‘Post-truth politics’. The expression has an undeniable ring to it. Fusing a modish anti-politics sentiment with pleasingly Orwellian overtones, the phrase has come to symbolize the pessimism and contempt that has permeated much of the media commentary during the lead-up to today’s Presidential election. Orwell himself said that in times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act; whether or not the 2012 campaign ought to be castigated as being especially mendacious, the central role of websites such as FactCheck and PolitiFact suggests an urge to scythe through the dense undergrowth of shrill partisanship in search of something that is empirically, verifiably, irreducibly ‘true’.
Idealistic, to be sure, but not easy. Quite apart from the fact that since time immemorial politics has been an unscrupulous game played by the usual ragbag of idealists, rogues and egomaniacs, the whole question of political ‘truth’ is notoriously nebulous – and by no means a modern phenomenon. ‘There seem to me to be very few facts, at least ascertainable facts, in politics’, according to nineteenth-century PM Sir Robert Peel, the force of which is immediately apparent when one tries to engage with any political argument. The Columbia Journalism Review gives some latter-day examples: ‘We will have to raise taxes to keep Medicare solvent.’ ‘Teachers’ unions are a major obstacle to improving our education system.’ ‘Reinstituting Glass-Steagall would prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.’ Though seemingly clear-cut, these are contentious statements that are fundamentally subject to debate; while it is occasionally possible to identify some egregious out-and-out lie, the truth is often less satisfying, and more complex, than the adversarial confrontations on the stump might suggest.
That is not to say that politicians don’t lie: they do, frequently, whether it be in the form of misrepresentation, exaggeration, omission or deliberate distortion. What has changed, though, is less to do with the nature of politics or those who practice it, and far more about the speed and ease with which information may be accessed and communication facilitated by a large sections of the populace. The greatest compliment that can be paid to the Internet is that it enfranchises those who may have been previously excluded from the democratic process. More savvy, skeptical and worldly-wise than their downtrodden predecessors, and far less trusting and deferential to authority, the modern electorate doesn’t take any crap from anyone any more. It is easy, therefore, to see how popular media narratives such as ‘post-truth’ might subsequently gain significant traction. As such, sites like FactCheck must pursue ‘the truth’ in the best traditions of prosecutorial investigative journalism, but at the same time be realistic about the necessarily slippery and intangible nature of political ‘facts’. As The New York Times’s David Leonhardt put it in an interview, is for the ‘analysis of the legitimacy of political claims’ to be ‘at the core of what we do’. The core principles of journalism, like those of politics, don’t really change; it is simply the practicalities and the process of achieving its aims that must continually evolve.