Sunday Morning Meditation – Policy of Truth
Politicians have a habit of saying suspicious things to win elections or support for their policies.
President Obama famously said if you liked your health insurance plan, you could keep it under the Affordable Care Act. When that turned out not to be the case, he tried to say that he didn’t say what he clearly had said.
The president explained, “What we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.”
Politifact, the Guardians of the Fact-based Universe, gave that bit of bullshit jujitsu a “Pants on fire” Truth-O-Meter rating. The president had said something that was so exceptionally untrue it distinguished itself from the more pedestrian untruths politicians regularly use.
But Politifact does not focus its mighty Truth Laser on our most powerful elected officials. No untrue statement, no matter how esoteric and complex, escapes its notice.
The Politifact Georgia chapter recently turned its skeptical eye toward statements made by local politicians. The Truth-O-Meter has rated the claims of Kyle Williams, a local attorney who recently ran for the Senate District 42 seat, and Valarie Wilson, a former Decatur School Board member who is in the Democratic primary runoff for state school superintendent.
Williams whiffed when he tried to claim his opponent, Elena Parent, supported cuts to the HOPE scholarship while a state representative. Wilson was only being half-truthful when she claimed her opponent, state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, supported cutting programs for preschool and special needs students.
Our state Sen. Jason Carter, who is running for governor, has received the Politifact treatment four times. His statements have never ranked lower than a “mostly false.” You can expect his Politifact file to grow between now and November.
Politifact’s fact check of Williams felt unfair to me. It’s not that I doubt their conclusion. But they published the “fact-check” a week before the May 20 primary. I think you could competently argue that Parent made equally dubious statements. Politicians use rhetoric to persuade voters, and rhetoric doesn’t necessarily need to be fact-based to be effective.
Back when I worked in daily newspapers, we had a cutoff date for letters to the editor supporting candidates. We also were wary about covering last-minute campaign shenanigans. If we did cover them, we made sure to include comments from both campaigns.
How, I wondered, does Politifact Georgia strike the balance between fact-checking and fairness? And do Decatur politicians have a problem keeping their facts straight?
For the answer, I called Politifact Georgia Editor Jim Tharpe. He said Decatur politicians aren’t special when it comes to being factually challenged. What is different, he said, is the party telling the truths or untruths.
“Decatur is interesting in Georgia, you know, because it’s still a Democratic enclave,” he said. “So we try to check Republicans and Democrats.”
Tharpe said the Senate District 42 race intrigued the Politifact team.
“That was a very interesting race to us, because it had some very vicious fliers,” he said. “You don’t see that very much here with Democrats, because they’re not running the show generally.”
He said Politifact Georgia did have an editorial cutoff point before the May 20 primary.
“We did a roundup of items the Sunday before the election and we didn’t do any more fact checks Monday and Tuesday going into the election,” he said.
Tharpe described the fact-checking process as “midlevel, investigative reporting.” He said that fact-check topics generally focus on “weighty issues” that interest voters, like education.
He said once a reporter completes a fact-check, the reporter suggests a Truth-O-Meter ruling. A panel of three veteran editors reviews the suggested ruling, Tharpe said. He said it’s a process designed to eliminate political biases. “We think if any other panel of three people were to look at our rulings, they would be very close to where we are, if we’ve done everything right.”
He conceded that “we’re not perfect” but says the Politifact team does its best.
The most interesting part of the conversation, for me, is how Tharpe described Politifact’s mission.
“It’s not to keep politicians honest,” he told me. “It’s to inform voters. We try to do that in a balanced, nonpartisan way.”
The goal isn’t pushing politicians to speak more truthfully. It’s to educate voters so they will be more aware that something a politician said is untrue when they cast their ballot.
It’s all about the level of comfort you have with your candidate’s claims when you enter the voting booth. No one in America expects politicians to be totally truthful, not even the fact checkers.
And that’s one of the many things I love about this country.