Trust the Facts, Ma’am

From the "it's not too much to ask" department: truth-squadding during the nets' debate specials

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—,, 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.

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?

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.