“Americans say Obama’s ads are more honest, but expect both sides to lie, Esquire/Yahoo poll finds”

Yahoo News reports.

My new paper on whether there is a constitutional right to lie in campaigns and elections begins:

Election 2012 may well go down in history as the “4 Pinocchios Election.” It is perhaps no coincidence that the current election season has seen both a rise in the amount of arguably false campaign speech and the proliferation of journalistic “fact checkers” who regularly rate statements made by candidates and campaigns. Journalistic ratings such as Politifact’s “Truth-o-meter” rank candidate statements from from “true” and “mostly true” to “false” and even “pants on fire.” The Washington Post rating system, which relies upon the judgment of its fact checker, Glenn Kessler, uses 1 to 4 “Pinocchios” for false statements. The granddaddy of fact checking groups, Factcheck.org, while avoiding a rating system, offers analysis which regularly describes controversial campaign claims as “false” or “wrong.

Both the Romney and Obama presidential campaigns have received stinging ratings from fact checkers. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, gave the Obama campaign “4 Pinocchios” for claiming that Mitt Romney, while working at Bain Capital, “outsourced” jobs and was a “corporate raider.” Romney’s campaign similarly got “4 Pinocchios” for claiming there was an “Obama plan” to weaken federal welfare law and issue welfare checks to people who do not work.”

Romney’s campaign has seemed to bear more of the brunt from the fact-checking enterprise.  Based solely upon Kessler’s subjective assessment of truth, by mid-September 2012 the Washington Post fact checker rated Romney ads and statements with an average of 2.33 Pinocchios to Obama’s 1.96. Perhaps the greatest media attack on the truthfulness of Romney’s campaign came in response to the acceptance speech of Romney’s running-mate, Representative Paul Ryan, which the New York Times described as containing “a number of questionable or misleading claims.”

Whether campaigns are resorting to lies and distortion more often than in previous elections, and if so why they are doing so, are interesting questions beyond that which I can explore in this brief Article. False and misleading speech may be increasing thanks to the proliferation of the Internet and a decline in uniform trustworthy sources of news, such as the national news networks and major newspapers. Political polarization also may play a role, with partisans egged on to believe unsupported claims by the modern day partisan press, in the form of FOX News, MSNBC, and liberal and conservative blogs and websites.

Fact check operations also are controversial to journalists, who have always been in the business of resolving conflicting factual claims as part of the news gathering process. Some journalists take issue with the effectiveness of fact checkers. Media critic Jack Shafer declares, “Give [candidates] a million billion Pinocchios and they’ll still not behave.” Others defend the “fact check” process but see them losing their effectiveness.

In 2012, fact checking itself came under attack from the right, with some advancing the claim that fact checkers are a biased part of the “liberal media.”Neil Newhouse, the Romney campaign’s pollster, proclaimed that “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” It was an odd turn to see conservatives seeming to embrace a kind of post-modern relativism in which truth is now in the eyes of the beholder.

In this highly charged partisan atmosphere, in which each side cannot agree upon the basic facts, mudslinging has become terribly common, and the media are not able to meaningfully curb candidates’ lies and distortions, it is tempting to consider federal and strengthened state legislation to deter and punish false campaign speech. Why not let courts or commissions sort out truth from fiction? Indeed, a number of states already have laws in place which provide some government sanction for false campaign speech.

Share this: