most important elements of the decision we’re making.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

5 thoughts on “the fact-checking craze is bad for democracy”

  1. I agree in spirit, but I wonder if the fact-checking craze is important given the sheer disproportion in mendacity that can sometimes make the differences in values and philosophy obscure. I’m thinking about the Romney/Ryan “Tax Plan” as an example. It’s hard to debate the values inherent in the plan without first unpacking the impossibility of the promises being made. It would be one thing if Romney was proposing a 1$tn tax cut for the wealthy (to create jobs and promote business, say), and he promised to pay for by closing loopholes that he identified, or capping deductions, or whatnot. That he’s proposing something impossible and refusing to admit that the math won’t work makes it hard to read the values through the details unless you are paying close attention.

    Another way of putting it is that the Republicans have been the party that “values” less government for decades, but have also been the party to increase government spending the most (or at least as much), but just directed at different targets. So the values debate is incomplete without the facts.


  2. I don’t you have to worry too much about facts getting in the way of more important factors like appearing “presidential” or “distracted” or “concerned” or “forceful” and so on. Candidates for president do stress values, maybe more than facts, and many voters go with the candidate who seems most in tune with their general worldview rather than the one whose facts are correct. When the Republicans were for Romneycare, the individual mandate was “personal responsibility.” When they are against Obamacare, the individual mandate is a “government takeover” that restricts “freedom.” Same facts, different values.


  3. I agree that there is fact checking, and I agree that there is a lack of analysis, but you will have to go some way to convince me that the one is caused by the other.

    I can imagine a journalism that fact checks and focuses on the analysis, but it exists only in my dreams.


  4. @1.Dan: I do see the necessity given the precipitous decline in basic truthfulness;

    @2.Jay: I don’t think spin is the same thing as values. As watered down as it’s become, the choice between the two parties remains primarily one between approaches to the role of government and the value of pluralism, neither of which is answerable with facts alone.

    @3.Tina: Granted I haven’t established a causal link. But I do think the space of debate has been colonized by “did he tell the truth” instead of “does he represent the best values”, and media fact checking encourages the idea that the prime way of disagreeing with someone is to catch him/her lying.


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