Who You Gonna Call?

The importance of fact-checking

One of our election cycle pet peeves has been the free pass candidates are sometimes given when they make claims about themselves or their opponents that are patently false. The daily news cycle just spins too fast. A new narrative quickly supplants yesterday’s. And the lies (white though they may be sometimes) are left lingering like ghosts floating over the whole process.

It’s been heartening to see that this time around, there’s been some serious fact-checking—or ghost-busting, if you will—going on. What started as a preoccupation of the Internet, with bloggers obsessively parsing, has now found its way into the mainstream media. In the last month I noticed two major news organizations that have regular features not pegged to the dominant election story of the day, but rather to the task of examining the truthfulness of what comes out of a candidate’s mouth.

The New York Times has been periodically running, since early December, a small sidebar with the subhead, “Check Point.” One piece has scrutinized Hillary Clinton’s stated reasons for not supporting the 2002 Levin Amendment, which would have given the president a higher burden of proof before he could take the country to war in Iraq. Another looked at John McCain’s frequent accusation that Mitt Romney once supported a timetable for pulling out of Iraq. Today, there’s a “check point” that tries to get to the bottom of Barack Obama’s claim that the Clinton health plan would penalize those who refused to join.

This is good stuff. If I’ve got one complaint it’s that these useful articles usually get stuffed away and aren’t given the prominence they deserve.

Also fact-checking is NPR. Every once in a while they turn to Bill Adair, editor of a website called PolitiFact.com who places candidates’ attacks on a truth-o-meter to determine how they match up to reality.

In this historic and hard fought election, where distortions and outright misrepresentations can turn just enough voters to shift the race’s direction, there’s probably no more important function for the press than keeping all these fighters honest and making sure we know when they’re just making it up.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.