The politics of flagrant lying in U.S. elections

Campaigns make a tactical decision that even when something is false sometimes they’re just going to keep repeating it

No 566 Posted by fw September 10, 2012

“By the time Americans head to the polls in November, they will have been exposed to $3bn of ads. Political ads rarely tell the truth and in this year’s presidential election campaign, facts have tended to matter less. This is where the mainstream media should step up. But so far, the US media have not shown the appetite or the stomach to get past the rhetoric and get to the truth.” —Richard Gizbert

In the opening 9-minute segment of Aljazeera’s latest weekly, 25-minute Listening Post program, host Richard Gizbert looks at “The politics of telling the truth” in America’s heated election campaign. A more accurate title might have been “The politics of flagrant lying.”

Although interesting in places, Aljazeera’s critical analysis is generally superficial, sophomoric in some instances, and misinformed in others. Missing from its critique, for example, is any mention of “morals” (personal beliefs about right and wrong conduct), “ethics” (reason-based system of moral decision making), and “personal integrity” (adherence to moral principles). And no consideration is given to the implications of the politics of lying for American society as a whole. For instance, if, according to politicians, the new moral code is to be — flagrant lying is okay if it gets you what you want — then, by logical extension, lying is now okay for the rest of us. If so, mutual trust is out the window and life is a free-for-all – Get what you can, while you can, any way you can.  (For a philosophical discussion of these kinds of questions, see Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, Continuum Books, 2006. In a sentence, “Truth matters because we are the only species we know of that has the ability to find it out.” Lying politicians, it seems, belong to a subhuman species).

Watch this video of Aljazeera’s Listening Post program. The video is 25-minutes long but the 9-minute segment featured in this post about playing fast and loose with the truth in America’s presidential election is at the beginning. My transcript follows. To watch the original broadcast, click on the linked title below.

The politics of telling the truth, Richard Gizbert, Aljazeera: Listening Post, September 8, 2012

TRANSCRIPT

Richard Gizbert — Living in a post-factual America, does the truth even matter anymore when the prize for winning this election is the White House?

There’s an old journalistic adage — a cynical one — that says never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Well here’s the political equivalent of that, which we heard recently from one of Mitt Romney’s strategists when the Romney campaign was accused of playing fast and loose with the truth:

We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.

On the surface, it’s a brazen statement about truth and its relationship with politics. By the time they vote in November, it’s estimated that Americans will have been exposed to $3 billion worth of political ads. Now those kinds of ads have always stretched the truth and made selective use of the facts. But this year in the US the facts seem to matter less than they ever have, which means the role of the media to get past the rhetoric and to the truth is more important than it’s ever been and it is not at all clear that the American media have the appetite or the stomach to do the job.

Our starting point this week is Washington and the road to the White House.

Mitt Romney — Guess how many trade agreements our president has negotiated?  None! None!

Bill Adair, Editor, PolitiFact.com — It’s the Wild, Wild West in the United States. The candidates are pretty free to say what they want.

Barack Obama – I want to give incentives to companies that are investing in you.

Garance Franke-Ruta, Senior Editor, the Atlantic — There is no referee in the American political system. People want the media to be the referee, but there is no referee.

Paul Waldman, The American Prospect — So that’s the big question: What can you get away with?

Richard Gizbert – The answer seems to be: Just about anything. Take this political ad, for example, that the Romney campaign put out in the first week of August on Barack Obama and welfare:

President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.

Enter The Fact Checkers, the people who are supposed to keep politicians honest. The Washington Post and PolitiFact.com pulled no punches.

Bill Adair — At PolitiFact we gave it our lowest rating – Pants On Fire – because we found that the Romney campaign was just wrong. So Neil Newhouse, who is a Republican pollster made a quote that quickly became very famous. He said:

We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

And he was explaining why the Romney campaign was not going to stop airing this ad.

Richard GizbertSure enough, Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, took what the fact checkers called a flat-out lie and happily repeated it on the campaign trail. And it was no accident.

Charlton McIlwain, Media & Culture Scholar – If you tell a lie it’s more effective to tell a big one that people will often remember and actually be influenced by a lie of grandeur proportions. And the reason for that is simply that those messages coming from a candidate are simple, they’re sound bites, they’re easier to remember than going back and looking at all of the detail and factual information to try to determine the veracity of a given statement.

Bill AdairCampaigns make a tactical decision that even when something is false sometimes they’re just going to keep repeating it. And of course it’s not like falsehood are new in American politics. The difference now is the campaigns are choosing to continue with this false message essentially admitting we don’t care that it’s false we’re going to keep airing it because it’s a message we want to get out.

Garance Franke-Ruta — One of the reasons we’re calling this the post-truth campaign is because we used to argue about how to interpret facts and now we argue about the nature of reality. And to the extent that we no longer even have a consensus opinion on what’s real… [My comment – Re Garance’s claim that “we no longer even have a consensus opinion on what’s real” -- the “we” crowd that she hangs out with may believe this, but certainly not the philosophically and scientifically literate].

Mitt Romney – We spent the last four years laying the foundation for a government-centered society…

Garance Franke-Ruta – One campaign is saying, “It’s your opinion that these facts are this way. Our opinion is this other thing.” [My comment – Not all "interpretations" of "facts" are equal. Some will offer a more powerful or convincing explanation of reality than others, depending, of course, on the critical thinking capacity of the individual subjects].

Barack Obama – I have never been somebody who believes that government can or should try to solve every problem…

Garance Franke-Ruta – It creates a situation where it’s very hard to have a uniform conversation about an issue. [My comment – It certainly would be hard to have a “uniform conversation” with a politician who lies through his teeth].

Charlton McIlwain – Do you need fact checkers? Absolutely, yes. Do fact checkers make a difference? To some degree I believe they do. But they certainly do not make as big a difference and certainly do not have the influence that candidates’ statements make irrespective of whether they are true or false.

Richard Gizbert – It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Internet, the truism said, is full of potential fact checkers to keep political leaders and candidates for office honest. That truism turned out to be false. [My comment -- Gizbert's statement about the Internet hardly qualifies as a “truism”].

Paul Waldman, The American Prospect – Because the media is so fractured and there are so many different sources, candidates and campaigns don’t necessarily feel like they have to be too afraid of any one source. So maybe 30 years ago if Walter Cronkite said that you weren’t telling the truth on CBS news then a candidate would be really frightened of that and would immediately change what they were saying. Today if a newspaper or a television show says that a candidate is not telling the truth about something, the candidate doesn’t necessarily need to be afraid because they know that they are speaking to voters through a variety of different media. They may be speaking to their own voters through their more partisan media. [My comment -- To put it another way, politicians don’t have to worry about truth or falsity when the average voter lacks the cognitive faculty for critical thinking].

Bill Adair – There are a million different ways that people are getting their political information. They’re getting it from websites, from Facebook and Twitter, they’re getting it from emails, they’re getting it from cable television – where they can often find a cable channel that they agree with. If they’re conservative in the United States they probably watch Fox News. If they’re liberal they probably watch MSNBC. And in doing that they’re going around the filters. And that allows the politicians to go around the filters. [My comment – what Adair is describing is called “confirmation bias” – i.e., the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs, biases or hypotheses].

Garance Franke-Ruta – It’s a noisy media environment really, that when someone says something that’s not factually correct in the service of making a broader argument, there’s no gatekeeper, there’s no referee. That’s not how the system works.

Richard Gizbert — That system places a premium on access. Perhaps that’s what stopped NBC News from really pressing Paul Ryan on the lies he spouted in his speech at the Republican convention. But at least NBC could find Ryan. Try locating the Super PACs, the political action committees that are ostensibly independent of the official campaigns but really aren’t. The Super PACs do the dirty work, spending huge money on attack ads like this one from a pro-Obama group which falsely accused Mitt Romney of causing a woman’s death by shutting down her husband’s steel plant and denying the woman health care.

Paul Waldman — The problem with a Super PAC really is that there’s nobody there to talk to. There’s nobody there to hold accountable. So who is it? Well it’s a bunch of strategists sitting in an office outside of Washington, DC. Very few people know who they are but the Super PACs, the people who run it, are not going to talk to the media. They’re not going to answer questions. And so they can keep running their ads saying those things and reaching those people. So the Super PACs can reach them but when it comes time for accountability there’s nobody there to hold accountable. And that’s why they really have even more latitude to deceive people if they choose to.

Richard GizbertLatitude to deceive. That’s like a licence to lie. The American voter meanwhile is left to sort political fact from fiction. [My comment – And the average American voter is ill prepared to make a responsibly informed decision].

Charlton McIlwain – We have the candidates’ messages that are going to be coming through ad after ad after ad. We’re going to have the debates. We’re going to have speeches. And then you’re going to have media coverage. You’re going to have fact checkers and competing facts, competing statements… And I think one thing that many people are apt to do today is to simply say – “Look I can’t understand any of it. I can’t make heads or tails of either one to tell me what’s true, what’s false, so I’m going to retreat to my ideological position.And at that point we’re tossing facts out and simply voting on our ideological positions more than anything else.

Richard Gizbert – A case of information overload? More like misinformation mother lode. And election day in America is still 2 months away.

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