Wednesday night’s speech by U.S. Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan (if that is in fact his name) brought a slippery specimen known as the truth under the media’s microscope.
The Wisconsin native’s pants were found to be on fire even before he stepped off the stage, by journalists investigating his claims about President Obama's handling of several issues including the federal deficit, Medicare, the closure of a General Motors plant in his hometown.
Cries of foul play came from news sources left, right, and British as The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Associated Press, The Guardian, The Week, and many others found “factual shortcuts,” “striking and demonstrably misleading elements,” “prevarications” and “pretty heavy inaccuracies” in Ryan’s speech.
And then came the counterpunches. Painting fact-checkers as “Obama-worshipping propagandists,” Breitbart’s John Nolte wrote: “This was undoubtedly pre-planned and organized between Team Obama and his Media Palace Guards.” “It was achingly obvious what they were up to,” he continued, “this wasn't about journalism but rather an act of naked and desperate partisanship.”
While this last assertion is factually false— in a column for the decidedly right-wing Fox News, Sally Kohn wrote that Ryan was evidently attempting to "set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech"— there is an element of truth to it. Namely, that real-time fact-checking by individual news sources in a fragmented media landscape can quickly descend into a loud and unproductive “he said/she said” shrieking match.
Pointing out politicians' inaccuracies, hypocrisies, and bold-faced lies is one of the indispensible roles that a vibrant, independent press plays in a democratic system. However, with the proliferation and polarization of news sources, it is getting more difficult for voters to make rational choices about which ones are trustworthy, let alone to hear themselves think above the din.
Complicating matters further is the fact that "truth" is a three-dimensional concept. There is such a thing as a partial truth, or a statement that is true in one context but not another, and as factions of an increasingly partisan news machine tussle over semantics, getting a 360-degree view of a politician’s platform becomes nearly impossible.
This is where the real neutrals need to come in. Not so-called neutral news organizations that attempt to present their lens as objective; rather, a robust system powered by machines and disinterested humans (ideally from another country) that, using a central database of up-to-date political information, is tasked with evaluating the degree of veracity in political statements. Such a system could serve as a reference point for fact-checking journalists and citizens alike.
Sites such as PolitiFact and FactCheck.org are already working toward such a goal. According to Nieman Lab, PolitiFact has “modernized and mainstreamed the old art of fact-checking,” and the director of FactCheck.org, Brooks Jackson, was reportedly a “pioneer of modern political fact-checking for CNN in the 1990s.”
And there are new players in the pipeline: The Washington Post’s “TruthTeller” project has received funding from the Knight Foundation to create something like an “annotation layer” on political assertions, and Dan Schultz, an MIT Media Lab grad and the Knight-Mozilla fellow at the Boston Globe, is working on a web browser plug-in known as Truth Goggles, which draws on PolitiFact’s database of more than 6,000 fact-checked claims to draw a reader's attention to potentially dubious statements in the article he or she is reading online.
The systems that exist thus far do not employ a universal measure for falsehoods: PolitiFact has a six-point scale called the Truth-O-Meter upon which it rates claims; Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post awards Pinnochios for lies (these have perversely become a badge of honour for some politicians); FactCheck.org refuses to “reduce its findings to a simple measurement,” and Truth Goggles eschews red for false and green for true in favour of yellow highlighting backed up with facts.
Speaking to Nieman Lab about the Truth Goggles project, Bill Adair, the Editor of PolitiFact, said: “the great challenge in political journalism, to use a different eyewear metaphor, [is that] people see things through their own partisan prisms.”
“Even if you are a nonpartisan fact-checker, you’re going to anger one or both sides, and that’s the nature of this disruptive form of journalism. And at a time when people are going into echo chambers for their information, it can be a challenge," he said. "I don’t think what we’re doing is telling people what to think. We’re just trying to [give] them information to consider.”
Imagine if Truth Goggles were able to identify paraphrased text (that is currently a major flaw in the software), and then joined forces with TruthTeller and could draw from the combined and standardized databases of PolitiFact, FactCheck, and others. The result would surely be thousands of journalists and bloggers freed from tiptoeing and hairpulling, a better-informed electorate, and politicians who at least pretended to want to tell the truth.
Of course, it will take a few election cycles for this new system to get up and running, and for all parties to trust its objectivity... so until then, pop some popcorn, and get ready for the Democratic Convention next week. Judging by John Nolte's threat of #War at the end fo his Breitbart piece, it promises to be a doozie.
Sources: GigaOM, Nieman Lab (1) (2), The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Associated Press, The Guardian, The Week, The New Republic, New York Magazine, Brietbart (1) (2)
Image courtesy of bre pettis via Flickr Creative Commons