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Real-Time Fact Checking for Political Debates

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Note:  This posting was published before the second 2012 Presidential debate at Hoftsra University

After the Vice-Presidential debate, many of Team Obama’s surrogates were referring to both Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney as liars.  Obviously, most Republicans were upset by this.  What I found amusing about the entire dust-up was that at no time did anyone from Team Obama support their aspersions with a reference to a fact-checking website.  It would have been easy enough.  Directing people to a fact-checking website would have been even more helpful because the site would inform the reader that the candidate in question told a number of lies.  Upon visiting one of the fact-checking websites, Team Obama’s aversion to using such a site to support those nasty allegations becomes obvious:  there are a number of untrue statements from Obama and Biden which are also exposed.

The two most widely-used fact-checking websites are PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org.

The PolitiFact page concerning the Denver Obama – Romney debate can be found here.  The FactCheck analysis of that first Obama – Romney debate can be found here.

As for the Vice-Presidential debate, the PolitiFact page is here and the FactCheck Veep debate page is here.

After learning the truth about what was said during the debates, I immediately imagined a political debate in which three meters – similar to PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter – appear at the bottom of the screen.  The meters would provide readings from three independent fact-checking services.  When a candidate would finish making a factual assertion, the meters would indicate the degree of veracity for that statement.  Upon further consideration, it quickly became obvious that a delay of as much as twenty minutes might be necessary between the time of the statement and the broadcast.  If seven-second delays are used to censor obscene words, why not use a twenty-minute delay to expose lies?  If a twenty-second delay was used to avoid broadcast of a grizzly mishap during Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic skydive, why not use a twenty-minute delay to open a window to the truth?  If the networks can provide audience response meters to the candidates’ statements, they should be able to provide fact-checking readouts in real time.  It might be necessary to delay the broadcast version of the debate as much as twenty minutes later than “live”, and it could get bogged down by delays between questions so that the meter reading from one candidate’s previous statement would not remain on the screen while the opposing candidate would begin speaking in response to the next question. Nevertheless, it would be more interesting and the candidates would have no reason to resort to calling each other liars.

If such a debate format were actually suggested, it would be amusing to watch the responses to the proposal.  I would be willing to bet that all candidates and political parties would oppose it.  Lies are politicians’ tools.  Exposing candidates’ lies during a political debate would be compared to requiring a magician to expose the secrets behind each trick during the course of a performance.

It is up to the voters to insist that political campaigns are not magic.  Some politicians may have a supernatural ability for making enormous amounts of money appear in their campaign accounts, but the truth of what these candidates say should not be shrouded in mystery.  Beyond that, viewers should not be required to take notes and then look up each fact on a website to determine whether a politician is lying.  The use of three different, independent fact-checking services would provide a more objective measure of truth-telling.

Here’s hoping that the 2016 election campaign will involve the use of real-time fact checking during the debates.  We might find ourselves watching candidates who have more integrity than the characters we have been watching during the current campaign cycle.


 

Lie-orama

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We have never experienced a Presidential campaign with more fact-checking than what we are seeing during the current cycle.  The well-timed release of a popular new book by Janine Driver entitled, You Can’t Lie to Me might be one of the reasons why this is happening.  Fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact and FactCheck have been overflowing with reports of exaggerations, half-truths and flat-out lies by the candidates and their surrogates.

PolitiFact’s roots at the Tampa Bay Times made it particularly well-situated to expose the false claims made during speeches at the Republican Convention.  One good example was the “Pants on Fire” rating given to a remark by South Dakota Senator John Thune, who claimed that the Obama administration proposed banning farm kids from doing basic chores.

Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech drew instant criticism from a number of news outlets.  I quickly felt vindicated for my last posting, which asserted that Romney made a mistake by selecting Ryan, rather than Ohio Senator Rob Portman, as his running mate.  FactCheck provided this breakdown of the misrepresentations in Ryan’s speech:

Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention contained several false claims and misleading statements.  Delegates cheered as the vice presidential nominee:

  • Accused President Obama’s health care law of funneling money away from Medicare “at the expense of the elderly.”  In fact, Medicare’s chief actuary says the law “substantially improves” the system’s finances, and Ryan himself has embraced the same savings.
  • Accused Obama of doing “exactly nothing” about recommendations of a bipartisan deficit commission — which Ryan himself helped scuttle.
  • Claimed the American people were “cut out” of stimulus spending.  Actually, more than a quarter of all stimulus dollars went for tax relief for workers.
  • Faulted Obama for failing to deliver a 2008 campaign promise to keep a Wisconsin plant open.  It closed less than a month before Obama took office.
  • Blamed Obama for the loss of a AAA credit rating for the U.S.  Actually, Standard & Poor’s blamed the downgrade on the uncompromising stands of both Republicans and Democrats.

If the widespread criticism of the veracity of Ryan’s speech had not been bad enough, Runner’s World saw fit to bust Ryan for making a false claim that he once ran a marathon in less than three hours.  In reality, it took him just over four hours.

At the conclusion of FoxNewsapalooza, the Media Matters website posted an analysis of how Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech was a smorgasbord of falsehoods concocted by bloviators from the right-wing media.

Glenn Kessler, who writes The Fact Checker blog for The Washington Post, suggested that the Left has been overreacting to the rhetoric from the Republican Convention:

Ultimately, convention speeches are about making the argument for your team.  We should fully expect politicians to make their case using facts and figures that either tilt positive about their accomplishment – or negative about their opponents.  As the fact-checking business has blossomed in the news media, it has been increasingly hard for politicians to get away with such truth-shading without someone noticing.

Both political parties will stretch the truth if they believe it will advance their political interests.  It’s been a rough campaign so far, but the GOP convention that just ended was strictly in the mainstream for such party celebrations.

As the Democratic Convention approaches, a good deal of attention has been focused on PolitiFact’s Obameter, which measures how well Obama has delivered on his campaign promises.  PolitiFact’s most recent status report offered this analysis:

Our scorecard shows Obama kept 37 percent of his promises.  He brought the war in Iraq to a close and finally achieved the Democratic dream of a universal health care program.  When the United States had Osama bin Laden in its sights, Obama issued the order to kill.

Sixteen percent are rated Broken, often because they hit a brick wall in Congress.  Global warming legislation passed the House but died in the Senate.  He didn’t even push for comprehensive immigration reform.  His program to help homeowners facing foreclosure didn’t even meet its own benchmarks. (PolitiFact rates campaign promises based on outcomes, not intentions.)

With four months left in Obama’s term, PolitiFact has rated Obama’s remaining promises Compromise (14 percent), Stalled (10 percent) or In the Works (22 percent).

One of the Obama campaign’s negative ads concerning Romney’s economic record as Governor of Massachusetts drew some criticism from FactCheck:

The ad claims that Romney raised taxes on the middle class.  It’s true that Romney imposed a number of fees, but none of them targeted middle-income persons.  Also, Romney proposed cutting the state income tax three times – a measure that would have resulted in tax cuts for all taxpayers – but he was rebuffed every time by the state’s Democratic Legislature.

I suspect that the Obama campaign has a secret plan in the works to avoid the scrutiny of fact-checkers during their convention.  Their plan to have John Kerry speak is actually part of a plot to cause the fact-checkers to fall asleep.  Once “Operation Snoozeboat” is complete, the speakers who follow Kerry will be able to make the wildest claims imaginable – and get away with it!