We all know the story of Pinocchio, or at least the part about his nose growing every time he tells a lie. I’ve been thinking lately that many of the current crop of presidential candidates would have very long noses if that happened to them. Not that I am accusing them all of flat-out lying. I will grant that sometimes they aren’t deliberately saying something they know not to be true nor are they necessarily intending to deceive; they are simply choosing the details they want to emphasize to make their point in a way that isn’t actually false but also doesn’t tell the whole story. That said, there’s a whole lot of stuff being said that just doesn’t stand up to the truth test.
What if every time a presidential candidate or prominent politician gave a speech or news conference or participated in a debate, there was a fact-checker on hand to immediately challenge the person? Or what if over each person’s head there was a device (like Politifact.com’s “Truth-o-Meter”) with a dial that moved from “true” on the one side to “false” on the other, and perhaps even included a “pants-on-fire” setting, depending on what the person said? What if the meter dinged loudly when the dial hit the false setting? What if candidates and politicians were simply not allowed to get away with stretching the truth, distorting the facts, or actually lying about what they said or did or what their opponent(s) said or did?
We like to think that there is accountability. After all, political pundits on the cable news shows spend a lot of time exposing the ways in which politicians don’t tell the truth. And there are reputable and nonpartisan websites such as the aforementioned politifact.com or factcheck.org, and the Fact-Checker at the Washington Post that regularly evaluate the veracity of politicians’ statements. The problem, however, is that this is all done after the fact, after the damage is done. With nothing to call people to account for what they say while they are saying it, in front of everyone they’re saying it to, soundbites take on lives of their own. No amount of fact-checking will counteract all the damage to truth that has been done, or keep politicians and their followers from repeating the soundbites every time they give a speech.
Whenever I hear a politician I disagree with speak falsehoods, I get angry because these falsehoods will not only mislead people but are also often completely unfair to their opponents. On the other hand, when politicians I generally respect and agree with say things that aren’t true or cherry-pick the facts, I am also frustrated because I don’t believe it helps their cause. They become just like every other politician who spins the facts to suit his or her own purposes. I long for candidates and leaders to be confident enough of the rightness of their beliefs to speak the truth all the time and not feel like they have to rely on half-truths or outright falsehoods.
You know those real-time counters at the bottom of television screens that keep track of votes on a live poll? What would happen if you had something similar for truth-telling, but running right above the politicians’ heads where viewers couldn’t ignore it? What if they knew they were being fact-checked in real time as they were speaking and their audiences could see a dial move from “true” to “false”? Is it possible that most politicians might begin to be a lot more careful about what they said and would care a lot more about making sure that the meter stayed in the true to mostly true range? Perhaps they would work harder to make careful and reasonable cases for what they believe to be the right course of action.
Of course, there are objections:
- It isn’t practical and can’t be done, especially in real-time. Perhaps not, but wouldn’t it be great to try? Plus, a lot of falsehoods are perpetuated over and over again by the same people, even when they have been confronted with the facts. It seems like it wouldn’t take too long until at least some speakers would stop saying certain things that are demonstrably false and start being more careful to speak the truth. After all, who likes to be interrupted with loud dinging, and who wants to be shown up for lying on live TV?
- Debates and speeches could take forever, because they would be interrupted repeatedly with calls for truth-telling, and politicians would have to take the time from rehearsed soundbites to explain themselves some other way than with a particular falsehood. Eventually, however, we could hope that the incidence of lying would decrease. See #1.
- Fact-checking can’t be done impartially, and truth is often subjective because people see things so differently. This objection is admittedly more difficult to address. Even in other settings besides politics, where disagreements and conflicts are inevitable, the truth is difficult to determine. Two people can sit in the same meeting, hear the same words being spoken, witness the same events, and still come away with a completely different description of what happened. One might be right and the other wrong about what really happened, but more likely they come to different conclusions about the truth of the event because of the preconceptions, experiences, beliefs, knowledge and biases they brought with them. These days, however, when there is so much video and documentary evidence of the facts of a situation, it’s often not too difficult to illustrate how certain versions of events simply don’t match what really happened.
- Some candidates wouldn’t be phased by any amount of fact-checking, but would shout down any attempt to get them to tell the truth. Perhaps, though, many people would eventually begin to recognize the truth themselves and stop accepting their repeated lies, half-truths, and misrepresentations.
I don’t expect that my modest proposal for truth will be implemented any time soon, and it likely isn’t really workable at all, but a girl can dream! In the meantime, I’ll maintain a healthy dose of skepticism when I listen to political speeches, do my own fact-checking (by going to primary sources whenever possible), and probably continue to yell at the TV.