The Corner

Politics & Policy

Moderators Are Awful at Fact-Checking — Especially Things Like the Unemployment Rate

The head of the presidential debate commission caught flak yesterday for her comments on CNN about why she doesn’t think the debate moderators should call out Trump and Clinton over factual inaccuracies:

The question was prompted by Democrats’ demands for presidential-debate moderators to correct candidates’ false statements during the debate itself. This is an awful idea for a number of reasons, but a decent one is right in the debate commissioner’s response.

Liberal Twitter was all a-huff about how the commissioner cites the unemployment rate as an area where the facts are up for debate — har har, they say, you know there literally is an official unemployment rate the government publishes, right?

Except anyone smart saying this is being remarkably coy: People of good faith and serious economic training debate about whether the “official” unemployment rate is a good representation of the unemployment rate all the time!

How absurd is it to complain about the commissioner’s statement here? Say Trump says something along the lines of! “the real unemployment rate is much higher than the government tells you.”

This might well be true — although it all depends on what you mean by the real unemployment rate. There is zero basis for believing that the government is engaged in some conspiracy to make the numbers look better than they are, which is one reading of Trump’s statement, but another reading is that he’s saying the “official unemployment rate” — the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ U-3 rate — suggests our economy is relatively strong, which is misleading since many other measures suggest it’s not. This would be a position Trump shares with a huge swath of people, including Bernie Sanders, Janet Yellen (sometimes), and Ben Bernanke.

The people braying for fact-checking in debates are thus asking for moderators to attempt, in real time, to adjudicate disputes that divide Ph.D. economists and of course, a whole range of other such disputes on which the respective experts — trade economists, classification experts, presidential historians, whatever — often don’t agree.

Political journalists are Awful. At. This.

Meanwhile, we’re expecting people to adjudicate these tough questions in real time: Candy Crowley is an accomplished foreign policy reporter, but of course she couldn’t remember exactly what President Obama said about the Benghazi attacks on September 13. She shouldn’t have tried. And even where, say, experts do agree or the facts are clear and easily recalled, there’s no way we can all agree on which assertions are important or false enough to deserve fact-checking.

One counterweight to all of these criticisms is that candidates’ misleading statements are predictable — they tend to have delivered them on the campaign trail many times before. Even so, you’d have to believe that one of the moderators is best off using his precious time not to ask substantive questions but to do what the other candidate is supposed to do — respond to assertions made by one’s opponent.

At a time when trust in media is at low ebb, it’s incredible to claim that moderators should be engaging in such a fraught task rather than just, you know, trying to moderate a good debate.

Patrick Brennan was a senior communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration and is former opinion editor of National Review Online.

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