OHIO — When a candidate for office declares his intention to repeat falsehoods, what’s a reporter to do?
That’s the question lurking in a recent discussion, penned by Henry Gomez of The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, about the contentious U.S. Senate race in Ohio between incumbent Sherrod Brown and Josh Mandel, the Republican state treasurer.
Actually, Gomez’s piece is less about the race than about what his lede refers to as Mandel’s “outright estrangement” from the truth. Gomez zeros in on Mandel’s latest factually flawed accusation against his rival—that Brown is one of the politicians most responsible for pushing Ohio jobs into China. And Gomez notes that
Mandel’s claim, “mixing audacity with absurdity,” had already earned a “Pants on Fire” rating from the PD’s PolitiFact Ohio project.
The PolitiFact piece, written by Stephen Koff, the PD’s Washington bureau chief, points out that Brown is “one the U.S. Senate’s most ardent critics of this country’s foreign trade policies.”
Gomez’s story also points out that while Mandel hasn’t corralled the market on mistruths, this isn’t his first rodeo, either:
For the Mandel campaign, the rebuke from the fact-checking arm of The Plain Dealer was just another day at the office. Mandel has received three of PolitiFact Ohio’s seven most recent Pants on Fire rulings.
Of his 14 statements evaluated on the Truth-O-Meter since 2010, six have been deemed Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire.
(Brown’s PolitiFact file, hardly flawless but much better, is here.)
But apparently the Mandel camp has adopted a no-worries philosophy about these sorts of evaluations. The PD dialed up Mandel to have him identify at least one Ohio job dispatched to China based on a Brown vote. The reaction was enlightening, if not eyebrow-raising:
“If that’s the level of specificity you’re looking for, you’re the reporters — you go do the grunt work,” said Mandel, who lives in Beachwood. “Any reporter who doesn’t believe Sherrod Brown is responsible for jobs going to China is simply out of touch.”
PolitiFact Ohio already had done the “grunt work” and found that the examples cited by Mandel’s campaign failed to back up his claim, hence the Pants on Fire rating. Right or wrong, Mandel vowed to repeat the assertion “again and again” and said he sees no downside.
His claims, he added, are “100 percent” truth.
That sort of attitude gets to the dilemma described by the PD’s headline: “Even in an age of fact-check journalism, the political whopper lives.”
And there’s a reason deceptions and falsehoods persist in the face of fact-checking. Gomez spoke to experts including Dartmouth College professor and
CJR contributor Brendan Nyhan, who is quoted as follows: “Our research finds that corrections of misinformation frequently fail to change people’s minds and sometimes makes things worse. It’s not clear how many people are swayed by a fact-check.”
So what’s a reporter to do? Anything he can to hold these guys’ feet to the fire.
One thing journalists can’t do is “throw in the towel,” Gomez said in an interview with CJR.
“These kinds of stories do show the relevance and we are doing the grunt work,” Gomez said. “We have to be vigilant.”
At a certain point, the frame of reporting might move from fact-checking specific statements to noting a pattern of untrue statements coming from the same source. That’s essentially what happened here, Gomez says—Mandel’s repeated falsehoods as identified by Politifact, and especially his most recent accusation, prompted the PD’s analysis piece.
“That definitely showed this guy has a relationship with the truth that is distant, at best,” Gomez said. “We wanted to go straight at him and say, ‘What are you doing, man?’”
Part of the uphill struggle is that readers—and perhaps even reporters—may not yet see fact-check stories as central to the overall coverage. But that could change.
“It’s not like the sports pages where people go to read about the Browns or the Indians,” Gomez said. “But these don’t run on the front page. They often run as side columns, below the fold in Metro. While readers might not be flocking to these stories, hopefully they will get more mainstream this year with the presidential election.”
And even if fact-check stories don’t persuade every reader, the research and digging that go into them—and that take the coverage past he-said, she-said—should be de rigueur.
“If someone says something that is wrong, you can’t legitimize the claim,” Gomez said. “You can’t just write that Mandel says jobs are going to China on one hand, and then on the other hand write that Brown says he is full of crap.”
That’s especially true in this race, where there’s so much at stake. The contest has already drawn more outside money—$5 million—than any other Senate race in the country. And the Senate’s thin Democratic majority could hang in the balance, as noted in a recent Columbus Dispatch story by Jessica Wehrman.
One thing is for sure: Burger King won’t be the only place to find a Whopper in coming months. Reporters need to dig in more and find the real meat for their audiences.