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With so many fact-checkers, why are politicians lying more and more?

Glenn Kessler
Washington PostGlenn Kessler

Glenn Kessler, who writes the “Fact Checker” column for the Washington Post, put up a compendium of his best/worst hits of the campaign season Sunday by creating a bunch of categories (like “Most Absurd ‘Fact’”) and then naming a “winner” for each political party.

As a refresher course on some of the nonsense that’s been spewed during 2012, I recommend it, although reading through it has a depressing feel. We are being misled/deceived/lied to constantly by the political class. By awarding a prize in each category to each party, Kessler also contributes to the problem of false parity, a structure implying that each side is deceiving equally. I don’t believe that’s true, but for someone like me who believes that our perceptions are shaped by our desire to confirm our pre-existing biases, it’s also hard for me to completely trust my perception that Mitt Romney and the Republicans are guilty of the larger and more frequent deceptions.

Another silly thing Kessler does in this piece is to go back over all the statements he has rated on his regrettable “Pinocchio” scale and calculate an average for each candidate. This would be helpful, and represent an escape from False-Parity Land if it had anything to do with real arithmetic, but it doesn’t. Kessler finds that on average, the 92 Obama statements he rated got an average of 2.11 Pinocchio’s (on a 4-Pinocchio scale) while Romney averaged a slightly worse 2.4 Pinocchio’s over 77 statements. (Of local note, Kessler mentioned, in an unsurprising aside, that Minnesota’s own Michele Bachmann was the Pinocchio-est of the 2012 presidential candidates, with an average rating of 3.08.

Hopelessly biased

But as much as these numbers might comport with one’s intuition, they are themselves ridiculous. By necessity, a fact-checker doesn’t check every fact asserted by every candidate or every SuperPAC. The fact-checker, of necessity, focuses on a relative few of the thousands of assertions. So, even if you were to accept that the number of Pinocchios assigned by Kessler is a definitive measure of the statements under scrutiny, the average of all such ratings is hopelessly biased as a measure of the accuracy of the things a candidate has said.

Personally, I strongly favor the new journalistic rage to fact-check. I don’t assume that any fact-checker or all of them put together constitute the final word in accuracy. I don’t even think there is a final word. Many of the assertions under scrutiny are arguable and not susceptible to a simple rating of truth or lie. I don’t really like the idea of assigning a rating to the fact under scrutiny whether by a letter grade, a cutesy number of Pinocchios or an even cutesier rating (this one is by the estimable PolitiFact) that claims to know the difference between a statement that is merely “false” and that is “pants on fire.”

My favorite is the original,, which gives no such ratings. It stays humble about its omniscience, and just gives you the context you need – if you are willing to make even a minimal effort – to get a little perspective on the truthiness of a statement and a little closer to the underlying truth.

The great value of all of them (whether they quantify truthiness or not) is that they are trying to give you accurate information and missing context that will help you see through the efforts to mislead you. Other than doing their job and getting paid and feeling smart, that really is their goal – to help unmislead whoever reads their work. It’s a pretty high calling, really, at least I’ve always thought so, mostly because so many other very smart people are trying so hard and getting paid so much more to mislead you.

A hopeful question

A few weeks ago, the Minneapolis Chapter of the League of Women Voters asked me to give a small talk about fact-checking. The question they asked me to start with is why, in spite of all the good fact-checking that’s being done, the lies and half-truths in the speeches and the TV appearances and the 30-second spots seem to be worse than ever.

The question seemed wonderfully hopeful and optimistic about we, the people. I apologized to the LWV gang for letting my cynicism get the better of me, but I had to confess that the answer to their question seemed to be that the people who were willing to say anything to get elected and the people to whom they paid a lot of money to help them get elected had taken the measure of we, the people, and decided that straight, honest talk was highly overrated as a marketing tool. The whole truth is often highly inconvenient when you are selling a product or a candidate. The candidates and their ad-makers are telling us pretty clearly that We won’t hold a little half-truthiness against them if they tell us what they want to hear.

As a closing line in my little talk to the LWV, I reminded them what their organization had said, in 1988, when they announced that, after having played a major role in sponsoring presidential debates over the previous cycles, they would decline the role in future:

The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates…because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public…

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/05/2012 - 09:55 am.

    It is really quite interesting the parallels between the days when blood-feuds existed between the people of one valley to the next because there was simply no information available to today where blood-feuds exist simply because we can pick-and-choose from the limitless pool of information that is available on the Google-monster.

    Really, it’s enough to make you doubt whether this country is long for the world.

    I understand the cynical political calculation that it was necessary to demonize Obama to the extent necessary to expunge the memory of two failed wars and a collapsed economy, but the reality is that the US will survive the effects of Bush (AND Obama, if you lean that way) and whoever the next president is, if only we move forward. Time’s a wasting. The problems are not going away or getting easier.

  2. Submitted by Nick Magrino on 11/05/2012 - 10:27 am.

    Discuss the ideas

    It’s becoming clearer and clearer that anyone jokester with at least a grade school education can take any fact, figure, or statistic and put it in a sentence in a certain way with a certain framing to prove literally any point–and technically not even be lying.

    We should really be talking about the ideas that underlie the arguments that are being made.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/05/2012 - 11:21 am.


    …to the League of Women Voters for their straightforward and honest statement in 1988. Would that the various television networks, including PBS, would adopt a similar attitude. Doing so might bring about some actual change in the quadrennial charade we’ve again had to endure, made almost infinitely worse by Citizens United. It won’t happen in my lifetime, and maybe never, but I’d love to see us adopt the election regimen practiced by several other (usually parliamentary) societies, which limit the time, expense, and to some degree, the method of political campaigning.

    Michele Bachmann is either too stupid to be able to differentiate between fact and fiction – something I do not believe for even one second – or she’s an outright, almost pathological, liar. That people continue to vote for her in large numbers – as if there were no other genuinely conservative people in the 6th district who might run for Congress – is a strong indication that they are either in denial themselves, or don’t mind that Eric’s characterization of the public as intellectually lazy is apparently accurate. How else to justify raising dozens of millions of dollars to be reelected to what is intended to be a temporary government job. That Bachmann continues to insist – apparently with a straight face – that she’s “not a politician” merely reinforces the fundamental dishonesty of the whole enterprise.

    I certainly agree with Neal and others that the problems we face are not going away, nor are they getting any easier to solve. The year of blathering and bulls****ing that we’ve just endured has done nothing to address those problems, and in the meantime, our ability to do so continues to erode.

  4. Submitted by Rich Crose on 11/05/2012 - 12:01 pm.

    Unconscious Negativity

    It is the negative priming that drives me nuts. If they can’t sell their own ideas, unconsciously associate the opposition’s with evil.

    It would be like Kellogg’s putting out a commercial for Rice Krispies showing people vomiting after eating Cheerios.

    I think we hold elections just to remind ourselves that half of the population is below average.

  5. Submitted by Patrick Ledray on 11/05/2012 - 01:04 pm.

    LWV and Hoodwinking

    I preferred knowing who I was being hoodwinked by…now I can’t seem to remember who brought us the three presidential debates this year. I just remember which candidate seemed to be winking under a hood ….well, you remember.

    • Submitted by Dan Gerber on 11/08/2012 - 05:35 am.


      The Commission on Presidential Debates of course! The Democratic and Republican parties
      took over the debates to control (exclude) who would be in them. The LWV let in third party
      candidates much to the dismay of the big two.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/05/2012 - 04:31 pm.

    Today, as of this time Obama is ahead by a percent in polls of popular vote and predicted to get the required electoral college votes by a comfortable margin. Very close, but in all likelihoods, Obama will win tomorrow.

    BUT, the meme in Republican-biased sites is that Romney is expected to win in an overwhelming manner. How could it be otherwise?

    So what happens in the days after the election?

    When delusion meets daylight.

    Outrage. Talk of stolen elections. Allegations of massive voter fraud. Murmurs of uprisings and worse.

    One of the most hateful things that can be done to America–supporting lies that only serve to divide and diminish democracy.

  7. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/06/2012 - 07:54 am.

    Divided Communities

    You want to know why the candidates can get by with looser and looser talk? Because today, more than ever, people can read commentary that is entirely made up of their side and only their side. It makes it much easier to avoid the context and push back on the silly exaggerations and lies that are common in politics. The campaigns don’t suffer when they go to far so they keep pushing a little further.
    Three times over the weekend I heard the preposterous suggestion that Romney would get rid of contraception. All because he thinks that insurance shouldn’t be mandated to cover it. The people that told me this believed it because all that they have heard for the last umpteen months is that Romney is a devil.
    This bleeds over into real life too. More and more people are thinking that they shouldn’t even consort with those ‘others’. This is a problem and a big one. We really can’t survive as a country if we believe that the other half is irredeemably evil.

  8. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 11/06/2012 - 08:01 am.

    There is no penalty.

    We have television networks that lie daily to boost their ratings, and there is no penalty. We have politicians lying everyday to make them seem far more relevant then they deserve to be, and there is no penalty. Bankers purposely sold products they knew could not be managed by the buyer, and there was no penalty. Lawmakers make laws and frequently get caught trying to circumvent those same laws, and there is no penalty. Romney says Jeep will be sent to China, the Jeep CEO denies it, Romney doubles down, and there is no penalty. Falsehoods are repeated and repeated in the hopes they will become reality in voters minds, and there is no penalty. So called celebrity talking heads lie nearly every time they talk, and there is no penalty. When there are no penalties, that allows political zealots to thrive and we end up with a system driven by ideologues that serves a narrow part of the population rather than a rational system based on compromise that serves everyone.

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