American journalists take pride in policing political debates for inaccuracies. During the last few election cycles, many news outlets have institutionalized a “factchecking” feature that grades politicians’ veracity during campaigns. Over the last few months, a number of journalists have suggested that John McCain is running a particularly dishonest and dishonorable campaign and that journalists should not allow the desire to be even-handed keep them from saying so.
That judgment, by our lights, tells us more about journalists’ political inclinations than about the campaigns. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate has, until recently, been much less honest than the other, and neither has offended against the truth egregiously by historical standards. Nothing in this campaign, for example, has risen to the level of the Democrats’ concerted efforts during 2004 to convince young people that a reelected President Bush would reinstate the draft.
During Thursday night’s vice-presidential debate, however, a flood of misstatements came from Senator Joe Biden’s lips. So many and so frequent were his untruths that the McCain campaign could not keep up with them all.
Biden said that McCain wanted to give oil companies a special tax break worth billions; in truth, they would merely benefit from a tax cut for all corporations. He said that Obama and he had each opposed the Bush administration on having elections in Palestine. Neither had. He denied saying that he opposed “clean coal”; he said it. He said McCain was alone among Republicans in voting against a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; the vast majority of Republican senators in fact voted with McCain. As President Ford “liberated” eastern Europe, so Biden kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon — at least in his mind. And on, and on.
Gov. Palin made misstatements, too. But it would be a spurious even-handedness that treated the debaters as equally at fault. And indeed the fact-checkers at factcheck.org, the Washington Post, and the New York Times did not do so: They found fault with Gov. Palin more often. The Times, for example, went after her claim to have cut taxes as mayor of Wasilla: She did not point out that she raised some taxes or that some residents now complain about traffic congestion.
It would be nice to have a press that pointed out when politicians got facts wrong, especially if it could be trusted to put the issues in context and judge relative degrees of honesty. Misstatements, intentional or otherwise, distort the public debate, after all. Our journalists cannot be trusted to do this vital work, unfortunately, and their fact-checkers compound the distortion of our debate rather than correct it.