Well everybody, at long last we’re back in it, the most exciting season that sports have to offer. No, no, I’m not referring to the return of the NFL. This thing is more special, happening only once every four years. The Olympics? No, those ended in August! I’m talking about presidential debate season, which began last Monday with a pitched duel between Democrat and Republican candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, respectively. Just like any great sporting event, the debate offered tons of juicy footage ripe to be broken down in the film room for future gameplans, and provided hours’ worth of commentary for talking heads to drone on about on cable news panel shows. And of course, what kind of spectacle would it have been without a little controversy?
I’m not sure it’s possible for Clinton or Trump to breathe any more without somebody calling it a scandal, but the one that was at the forefront of this debate was ostensibly beyond either of the candidates individually. It focused on a simple question: should the moderator of a debate (or the network/organization showcasing or hosting it) be responsible for stepping in to factcheck the candidates?
This issue is not new, not even to the forefront of discussion in a presidential election. In 2012, during a presidential debate between incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, moderator Candy Crowley stepped into correct Romney when he asserted that President Obama had taken two weeks to call the September 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya an act of terror. Opinions on Crowley’s decision to become a part of the discussion varied widely; some praised her rebuking of Romney’s supposedly factually incorrect revisionist history while others saw her as violating her journalistic integrity by acting biased and taking Obama’s side. As can be expected, these thoughts on the matter were split fairly evenly down party lines, with Democrats lining up in support of Crowley and Republicans against her. So far, the same dynamic has been true in the 2016 election cycle.
On Sunday morning, the day before the debate, Clinton running mate Tim Kaine called on the media to fact check Trump, saying that it was “unfair” for his candidate to have to make her own case while simultaneously acting as a “traffic cop” for her opponent’s lies. Conservative pundits on the right, meanwhile, insist that being able to rebut and debate opposing viewpoints is a vital quality in a presidential candidate.
Without any context, an unbiased observer would likely side with the Democrats on this issue, as their stance seems based on transparency and an effort to tell the truth and educate the populace. It would appear that they have nothing to hide by insisting that everything said in a debate be fact checked; meanwhile, when the other side asks for the license to say what they want without fear of a third-party interjection, it would seem to open up an obvious channel for misinformation. However, the reality of the situation (like always) is that it’s not such a black and white issue.
What Republicans fear in a fact checker is actually something different than having their policies exposed as outright lies, because believe it or not the party made up of more than just a bunch of charlatans peddling snake-oil ideas to the American public. Certainly some right-wing viewpoints are based on distorted data, but they don’t have a monopoly on this phenomenon; such is the case for the left and center as well. Almost nothing discussed in a geopolitical context is empirically factual in the same way that mathematical and scientific principles are. In most contexts, what each side labels as a “fact” is merely a single-minded way of looking at a particular piece of information. For instance, the left insists that a higher minimum wage will result in greater economic prosperity for the middle class because they can point to a situation, without context, where that was indeed the result. Does it matter that the right can point to another non-contextual situation where the opposite was true? No, each side simply insists that it is right. So what is it that explains the GOP’s seemingly irrational fear of fact-checking?
The answer is one that is used so much by Republicans that it’s starting to become a boy-who-cried-wolf situation: liberal media bias. It’s not that they are afraid of having lies exposed on the whole, it’s that they believe their opponent’s lies will be omitted in favor of their own, or even worse, that the media will actually manufacture dishonesty when there is none. At this point, most liberal people who are reading this will probably scoff and insist that I’m part of the problem with political division in this country by giving a voice to those conspiracy nuts on the left. But liberal media bias is no bogeyman. Liberal news outlets (CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, etc.) make up a far greater market share of the country’s media industry than do their conservative counterparts, and that is before taking into account the largely liberal leanings of the entertainment and sports industries. Politifact, the most popular fact-checking website on the internet, is owned by the Tampa Bay Times, which endorsed Hillary Clinton for president all the way back in February. In addition, their consistency and fairness in evaluating the statements of political figures has been called into question by numerous pundits, even some liberal ones like Rachel Maddow. Amongst their most notable gaffes: Clinton’s statement that Bernie Sanders called President Obama “weak” and “a disappointment” being rated as “Half True” just because he had once expressed criticism that didn’t even use those words; and Donald Trump’s statement that most Syrian migrants are men being rated “False” even though by the United Nation’s own estimates, this is true for those coming into Europe and the United States.
We can use a more specific debate-related example as well, looking back to the 2012 presidential debate moderated by Crowley. Part of the reason why her interrupting of Romney became such a hot-button issue was that Obama had not unequivocally called the Benghazi attack a coordinated terrorist act as she (and he) insisted that he did, only saying non-specifically during his Rose Garden speech that “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.” You can insist all you want that the media gives everyone a fair shake, but there exists plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Truthfully (if I can use such a word in this article), humans are not machines and will naturally be subject to all sorts of biases and prejudices. True objectivity, the kind that we demand out of our journalists, is really something that is utterly impossible to achieve, so maybe we should stop pretending that there are any people out there who exhibit it. That doesn’t mean that journalists should stop attempting to cover the news in as fair and balanced a way as possible, but that they shouldn’t presume to tell us what is true or not regarding political issues. Leave that judgment up to the American people. So moderators, feel free in the future to hop in if one of the candidates insists that the Earth is flat or that 2+2=5. But for just about everything else, I’m inclined to ask that you just do your job and ask the questions.