The impossible job of the truth police

October 18, 2004

The clamor of the 2004 presidential campaigns has reawakened the idea that the news media should devote energy not just to reporting the ferocious exchange of claims and denials, but to refereeing it.

With so much rhetoric based on distortion and falsehood, why not? As a result we’re seeing more effort going into evaluating candidate statements for their truthfulness and passing along the results. Added to the tired formula of stenographic reporting – “she said, he said”— is a third element: “we say.” The hope is that exposure will shame candidates into respecting the facts.

For journalists, at issue is a tradition of objectivity that has been tottering for half a century, certainly since the press made Sen. Joseph McCarthy a huge celebrity for slandering large numbers of fellow citizens. Journalistic convention permitted, even demanded, that his hysterical allegations of disloyalty be reported straight. Even if reporters disbelieved what he said, their job was to report the news, and it was news that McCarthy had said it.

A lot of people got hurt, and encouraging journalists to pause before they pass along assertions they know, or suspect, are false seems like a good thing.

But there are problems with that. There’s the traditionalist concern that the news media — already under heated scrutiny for signs of favoritism — would become an official party to electoral debate. Who would be left to give a straight-up account of the claims and counter-claims that are the stuff of partisan political discourse?

Still, it’s hard to argue that the public is well-served by honest accounts of dishonest assertions. How can you know whether the candidate who calls his opponent a liar isn’t lying himself? Who’s going to blow the whistle?

There’s a bigger problem, the most sobering lesson of this campaign. It’s that lies, even when exposed, work. Indeed, we’re seeing a diabolical paradox: That exposing the lie enables it to work.

The anti-Bush people were so energized by “Fahrenheit 911,” with its vicious depiction of a venal and conniving First Family, that they swallowed its claims as true. Maybe some were. But does anybody really believe that the Bushes were so corrupted by their business ties to the Saudis that the president redeployed military from Afghanistan to Iraq to avoid harming a personal benefactor named Osama bin Laden?

That film took heat for its dubious veracity, and that critique became central to the outsized coverage the film got in the media. Consequently, when the smoke cleared, “Fahrenheit 911” was established as a campaign document. A piece of cinematic propaganda had been ratified by being refuted.

It was answered by the Swift Boat contingent’s anti-Kerry calumnies, again amplified and injected into mainstream discourse by the media — in the very course of debunking their truthfulness.

It isn’t just that a lie refuted is a lie repeated. Apparently we’ve now entered an era where the liar expects to be called on the lie – and wants to be.

Take Dick Cheney’s ridiculous assertion that he never met John Edwards before their vice presidential debate. Cheney’s a smart guy with the world’s best support staff. They planned to use this zinger. They had to know it wasn’t true. The next day’s papers had photos proving it.

But Cheney’s point was that Edwards was a legislative lightweight, not one of the Capitol Hill agenda-setters that even he would have had to deal with. A picture of them at a congressional prayer breakfast years ago did nothing but remake Cheney’s point. So the lie was well worth it.

Or consider John Kerry’s frequent reference to the $200 billion cost of the Iraq war. Kerry has an awesome command of policy facts. If the current bill is $140 billion, he knows that. Every time he says it’s half-again as costly, he knows he’ll be called on it.

So be it. Each time he’s challenged on that falsehood, the challenge draws attention to the continuing cost of a war that he insists deft statesmanship could have avoided. Again, the lie is worth it.

So we’re left concluding that the zeal of the media in trying to referee fact-based debate has been turned into a practice that is more likely to reward deceit than to deter it.

The only real check is not to vote for liars. It’d be nice to think that was still an option.

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