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Politics & Policy

The Debate over Fact-Checking the Debate

A lot of liberals have been clamoring for Lester Holt to “fact check” Trump during the debate; that is, to say that he is lying when he lies, or at least to point out when something he is saying is not true. Nicholas Kristof made the case for such fact-checking in his weekend New York Times column.

I can’t see any valid objection in principle to a journalist’s trying to correct the record in real time—correcting politician’s (and other people’s, including journalists’) remarks is a major part of the job. But the argument for more aggressive moderating overestimates the benefits and underestimates the practical problems of that model.

First: It is very hard to do in real time. Kristof himself admits that the most high-profile example we have of an attempt at fact-checking by a moderator was ill-considered. (“In a 2012 presidential debate, the moderator Candy Crowley backed President Obama when Mitt Romney accused him of not having promptly called the Benghazi attacks terrorism. In fact, the point was ambiguous — Obama had used the phrase ‘acts of terror’ but wasn’t clearly referring to Benghazi.”) The episode should push Holt toward caution: He shouldn’t try to fact check unless absolutely sure that the claim he is challenging is false.

Second: While it is true that a fact-check in the middle of the proceedings will have a bigger effect than a fact-check after it’s over, the second kind of fact-check can still have a pretty big effect. If Trump tells whoppers tonight and the press spends a few days calling him on it, it will tend to weaken any positive effect or strengthen any negative effect that the night has for him. Instant coverage of Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican convention was mostly positive, but turned damaging overnight once plagiarism was detected.

Third: The conventions of contemporary fact-checking create a lot of room for liberal bias to run free. Media “fact checkers” have to choose which claims to dissect. They have frequently decided to zing politicians for making factually correct but misleading statements, and to venture judgments about the seriousness of the offenses made. Given the liberal tilt of political journalists, the results are predictable: e.g., Mitt Romney is “fact checked” for saying that Obamacare’s Medicare board involves rationing while John Kerry gets a pass for saying that George W. Bush has “banned” stem-cell research.

Fourth: The media’s bias and its inability to police its expression have reduced its credibility with the public, which reduces the impact of any fact-checking of the debate (either during or after it).

It may well be that Trump is more dishonest than Clinton. My own impression is that Clinton tells lies only when it really counts, and that Trump is more capable of believing anything that he happens to be saying at the moment. But our most influential political journalists have repeatedly, and without great justification, argued that Republican presidential candidates are less honest than Democratic ones. So people have to some extent tuned them out.

Caveat moderator. 

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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