Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: Check, Please

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Photo-illustration by Lincoln Agnew for TIME; Obama, Romney, magnifying glass: Getty Images

My column (subscription required) is back in the print TIME magazine this week, and it catches up on what’s been one of the major distinguishing media features of the 2012 campaign: the rise, and limitations, of fact-checking in mainstream news. (Not to mention non-mainstream news, and even Runner’s World.)

Despite the inevitable pitfalls, charges of bias and fact-checks of things that are not actually facts, I’m glad to see some campaign reporters taking responsibility for the news beyond, “Well, here’s what both sides said, you figure it out.” Yes, fact-checking is easier said than done, because the most effective campaign “lies” are often ones that are not flat-out misrepresentations but sins of omission, “technically true” statements designed to mislead, and insinuations. (To take one example from my column, Mitt Romney‘s recent statement that he would not take “God” off U.S. coins. He’s not saying that Obama is trying to do this—which the administration is not—he’s just not not saying it either.)

But for fact-checking to really work, it needs to be more regularly and immediately incorporated into news stories themselves—and especially, where possible, into live news. For news outlets to outsource the business of resolving disputes to PolitiFact, or to make them extra-credit reading by relegating them to sidebars, suggests that reporting is somehow not about fact. For someone like Wolf Blitzer to come out of a political convention speech saying that there were several statements that “the fact checkers” might take exception with eventually is an abdication.

At one point in my column, I mention an off-the-cuff suggestion that came to me while I was watching the convention speeches, which cable-news networks were captioning with various trivia factoids about politicians and convention history. Why not use the screen space, and the research and preparation of network producers, to fact-check speeches in real time?:

Next month Obama and Romney and their running mates will talk to tens of millions of Americans in the debates. Imagine if a network used the crawl at the bottom of the screen to fact-check them live: Pop-up veracity? Yes, live TV is tough, campaigns would scream bloody murder, and you can’t expect every data point to be vetted at light speed. But surely if your Twitter feed can fact-check a speech as it happens, a team of producers–prepped with research on the attack lines the candidates have been giving for months–could catch some of the biggies while people are paying attention.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no illusions that this will actually happen. (The debates, for instance, are the result of intense negotiations among the campaigns to produce as cosseted an environment as possible.) A lot of fact-checking takes time, some misleading statements are complicated to rebut, and it would be naive and unreasonable to expect TV producers to be able to counter most, or even many, falsehoods immediately. But after all, much of the material Presidential candidates use in TV speeches and debates has been road-tested on the stump—even, or especially, the most effective misrepresentations.

The point is: as a general rule, if we have the information and technology to call out campaign fibs when millions of people hear them, rather than the next day in front of much smaller audiences, why not use it? You can’t expect your audience to consider facts important if you treat them as optional.

Here, my standard disclosure: I voted for Obama in ’08 and plan to do so again in ’12. To paraphrase Walter Mondale: most people who write about politics have voting preferences—the difference is they won’t tell you theirs and I just did. To read my fuller thoughts on political writing and disclosure, click here.