We are all fact-checkers now.
For years, Americans' political press has been stuck in a fact-free model of neutrality, often covering even the most obvious lies as "one side" of a dispute. From Swift Boats and global warming to Iraq's nonexistent WMDs, this coverage shrouds even rudimentary empirical claims in a fog of truthiness. But that may be changing.
As this year's presidential campaign enters the homestretch after Labor Day, a new, aggressive model of fact-checking appears to be taking root. It is fast, aggressive and sometimes even outraged about falsehoods on the campaign trail.
Take Paul Ryan's convention address last week. Ryan offered several misleading statements and a few obvious lies -- falsehoods that he had to know were false -- although there's nothing new about politicians lying. Just look at Ryan's fellow running mates: Sarah Palin lied about the Bridge to Nowhere in her convention address, for example, while during a nationally televised debate, Dick Cheney falsely said he had never met John Edwards, and Edwards falsely charged that the Bush administration lobbied to cut combat pay. They faced mild corrections and very little collateral damage for those high-profile statements.
This time, however, reporters did not let Ryan off the hook by noncommittally airing criticism ("opponents disagreed with his claims"), or reducing corrections to one of those stand-alone sidebars evaluating distortions ("three Pinocchios for the deficit commission history"). Instead, several authoritative accounts of Ryan's address decided that his falsehoods were a key part of the news Ryan made, as these headlines show:
Mr. Ryan's Misleading Speech (Washington Post)
Deficit Vow Lacks Specifics (A.P.)
Opinionated commenters were even harsher, focusing more on factual failure than ideological differences. Taken together, the overwhelming verdict on Ryan's speech was that he should not be believed. (By one online measurement, on the day after the speech, the most widely cited convention articles led with the falsehoods.)
The Ryan-Romney campaign's misleading welfare ads have drawn similar media condemnation. Ditto for the false claims that Obama raised taxes on middle-class Americans and, more darkly, the recurring, false suggestion that he was born abroad.
This newfound vigor for reporting facts over false equivalency -- the very "truth vigilantism" that a New York Times public editor once presented as an optional challenge for today's press -- looks like a mainstay on the campaign trail.
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This article first appeared on the site of IJNet’s partner, PBS MediaShift's Idea Lab, a group weblog by innovators who are reinventing community news for the Digital Age. Each author won a grant in the Knight News Challenge to help fund a startup idea or to blog on a topic related to reshaping community news. The complete article is translated in full into IJNet’s six other languages with permission.
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