On CNN last night, as a tired-looking David Gergen was decrying, in a dull monotone, his assessment of the second presidential debate as “flat at times,” a black-and-white chyron—itself dull against the flashy red-and-blue graphics splashed across the rest of the screen—popped up beneath him. “FACT:” it said, in all caps. “Half of the debate was about the economy; other domestic issues took up 15 minutes; international issues took up 30 minutes.”
As Campbell Brown discussed the implications, for both candidates, of the town hall-style format of the debate, another chyron popped up: “FACT: Neither candidate was willing to agree with moderator Tom Brokaw that the economy would necessarily get worse before it gets better.”
As Jeff Toobin talked about the odd “that one” moment, another chyron—this one a deep red, with white font—appeared: “FACT: Mr. McCain didn’t want to specify a 1-2-3 order for his priorities, insisting he would work on energy, health care, and entitlement reform simultaneously.”
As John King gave his analysis of the candidates’ styles in discussing the economy, a blue chryon (white font) popped up: “FACT: Obama listed his top priorities as energy independence, health care and education.”
Well. Riveting. The old facts-as-Whack-A-Moles trope, in which discrete bits of information spring up for us to see—pop!—and then, just as quickly as they appeared—ha, too slow!—duck down again. Such a graphical approach to information may be cute and visually appealing and bell-and-whistly and what have you. But helpful to voters? Not so much.
Particularly when the “facts” being delivered aren’t checks on what the candidates have just spent the last hour-and-a-half claiming, but rather Trivial Pursuit-style bits of information that suggest that Facts Are Fun! (rather than, you know, Facts Are Vital).
And last night, the facts were particularly vital. The sheer physicality of the town hall format—on the chairs! off the chairs! pacing the stage! invading audience members’ personal space!—encouraged rhetorical give-and-take between the candidates. Which often led to bickering. Take the sub-debate that took place last night, the candidates’ back-and-forth over tax policy. Each candidate initially delivered the Stump Speech Summary of his plan, making sure to punch it up with everyday details that would make his plan relatable to the Joe and Josephine Sixpacks in the audience. Each candidate made his tax claims—I’ll cut taxes!—and the other, inevitably, rebutted—No, you won’t, because I’ll cut taxes!—and then the first one rebutted that—No, you won’t, because I will!—and on and on we go, and where we stop, nobody knows.
Except, um, somebody should know. We’re talking, after all, about the factual details of each candidate’s tax policy. Kind of important. Kind of, you could say, the whole point. And kind of something that’s been checked many, many times before. Last night’s debate, given the up-in-the-grill nature of it, was, among other things, an opportunity for those vaunted and oft-discussed impartial fact-checking organizations—FactCheck.org, Politifact.com, etc.—to show themselves yet again to be invaluable resources to voters trying to navigate their way through the hall of mirrors that is The Rhetoric of Presidential Debates.
Those organs did a great job last night, as usual, all the way around. And journalistic outlets—The New York Times, The Washington Post—did well, for their part, in figuring fact-checking into their debate-coverage packages, featuring links to Check Point and The Fact Checker, respectively, prominently on their home pages. Other news outlets did well doing the same.
Great, on the one hand. But one the other: not so much. Because the majority of Americans were watching last night’s debate not online, but on TV—probably at home, probably among friends or family, possibly also taking part in recreational activities involving beer and McCain’s use of the term “my friends.” (To those in that last group: Here are some good hangover remedies.) Most Americans weren’t, in other words, watching the debate online, or even in the company of a computer. It’d be presumptuous to assume they own a computer in the first place.