For those voters, then—who are also, not uncoincidentally, the voters who will be in many ways the most directly and urgently affected by the tax policies the candidates are proposing—truth-squadding the candidates becomes an even more vital endeavor. And one that must be conducted, therefore, not just on the Net, but on the networks.
CNN’s answer to truth-squadding, those glib pop-up chryons (“FACT: ____”), are not only not enough in this regard; they also miss the point. They suggest that the facts are subsidiary to the debate, rather than the other way around. They turn information—often boring, but always vital in elections, as in anything else—into Fun Facts!™ that serve visual verve more than they do democracy. Were we talking about VH1 here, fine…but we’re not. (And at least CNN makes an effort in regard to truth-squadding: on Fox and MSNBC, the only fact-checking I saw last night came courtesy of commentators who would occasionally toss around “McCain was lying” and “Obama was lying” allusions to make arguments in their commentary. And since TV pundits are famously impartial…oh, wait.)
But facts—on any night, to be sure, but on debate nights, in particular—shouldn’t be at the discretion of pundits. On CNN last night, the first sentence Wolf Blitzer uttered by way of transitioning from the Debate Proper to the Pundit Portion of the Evening was this:
Alright, and we’re going to see whether Senators Obama and McCain actually shake hands—I see Senator McCain is already joined by his wife, Cindy. Anderson, it’s clear that there were very stark differences—very stark differences—on a whole host of issues that these two presidential candidates spelled out on the economy, on taxes, health care, the war in Iraq, Afghanistan. I could go on, but the American public got pretty candid assessments from both of these candidates…where they agree—very little, apparently—and where they disagree.
Which, you know, fair enough. But wouldn’t it have been about a thousand times better had his first words been uttered in the service of correcting the record? Wouldn’t it have been better had Blitzer, serving as a kind of moderator-of-information, prefaced all the punditry with a concise-but-comprehensive fact-check of what was discussed during the debate?
Such a watchdog role is ostensibly the reason we want journalists to be part of these debates in the first place. Not to be stuffed shirts delighted at the spectacle of political theater they’ve just witnessed—and even more delighted at the sound of their own voices in discussing the performances—but rather to be guides for audiences, to help them navigate and make sense of what everyone just saw play out onstage. Journalists in these situations are supposed to be experts, in other words. And occasionally, they are. But wouldn’t it be fantastic if their expertise were put to use, on debate nights, in the service of information as well as blather?