All politicians lie, but not all politicians lie so much you can’t believe a word they say.
That latter category, however, has swelled enormously in the Trump era. And a hell of a lot of them are running for office in November.
News organizations are understandably loath to appear partisan. And they are evidently unwilling to assert, as they should, that Republican victories in November will bring chaos in the short run and the erosion if not end of American democracy in the longer run.
But that doesn’t mean they should tolerate pathological liars and abet their spread of disinformation. They owe it to their audience to distinguish between truth and lies.
It used to be that the news industry’s answer to lying politicians was “fact checks.” The idea was that a news organization would apply evidence-based standards to various assertions, judge them correct or incorrect, and an incorrect verdict would serve as incentive for the politicians to correct themselves and a warning to voters.
As I wrote here, there are at least five different ways fact-checking has failed miserably. The biggest problem is that “fact-checkers” go to extreme lengths to apportion their negative verdicts to both sides, thereby undermining the obvious conclusion that one party lies a hell of a lot more than the other.
Meanwhile, political reporters keep quoting “both sides” and sort of vaguely hoping that their readers will understand who the liars are. Bad assumption.
So, unless you are a news organization leader who thinks you are doing a fabulous job of creating an informed electorate and should just keep doing what you do, it’s clear that political journalists need to come up with something different.
My suggestion is that every news organization in America identify defining assertions from each candidate they cover, assess their accuracy, then let the readers know, overall, who’s credible and who isn’t – ideally with an actual credibility meter.
Who can be trusted to tell you, the voters, the truth? And who can’t?
Some of this will require a lot of work. But journalists everywhere have a leg up thanks to data collected by the Washington Post and FiveThirtyEight of all the election deniers running for office. (The New York Times has a database, too, but as of this writing apparently isn’t confident enough in it to share.)
The accompanying articles, while unstinting in their analysis, nevertheless fell short because they neglected to explain why denying the election is so important.
It’s important because these people are liars. They can’t be trusted. They can’t be trusted in what they say. They can’t be trusted in what they do. In particular, they can’t be trusted to leave office if they lose.
Get that? They can’t be trusted not to seize power against the will of the voters. That’s major. That’s not a side issue. That should be in the lead of every news article about them, spelled out.
And while that’s a great litmus test for credibility, it’s not the only one.
Another good one is if they engage in the rhetoric of “replacement theory.” If they do, they’re both liars and racists. That one’s not hard, either.
MNBC blogger Steve Benen wrote an excellent post last week about how “leading Republicans have narrowed their focus to a handful of oft-repeated lines of attack” that are demonstrably false.
There’s the lie about the “army of 87,000 IRS agents that Democrats enlisted to spy on your bank accounts.” Deceptive and inflammatory.
There’s the lie that “Merrick Garland treated parents who attend school board meetings as ‘domestic terrorists.’” Deceptive an inflammatory.
I would add that claiming that the border is “open” is incredibly deceptive and inflammatory, as are so many other mythologies of the right, ranging from the destruction of major cities by Black Lives Matter to the use of kitty litter in classrooms for students who identify as “furry”.
The problem with almost all the political reporting of the last six years is that it doesn’t hold liars accountable. Maybe there’s an article or a “fact check” here and there. But day in and day out, our top news organizations continue to treat these liars as if they are operating in good faith, instead of insisting on consequences for their lies.
What matters most is not whether one specific comment or number is strictly accurate (see, e.g. “fact checks”), but whether the campaign, as a rule, is being deceptive.
So what I want to see on the home page of every news organization covering any of the political races in November is a “credibility meter” for each candidate. That’s consequences.
And to encourage candidates to tell the truth, news organizations could offer to update the meter regularly.
Of course it’s normal for politicians to engage in some hyperbole, play fast and loose with statistics, make errors in their favor, and make promises they can’t keep. But the question should be: Are their standard talking points fundamentally honest or deceptive? Are their depictions of their opponents accurate, somewhat accurate, or complete fiction? Are their campaigns fundamentally based in reality?
And when the inevitable accusations of partisan bias stream in, newsroom leaders have a perfect response, as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen so eloquently tweeted:
The only variation would be to say that we hold everyone to the same standard: the truth.